Springtime in Paris – remembering May ‘68

“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”.

The famous line from that old romantic William Wordsworth evokes a degree of nostalgie for les temps perdue. And so it is with the many published recollections and reveries surrounding the fifties anniversary of “les évènements de Mai” 1968. Perhaps we would be better served with Charles Dickens’ take on an earlier French Revolution:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”.

As German social historian Ulrich Raullf has written: “Our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”. During the closing scenes of the western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. And so it is with that Paris Spring.

To those of us who were young and politically progressive in those dear dead days, the protests, strikes and other forms of civil unrest of that springtime in Paris offered a mix of hope and vicarious adventure.

It was not simply a fight against something, like the Vietnam War that was raging at the time. Rather, It was a fight for something – for social change, for new forms of political, economic, social and class relations. We believed change was in the air, and there was a palpable frisson (such a great French word) of excitement.

We’d all read our Communist Manifesto, that mercifully brief and breathless primer for wannabe rebels, and now, to misquote old Karl Marx (ironically, two hundred years old this month), a spectre was indeed haunting Europe. Anything could happen. The future was unwritten. Regimes could tumble, and old ways crumble. Everything was mutable, impermanent – an idea that was simultaneously uplifting and terrifying.

We watched these events from across the La Manche with admiration and not a little envy. Our perspective may have been obscured, coloured and tittilated by distance and the biases of mainstream media, and by the pictures and the posters that found their way onto bedsit and bedroom walls. But there was not the 24/7 syndicated saturation that we get nowadays nor the live tweets and FB posts from the Sorbonne.

As Mitchell Abidor wrote recently in The New York Times: “The images…which changed my life when I was a teenager watching them on TV, are still burned in my memory: the enormous marches through the streets of France’s major cities; the overflowing crowds of people speechifying and debating in the amphitheater of the Sorbonne; workers occupying factories and flying red flags over the gates; students occupying universities and being beaten by the police. Workers and students, it appeared, were united against a sclerotic Gaullist state…These were images of the previously unimaginable: a revolution in the modern West. Revolution was no longer something that happened only in the past, or elsewhere, or in theory”.

Mick Jagger later explained how he and Keith Richards came to a compose one of the Rolling Stones’ seminal songs, released that August on Beggars Banquet: “Yeah, it was a direct inspiration, because by contrast, London was very quiet…It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions … I thought it was a very good thing at the time. There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France; de Gaulle went into this complete funk, as he had in the past, and he went and sort of locked himself in his house in the country. And so the government was almost inactive. And the French riot police were amazing”. And so the Stones sang:

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
Well what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man

We all have differing memories and perspectives of those days, as do today’s commentators who may or may not have been born back then, or lived of the far side of the world, and who in these polarised times, cleave to tediously turgid talking points.

News Corp opinionistas and others on the right have put it all down to the nihilistic nonsense of pampered youth, using it as yet another stick which to beat the virtue-signalling, politically correct, young culture warriors of today. And on cue, The Australian’s resident Ayn Randista Janet Albrechtson is particularly possessed of the perception that a “wabble of woudy webels” holding our universities hostage to what she sees as a virulent post-modern anarchism identical to the apparent hedonist nihilism of the students of Paris. But many on the left are also captive of binary thinking, looking back on the events as a grand and glorious upsurge of worker and student solidarity and revolutionary zeal – a latter-day replay of the Paris Commune (another doomed Intifada that ended with firing squads during le semaine sanglant”. And then there are others who view it today as the political equivalent of coitus interruptus, remembered all over the world this year as a great missed opportunity, and the end of a revolutionary illusion. But, as the selection of articles featured below demonstrate, in retrospect, it probably a mix of all three, and maybe, even, none at all …

To many contemporary commentators, the violent unrest that shook Paris through May 1968 was driven by a cathartic reaction to a national feeling of ennui. After decades of economic growth, high employment rates, rising living standards, and a burgeoning educational system, France was bored – with the ageing but immovable and indomitable President Charles de Gaulle, and with a stultifying, bureaucratic, “father knows best” vein that ran through the public, political and social establishment, through administration, education, industrial and sexual relations.

The times they were a’changin’, but the ferment, the fashion, the fun that roiled and rock ‘n rolled the US and even staid and stitched-up Great Britain, had somehow bypassed La France – 1968 did not begin in Paris, but in Berkeley, California around 1965, where the Vietnam protests originated, spreading by early 1968 to Britain and to Germany. Viewing photographs of the sit-ins, demonstrations and street-battles, commentators remark on the straight appearance of the students with their sports jackets, ties and long skirts, and “short back and sides” haircuts, such a long way away from London’s Carnaby Street and California’s Summer of Love. To borrow again from Karl, the French has nothing to loose but their chains.

No doubt there was indeed a fair dose of teen rebellion during that Parisian prima vera. But there was much more to it than just wild oats, teen spirit, a cursory reading of Marx, Mao and Marcuse, and a battle cry of Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité! It takes more than the desire for a yahoo to take to the streets for a month of barricades and cobblestones (so French and red chic!) in the face of paramilitary batons, water-cannons and teargas. Though it must be said that the French do Revolution extremely well. It doesn’t mean that they succeed. Indeed. Most have failed, and have ended badly with blood on the streets, betrayal and retribution.

But there were in, effect, three Mays, each of them quite distinct and different.

There was the May of the students, which we all recall so well in our own subjective hindsight, a protest against the rigidity and hierarchy of the French university system, defying the historical deference of young people to their elders, and yes, demanding more sex!

Then was the May of the workers with their call for higher wages, less hours, and consultation with management. Some ten million people came out on strike and brought the factories of France to a virtual standstill. They were, despite the slogans of worker-student unity,  no true friends of ostensibly spoiled middle class student firebrands and their foreign pals. They joined the revolution for their own sectional and economic reasons, and the end, the state represented by Jacques Chirac, secretary of state for employment, and the unions, led by the Communist Georges Séguy, agreed that the revolt had to end, and negotiated tremendous pay increases, a shorter working week, the strengthening of workers’ councils, and much more.

And there was a third May – an “anti-May even – that ultimately carried the day, one that the students failed to take into account and which their left wing heirs have often ignored. On May 30, half a million people paraded on the Champs-Élysées in support of President de Gaulle – perhaps the largest demonstration of the month. The France that the students were rebelling against, one they thought was all but dead, turned out to be very much alive – and eager to put rebellious youth back in its place. Charles de Gaulle emerged triumphant from the elections in June. And the political right remained in power in France until the victory in 1981 of François Mitterrand and his very un-1968 brand of socialism.

In the wings was the maker and breaker of kings and communes: the French Army, the traditional bulwark of successive French Republics, and the strong arm up canny conjurer Charles de Gaulle’s sleeve. Then there were those half a million French men and women who took to the streets at the fag end of the month to defend the staid and safe republic. De Gaulle had at first been nonplussed by the students, describing them at one point as chienlit – literally, “shit-a-bed” – youngsters and  and shocked by the scale of the strikes, and even briefly fled France for Germany whilst he recalibrated. And finally, when Le President had made his feints, and done his deals, and went to the people, he was re-elected in a landslide in an anxious conservative backlash.

The revolution, such as it was, kind of faded away, much like Marx has reckoned the state would fade away. The students went back to their crowded classrooms, and the workers, to higher wages and a shorter working week. And those who John le Carré might’ve called “the many too many” returned to the safe, serene, suburban lives. God was in his heaven and de Gaulle back in the Élysée Palace.

Since then, the French left has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, while the right and neoliberalism have grown ever stronger. As for “les soixante-huitards”, some have become grumpy old men, and conservatives even. Others, like Daniel Cohn Bendit, Sorbonniere firebrand Danny Le Rouge, and now a Green, German member of the European Parliament, are open to new ideas and changing times.

Chou En Lai, China’s premier at the time, was asked of the French Revolution – the big one, that is, if 1789 – whether he thought it was a good thing. “Its too early to tell” he replied. As many conservatives  are eager to point out, he seems to have been talking about May 1968.

But, after May 1968, “all changed, changed utterly”, to quote WB Yeats.  As the Bobster had written just a few years prior, the line had been drawn and the curse had been cast, and the order was rapidly fadin’. The old dispensation of patriarchal authority and catholic morality had been mortally wounded. the Karl’s chains had indeed been broken and France had entered the swinging ‘sixties.

That’s all from me. Read on and enjoy the stories and loads of fabulous pictures…

And here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey Poets; The Strange Death of Sam Cooke; Looking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rock; Window on a Gone World; Back in the day; The Incorrigible Optimists Club.



The Paris riots of May 1968: How the frustrations of youth brought France to the brink of revolution

Fifty years ago today the streets of Paris staged a battle between 6,000 student demonstrators and 1,500 gendarmes – within days it had snowballed into civil dispute that saw 10 million French workers go on general strike and brought the economy to a virtual halt. Andreas Whittam Smith recalls the events of ‘Mai 68’

The French always celebrate 1 May with a few riots. They did so this year with added piquancy because it was the 50th anniversary of the famous “Mai 68” when, in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the Left Bank, the whole month was devoted to riotous assembly led by students. In contemplating these events, I recall Wordsworth’s often quoted phrase: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” – unless, of course, you were struck by a cobblestone hurled by a student demonstrator or soaked and knocked off balance by a police water cannon.

Presumably those who were demonstrating in Paris last Tuesday have now resumed their normal lives. The point about May 1968, however, is that they didn’t go back to college or to work the next day, they carried on, some of them for the whole month. Why was that? After all, economic growth had been unusually strong, the country was calm, both politically and socially, inflation was weak, living standards had been rising and there was little unemployment.

Was it in a way a very 1960s thing? That question is prompted by a French historian of the period, Éric Alary, who observes that “May 68 is seen as a period when audacious moves seemed possible and during which society profoundly changed”. For that is an accurate description of the nature of the 1960s, whether in Western Europe or in North America.

At the same time, there was a big rise in the sheer number of young people as a result of an increase in the birth rate in the closing stages of the Second World War and for some years afterwards. Thus, in France, the under-20 cohort rose from 30.7 per cent of the population in 1954 to 33.8 per cent in 1968. At the same time in France (1967), the school leaving age was raised from 14 to 16.

paris-68-1.jpg
Two men take evasive action during a Paris street riot on 30 May (Getty)

This required a massive expansion of teaching staff and building. As a result, students often found themselves being taught by hastily trained teachers in hastily built class rooms. In France, as in Britain, this was followed by a big expansion of the university sector. There was inevitably something ramshackle about it all, and students noticed. Yet the command structures of educational establishments remained unchanged.

Nonetheless, universities are never just academic establishments full stop. For their campuses and their indoor and outdoor spaces lend themselves to meetings and debates and even to organising mini demonstrations. The intellectual gods of these 1960s students were Marx, Freud and Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher. In a famous passage, Sartre wrote that “God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within himself nor without does he find anything to cling to”. This struck home. For as Bob Dylan sang in 1965 – “How does it feel/How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?”

One had either to start things on one’s own without adult backing, or not at all. This was an unprecedented and intoxicating freedom. As the French student leader Dany Cohn-Bendit told the Paris demonstrators in May 1968: “There are no marshals and leaders today. Nobody is responsible for you. You are responsible for yourselves.”

In fact, as is the way of things, Mai 68 began not in central Paris, but in Nanterre, a suburb seven miles to the northwest, and not in May but on 22 March. The construction of the university of Nanterre campus in a bleak shanty town had begun in 1962. In the spring of 1968 it was still not finished. The building were exceedingly functional and contained some 12,000 students. They were particularly shocked to find themselves living and doing their studies in what was in effect a building site. They demanded, too, the right to circulate freely between the residences of males and female students, still forbidden in what one might call pre-1960s style. There was a lot of justified discontent.

daniel-cohn-bendit.jpg
Daniel Cohn-Bendit  was known as ‘Dany le Rouge’ because of his politics as well as the colour of his hair (Getty)

Some 150 students, including far-left groups together with a small number of poets and musicians, occupied a building. The police surrounded it. After publication of the students’ wishes, they left the building without any trouble. But then they took their protest movement to the Sorbonne in the very middle of the Latin Quarter. That was how Mai 68 started.

In a drastic action, the authorities shut down the University of Nanterre on 2 May. The students who had decamped to the Sorbonne were bound to think that this was a hostile act, an outbreak of war between the university authorities and the student body. It had been natural to head to the Sorbonne, France’s premier university, which had the prestige of its ancient foundation 700 years earlier. This meant nothing to the police, of course, who invaded the Sorbonne the next day.

In response, on 6 May the national students’ union and the union of university teachers organised a protest march. It was one of the key events of the month. The head of the Paris police was obsessed by the need to protect the Sorbonne and its surroundings from a massive invasion by the students. He placed 1,500 officers in defence. But then came 6,000 protesters in waves. Overnight the confrontation was particularly violent. Thousands of cobblestones were ripped up and used as projectiles by the demonstrators. The police responded with teargas grenades. Dozens of gendarmes were taken to hospitals. Students were wrenched from the arms of the police by their colleagues.

The next day, students, teachers and increasing numbers of young workers gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to demand that all criminal charges against arrested students be dropped, that the police leave the university and that the authorities reopen Nanterre and the Sorbonne. But negotiations broke down. When the students returned to their campuses to find that the police were still in occupation, a near revolutionary fervour began to grip them.

bob-dylan.jpg
The lyrics of Bob Dylan captured the sense of isolation and alienation felt by many young people

The next big date was 10 May. The atmosphere became more and more tense. Left-wing students were seeking a confrontation and the force of law and order did nothing to avoid it. Senior politicians now began to fear that an insurrection was being planned that would soon set ablaze the whole country. When the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, a special police unit specialising in riotous situations, blocked the demonstrators from crossing the river, the crowd again threw up barricades, which the police then attacked at 2.15 the next morning after negotiations once again floundered. The confrontation, which produced hundreds of arrests and injuries, lasted until dawn.

The events were broadcast on radio as they occurred, and the aftermath was shown on television the following day. This demonstration of heavy handed police brutality brought on a wave of sympathy for the strikers. Moreover, in a highly significant move, the major union federations called a one-day strike and demonstration for Monday, 13 May. The workers were going to march with the students.

They had their own grievances. There had been sporadic industrial trouble since the beginning of the year. More than half of them put in a 48-hour week. They feared that their standard of living had ceased to improve. Unemployment, albeit from a low base, was beginning to rise. As a result this was no longer a Paris event, for workers took to the streets throughout France. Their slogan was “Ten years! That’s enough!” referred to Charles de Gaulle’s long period as president.

de-gaulle-support-68.jpg
French politicians Michel Debre and Andre Malraux at the tomb of the unknown soldier, demonstrating their support for De Gaulle (Getty)

The events the next day, 14 May, were as important. For workers began occupying factories, starting with a sit-down strike at the Sud Aviation plants near the city of Nantes. If students could occupy their universities, then workers could seize control of their factories. By 16 May, workers had occupied roughly 50 factories throughout France and 200,000 were on strike by 17 May. That figure snowballed to two million workers on strike the following day (18 May) and then ten million, or roughly two thirds of the French workforce on strike the following week (23 May).

The unions assumed that the workers simply wanted more pay. So, when they were able to negotiate substantial pay increases with employers’ associations, they thought their job was done. But workers had also demanded the ousting of the De Gaulle government and in some cases demanded to run their own factories.

The demonstrations and the strikes went on. Meanwhile on the morning of 29 May, De Gaulle suddenly boarded a helicopter and left the country. He went to the headquarters of the French military in Germany and called a meeting of Council of Ministers for 30 May back in Paris. On that same day, the unions led 400,000 to 500,000 protesters through Paris chanting “Adieu, De Gaulle. The head of the Paris police carefully avoided the use of force.

Sensibly De Gaulle responded by dissolving the National Assembly and calling a new election for 23 June. He ordered the workers to return to work immediately, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not. The Communist Party agreed to the holding of the election. Immediately revolutionary feelings began to fade away. The police retook the Sorbonne on 16 JuneAnd the Gaullists won the greatest victory in French parliamentary history.

The May days of 1968, it turned out, had been a convulsive moment, nothing more enduring than that. Nonetheless in Wordsworth’s words, “to be young was very heaven”.

Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968

It began with a demand by students for the right to sleep with each other. And it ended in one of the greatest upheavals in French society since the revolution. John Lichfield goes in search of the spirit of 68 . Saturday 23 February 2008

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”

It took a dead British poet to understand May 1968. The conventional French politicians of the time did not have a clue what was going on, even the left-wing politicians. The student and worker revolt in France 40 years ago this spring was a cultural revolution, even a sexual revolution, before it was a political one.

The young William Wordsworth wrote the above lines about a much bloodier French revolution. They express perfectly, all the same, the mood of May 1968: the idealism, the whimsy, the zeal, the humour, the self-righteousness, the excitement.

The photographs tell the story. On the first night of rioting in the Paris Left Bank, on 3 May 1968, the riot police wore old-fashioned uniforms and old-fashioned helmets. They looked rather like French soldiers from the 1914-18 war.

The male students wore jackets and ties or neat jumpers and short hair and well-pressed trousers. The women had long hair and sensible skirts and hair-bands. There were few jeans or sandals or beards.

This, remember, was more than a year after Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was the year after the Flower Power revolution had begun in San Francisco. No self-respecting, revolting student in America or Britain or Germany would have worn a jacket and tie on a barricade in the first days of May 1968. Before the end of the student revolt in early June, the French students looked more convincingly revolutionary: they were scruffier, more hirsute and more psychedelic. They had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.

May 1968 was, in its origins, a revolt against the stifling papa-knows-best conservatism, and dullness, of General Charles de Gaulle’s economically booming 1960s France. It was, at one level, a catch-up, fast-forward revolution for the right to wear long hair and purple trousers. It began in March, at the new Nanterre University west of Paris, as a demand for the rights of boy and girl students in their late teens and twenties to sleep together.

There were other student revolts in Europe and America, before and after May 1968. In no other country did a student rebellion almost bring down a government. In no other country did a student rebellion lead to a workers’ revolt, one that rose up from the blue-collar grass roots and overwhelmed the paternalistic trade-union leadership as much as the paternalistic, conservative government.

The two revolts remained largely separate: despite the efforts of a fringe of Maoist students, despite the eloquence of Jean-Paul Sartre, who stood on a box outside the Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt telling the workers about the student-worker-intellectual paradise to come. (“Be brief,” someone advised him, but he wasn’t.)

The workers’ demands were tangible and precise. The students’ aims were diffuse and contradictory: more philosophical than political and often shot-through with sexual innuendo (and frustration). “Marxist, Groucho tendency.” “Be realistic, ask for the impossible.” “Take your desires for realities.” “Unbutton your brain as much as your trousers.”

Of the two rebellions, it was the wildcat general strike by workers which worried the government most at the time. A young minister called Jacques Chirac was sent secretly to prepare the way for the pay rises, and reduced working hours, which helped to bring the strike to an end. He put a revolver in his inside jacket pocket before going to his clandestine meetings. This was not self-dramatisation; it was just the giddy mood of the times.

And yet, 40 years on, it is the student revolt which is most remembered and the workers’ revolt which has been almost forgotten. This is partly because the leaders of the young people who built barricades and overturned cars in the Paris Latin Quarter in 1968 went on, in many cases, to become senior journalists, writers, philosophers and politicians (including the present foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner).

It is also because the French cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s was compressed so memorably into four or five weeks. Elsewhere the changes were stealthier. Philip Larkin (another dead British poet) said: “Sex was invented in 1963, between the Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first LP.” In truth, the end of the old social and sexual certainties and taboos in Britain was a gradual process from 1963 to 1970, driven by the Profumo scandal, the Beatles, the reforms of the first Harold Wilson government and a virus of revolt carried on the wind of television from Vietnam and the United States.

In France, typically enough, the same transition was acted out in a great, concentrated psycho-drama on the streets. As the French journalist and writer Jacques Julliard said, revolutions in France are “rites of passage”. Quiet, peaceful, social transitions, even noisy, peaceful transitions, are not the French Way.

“To go from Louis XVI to Louis XVIII, from moderate absolutism to a parliamentary monarchy, clumsy foreigners would have gone by way of a Louis XVII,” M. Julliard wrote. “We went via Robespierre and Napoleon.”

By the same logic, France needed six weeks of mayhem to go from grey trousers to purple trousers; from the social and sexual repression of the 1950s to the social and sexual freedom, and confusion, of the 1970s (and afterwards).

The French students who manned the Left Bank barricades thought – among other things – that they were revolting against French-ness itself. In fact, they were behaving in a classically French way.

Perhaps because it was such a French occasion, French commentary to this day tends to treat May 1968 as a purely French phenomenon. Reading some of the French analyses of 1968 – both for and against – one could have the impression that the May student revolt alone created the post-1970s world of tolerance and individualism, free-thinking and consumerism.

Other Western countries were going the same way before France. Most of them had brief or scattered outbreaks of anti-establishment violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even of terrorism in the case of Germany and Italy. None of them had a brief, intense, mythologised youth rebellion as France did.

The fast-forwarding of events made the myth of May 1968. And the myth, as myths do, has achieved a life of its own.

During his presidential campaign last year, Nicolas Sarkozy launched into a series of vituperative speeches in which he promised to “liquidate” the legacy of 1968, which he blamed for everything from poor school results to high crime figures and the decline of old-fashioned patriotism.

And yet M. Sarkozy, a twice-divorced, consumerist, value-muddling, politican par excellence, is himself a child of 1968. At least, he is a child of the social changes which 1968 symbolised rather than generated.

Similarly, on the French Left, May 1968, precisely because it was so memorable, has become a sacred totem. Unfortunately, it is the most hidebound, unthinking lefties who cling onto the memory of France’s revolution manqué. The open-minded, joyful, jokey, surreal side of May 1968 – the “Groucho tendency” – tends to be forgotten. There are, none the less, specific reasons why “May 1968” – which began in March and ended in June – happened in France in the way that it did.

From 1945 to 1975, still known as “les trentes glorieuses”, France enjoyed 30 years of unbroken growth and relative prosperity. After the revolving-door governments and the lost colonial wars of the 1950s, France under President Charles de Gaulle settled into a period of unusual stability in the 1960s (give or take a few incidents of pro-colonial terrorism).

In that period, an old France, mostly agricultural, mostly Catholic, was being quietly buried. In 1945, there were still 7,000,000 farmers and peasants in France. By 1968, there were 3,000,000. (There are now, by the way, only about 500,000.)

The rural population poured into towns and suburbs and worked in offices and factories. Their children thrived in urban schools. Long before 1968, anyone who passed the baccalaureate (equivalent to A levels) had an absolute right to go to university, virtually for free.

In 1938, France had 60,000 university students. In 1961, it had 240,000. By 1968, it had 605,000, as many as Britain, West Germany and Belgium combined. Few new university campuses were built or extended to take the massed ranks of students. Nanterre University was one exception.

Despite the overall rise in prosperity, and levels of education, De Gaulle’s France was a quietly oppressive place. Memories of French failure in the war were everywhere but rarely discussed. The general wanted a modern, dynamic France rooted in an old, conservative and non-dynamic social system.

Students felt that they were treated like children and herded like cattle into vast “amphis” or amphiteatres to scribble down notes. Factory workers were treated like inferior beings, by bosses and union bosses alike. They also resented the fact that the 1960s prosperity had failed to trickle down to the shop floor.

In a celebrated, prophetic, but also obtuse, article in Le Monde on 15 March 1968, Pierre Viansson-Ponté said that France was suffering from a dangerous political malady: “boredom”. Elsewhere, he said, from Spain to the US, students were protesting about wars or fundamental liberties. “French students are mostly concerned that the girls … should be able to visit the bedrooms of the boys, which is a rather limited conception of human rights.” Not so limited if you are French, aged 20 and the sexual revolution is already well under way in the United States and even in supposedly frigid Britain.

The right of young adults to have sex with one another in their rooms was, indeed, one of the first of the demands of students at Nanterre University, which led directly to the events of May 1968. Sociology students at Nanterre, led by a 22-year-old, red-haired, French-born German called Daniel Cohn-Bendit, successfully used sexual oppression as a symbol for political and spiritual oppression. ………

By 22 March 1968, the issues were much wider, including the Vietnam War. Cohn-Bendit led 300 students in an occupation of the admin block at Nanterre. Several students, including Cohn-Bendit, were accused of “agitation” and threatened with expulsion.

A demonstration in support was planned in the courtyard of the venerable Sorbonne, in the centre of Paris’s Left Bank, on 3 May. A far-right-wing group, Occident, enflamed tempers – and pumped the left-wing students with self-righteous adrenaline – by threatening to attack the “manif” (demo).

The police scattered the “righties” and then began to remove the “lefties” from the Sorbonne. The demonstrators had been promised that they could leave freely. About 400 of them were brutally arrested.

Larger demonstrations gathered. The first “pavés”, or cobble stones, were thrown at the police. The Paris police, supported by a few busloads of the notorious CRS riot police, responded with indiscriminate baton charges and volleys of tear gas, assaulting students, journalists, passers-by, tourists, cinema-goers and elderly couples who were sitting at café terrasses watching the fun. Many of the younger victims, and some older ones, joined in the riots. By that night, there were barricades all over the fifth arrondissement.

A week later a large crowd of students tried to “liberate” the Sorbonne, which had been ringed by the CRS. Trees were ripped up, cars overturned and cobble stones hurled – exposing yards of sand, and leading to one of the best-known anarcho-libertarian sayings of 1968: “Sous les pavés, la plage” (Under the cobble-stones, the beach).

On 13 May, the trades unions – against the better judgement of their own leaders – called a one-day strike and demonstration. The government ordered the CRS to withdraw, and an immense student and worker demonstration choked the Left Bank. But the strike did not end after one day as the union leaders planned. Eight million workers went on indefinite, wildcat strike, the largest labour stoppage in French history.

The demonstrations spread to provincial cities. A half-hearted attempt was made on 24 May to burn down the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange). The Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, began secret – and then public – negotiations with the unions. Cohn-Bendit was expelled from France, returned and was expelled again.

Parts of the Left Bank of Paris came to resemble giant debating chambers, in which anyone who wished could discuss, endlessly, the future of humanity. At the 18th-century Odéon theatre, beside the Luxembourg gardens, there was an all day and all night, open-ended conference between, among others, Renault car workers, students, cleaning ladies, tourists, celebrated writers and artists and businessmen with nothing to do because

their factories were on strike. In the wings of the theatre, young men and women performed loveless sexual acts never previously seen on the French stage.

On 29 May, De Gaulle left France for Baden-Baden in West Germany. Crazy rumours spread that he had resigned or that there had been a military coup. In fact, De Gaulle was talking to the French military high command, making sure that they would support him.

The next day a carefully managed, but huge, counter-demonstration by De Gaulle supporters blocked the Avenue des Champs Elysées. The President called early elections (which he won easily the next month).

To the fury of the students and the more revolutionary workers, the trades unions accepted a generous, capitalism-preserving deal from the government: a 10 per cent increase in all wages and a 35 per cent increase in the minimum wage, a shorter working week and mandatory employer consultations with workers. Right wing economists argue that France’s post-war prosperity ended that day, though in fact it continued until the mid-1970s and the first oil crisis.

By early June, the strikes and the student demos had melted away. France was saved. Utopia was cancelled, or at least postponed.

What remains of May 1968? Some left-wing thinkers of the time have – like William Wordsworth before them – become grumpy and conservative in their old age. The philosopher Régis Debray, a minor figure in the events of 1968, argues that, far from a left-wing revolution, “les évènements de Mai” let loose the individualism and the ultra-capitalism of the 1980s and 1990s. Under the paving stones, the beach; under May 1968, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

But this is once again – in the French way – to mistake May 1968 for the whole of the Western zeitgeist of the late 1960s. If anything survives of May 1968, the month and the myth, it is the tendency to romantic absolutism of the French Left. What other developed Western country could produce four (or was it five) Trotskyist candidates in a presidential election? French social democracy is still paying the price for such dogmatism, which is quite alien to the best of the free-wheeling, mind-opening spirit of ’68.

This, at any rate, is the argument made by a 62-year-old Green German Euro MP who played a part in the “events of May” in Paris. “I say forget May 1968,” he said. “It is finished. Society today bears no relationship with that of the 1960s. When we called ourself anti-authoritarian, we were fighting against a very different society.”

The Green German Euro MP is now a pro-market, pro-European, libertarian liberal and ecologist. Like the best of the “soixante-huitards” (sixty-eighters), his mind is still open to new ideas and changing times. His name is Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/egalit-libert-sexualit-paris-may-1968-784703.html

A student hurling rocks at the police in Paris during the May 1968 student uprising. The protests transformed France.CreditGamma-Keystone, via Getty Images

Just six weeks after France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, pronounced that the country was “bored,” too bored to join the youth protests underway in Germany and in the United States, students in Paris occupied the Sorbonne, one of the most illustrious universities in Europe.

The day was May 3, 1968, and the events that ensued over the following month — mass protests, street battles and nationwide strikes — transformed France. It was not a political revolution in the way that earlier French revolutions had been, but a cultural and social one that in a stunningly short time changed French society.

“In the history of France it was a remarkable movement because it was truly a mass movement that concerned Paris but also the provinces, that concerned intellectuals but also manual workers,” said Bruno Queysanne, who, at the time was an assistant instructor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, one of the country’s most prestigious art and architecture schools.

“Each person that engaged, engaged himself all the way,” he said. “That was how France could stop running, without there being a feeling of injustice or sabotage. The whole world was in agreement that they should pause and reflect on the conditions of existence.”

Jacques Sauvageot, center right, one of the protest leaders, and other students marching in Paris. Universities across the country shut down during the protests. CreditBruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
Photo

Police forces in the Latin Quarter in Paris during the “night of barricades” on May 10 to 11. CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images
Photo

Riot police in front of the Le Rex cinema on the Grands Boulevards in Paris. The 1968 Cannes Film Festival was cancelled about halfway through its run because of the protests and strikes.CreditBruno Barbey/Magnum Photos

Today it is hard to imagine a Western country completely engulfed by a social upheaval, but that is what happened in May 1968 in France. It is hard to find any Frenchman or woman born before 1960 who does not have a vivid and personal recollection of that month.

“Everything was enlarged by 1968; it determined all my life,” said Maguy Alvarez, a teacher of English to elementary school students, as she walked through an exhibition of posters and artworks from the period.

“In religion, in sexual things, what it meant to be a woman — that it did not mean only to serve a man or to submit to men. These are questions you think about your whole life,” she said.

Both the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement in France grew out of the 1968 upheaval and the intellectual ferment of the time.

Students at Nanterre University in the suburbs of Paris in 1968. CreditGilles Caron/Fondation Gilles Caron
Students gathered for a general assembly in the amphitheater at Sorbonne University on May 15. CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images
Posters at a French university celebrating communist leaders. CreditBruno Barbey/Magnum 

While some people saw the mass strikes and protests as a shattering and painful event that upended social norms — the authority of the father of the family and of the leader of the country — for most, it pushed France into the modern world.

“The 19th century was a very long century,” said Philippe Artières, a historian and researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research and one of the curators of the show on the posters of 1968.

“We’re hardly out of it, and you have to keep in mind that in ’68 we were just 50 years after the revolution of ’17 and a century after the Paris commune,” he said, referring to the Russian Revolution and the 1871 uprising by mostly poor and working class residents of Paris (although the leadership was middle class) that was brutally put down, leaving as many as 10,000 dead.

President Emmanuel Macron, who was born in 1977, is the first post-1968 French leader not to have personal memories of the upheaval — the exhilaration, the sense of possibility, and the potential power of the street.

Students passing cobble stones to build barricades in Paris on May 10. CreditBruno Barbey/Magnum Photos

Universities across the country shut down as students, often joined by their professors, occupied the classrooms and courtyards. In Paris and other major French cities, workers, students, intellectuals and anyone else who was interested thronged into the street for mass rallies.

Blunting the sense of exhilaration were the daily confrontations with the police. As early as May 3, police charged into the Sorbonne and ousted the students; in the ensuing melee, some 600 were arrested, according to Agence France-Presse.

The students returned and quickly set up barricades to stop the police from entering the areas where they were massing. The two factions faced off night and day: The police wearing helmets and armed with riot shields, tear gas, truncheons and water cannons; and the university students, sometimes still wearing the ties and jackets mandated at the time by the university administration. The students dug up paving stones from the Paris streets to heave at the police.

The night of May 6 was particularly violent, with 600 people wounded and 422 detained, but it was overnight between May 10 and May 11, known as the “night of barricades” that people still talk about.

The protesters ripped up the paving stones from two streets in the Latin Quarter, where the Sorbonne is, set fire to cars and confronted the police. By the time the bloody fighting ended, hundreds of students had been arrested and hundreds more hospitalized, as were a number of police officers.

A student chased by a police officer on May 6 in Paris. CreditGilles Caron/Fondation Gilles Caron
Students in the Latin Quarter being led to a police station on May 11. Hundreds of students were arrested during the protests that night, and hundreds more hospitalized, as were a number of police officers. CreditAssociated Press
The evacuation of an injured student under the eyes of the riot police during the night of May 10-11. CreditBruno Barbey/Magnum 

“During the night there were very violent protests, cars burned, things broken, but during the day, there was an air of vacation, of summer, a relaxed feeling,” said Mr. Queysanne, who later became a professor of the philosophy of architecture at the University of Grenoble and then at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles.

“But then the next day, people came and discussed what they had seen; some were for, some were against. This was incredible, there was freedom of speech, words were set free.”

The aftermath of a night of riots in Paris. CreditBruno Barbey/Magnum Photos

Amazingly, somehow the violence did not taint the euphoria of the protesters.

“The feeling we had in those days, which has shaped my entire life really, was: We’re making history. An exalted feeling — suddenly we had become agents in world history,” said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most prominent of the student leaders at the time, in an essay in the May 10 issue of The New York Review of Books.

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, right, addressing students at the Sorbonne on May 20, 1968. CreditAssociated Press
French student leaders Daniel Cohn-Bendit, left, and Pierre Delteil, with glasses, speaking to the media in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris after a night of violent clashes on May 7.CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images
Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated their support for President Charles De Gaulle on May 31, 1968. Many sang “La Marseillaise” on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.CreditGamma-Keystone, via Getty Images

Simultaneously with the student protests, France’s factory workers walked off the job and in many places camped out on the factory floor, refusing to work and demanding a new order.

The shipyards in Nantes stopped loading and unloading freighters, and work in much of the car manufacturing and aeronautics industries also ceased. The unions did not call the strikes but when workers and students embraced them, they acquiesced.

By the third week in May, between 10 and 11 million people were on strike. There was no gas for cars because the refineries came to a halt; the trains did not run, nor did the Paris Metro.

A May Day demonstration in Paris against the bombings in North Vietnam by United States forces. CreditGilles Caron/Fondation Gilles Caron
Strikers at the Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt on May 27. CreditBruno Barbey/Magnum
A student on a barricade in front of the School of Medicine; it was the last barricade to be breached by the police, on May 12. CreditBruno Barbey/Magnum 

In France, the enemy of change was the government, then headed by President Charles de Gaulle, who tried to repress the strikes and the sit-ins, but on May 29, he appeared to be overwhelmed.

In an unprecedented move, he left the country without saying either that he was leaving or where he was going. It was a startling turn of events and for a day or two the students and workers thought they had won.

But Mr. de Gaulle returned, dissolved the National Assembly and called an election for the end of June. Already, on May 27, the government and the unions had made a deal to get the striking workers back on the job, offering them generous pay increases and benefits.

But the established hierarchy and formality that permeated relationships between teachers and students, parents and children, bosses and workers, and ultimately even politicians and citizens, had been upended.

“At the level of daily life, and the relationships of people with institutions, there were big changes,” said Mr. Queysanne, the professor of the philosophy of architecture.

When students returned to classes, they could now ask questions in class and dispute ideas — a revolution in the French educational system. Bosses had to treat their workers better.

But that heady atmosphere of social foment, excitement and a sense of deep camaraderie that cut across class and education, that touched factory workers, students, intellectuals and farmers alike had passed.

There would be other moments of social protests, but none that were quite the same as those that occurred in the Paris spring of 1968.

A Paris street in June, with the aftermath of the protests still clearly visible. CreditGilles Caron/Fondation Gilles Caron

During the major strikes and student uprisings in France that year, the École des Beaux-Arts turned itself into a workshop for revolutionary messages.

Image
“Clash of Images,” an exhibition in Paris of posters, paintings, films and other works from the uprising of May 1968 and beyond.CreditFrancois Mori/Associated Press

By Alissa J. Rubin May 4, 2018

PARIS — Fifty years ago, almost to the day, students here began to strike over the rigidity and hierarchy of the French university system, defying the historical deference of young people to their elders; the same day, workers at a major factory near Nantes walked out.

Within days, the strikes spread to other universities and factories, and garbage collectors and office workers joined in. By mid-May, more than 10 million people across France were on strike, and the country had all but come to a standstill.

The protests of 1968 ushered in more than five years of social upheaval, intensifying an antiwar movement in Europe and contributing to the women’s liberation and gay rights movements. And it all started with a call to upend the old order.

“There was an idea that France was a class society and it had to be torn down,” said Éric de Chassey, a professor of contemporary art who curated, with Philippe Artières, “Clash of Images,” an exhibition at the Beaux-Arts de Paris. It showcases posters from those early days of social upheaval, as well as art and documents from subsequent protests for women’s rights and gay rights.

The show’s title refers to the way the 1968 protests evolved from uniting the left and people from different backgrounds — middle class and working class — to dividing them when the strikes ended and leftist factions re-emerged. But in those first months of protest, university students, factory workers and government employees joined intellectualsand teachers to try to fulfill the dream of making France a more egalitarian place.

Image
The protests ushered in more than five years of social upheaval, intensifying an antiwar movement in Europe and contributing to the women’s liberation and gay rights movements. CreditAssociated Press

The École des Beaux-Arts was at the center of the revolt. Many of the prestigious art school’s students and teachers occupied the 300-year-old stone structure on the Left Bank of the Seine: Rather than holding meetings only in the building’s vast rooms and courtyards, they turned the school into an atelier, or artists’ workshop, where they created protest art.The often arresting posters straddled the line between art and propaganda.

In keeping with the utopian ideals of collective work and anonymous authorship, the artists labored together to conceptualize, design and write slogans for the posters that framed their revolutionary sentiments.

“Someone would say ‘We need a poster that talks about immigration,’ ” Mr. de Chassey explained. “Then someone would propose a design, someone else would propose a slogan and then it would be discussed by a committee.”

The students printed hundreds or sometimes several thousand copies of the posters and taped them to lampposts and walls around Paris. In an era before the internet, the posters became a trusted way to communicate plans for action as well as the protesters’ political messages. There was little faith in electronic media at the time because it was state owned.

The strikes that began in May 1968 became the template for social protest in contemporary France, and although the fervent anti-establishment sentiments have faded, the mentality of struggle still resonates. The Beaux-Arts posters, on display through May 20, give a sense of the ferment of idealism, rebellion and rejection of the status quo that permeated French society and marked the second half of the 20th century.

Some of the posters are easily comprehensible, but others need a little explanation. Here’s a look at 11 of the most emblematic.

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

One of the most iconic posters on display depicts a member of the French riot police (the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, or C.R.S.) as a baton-wielding member of the SS, the Nazi special police.

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

Under the title “Grève Illimitée” (“Unlimited Strikes”), three figures walk arm in arm, representing the students, union members and factory workers who joined together in protest.

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

The words on a bottle of poison read, “Press Do Not Swallow,” a warning not to trust the state-owned news media. At the time, France’s television and radio stations were state-owned corporations.

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

The raised fist is a straightforward call to march and to fight for the causes of students and workers. It remains a well-known symbol of solidarity on the left.

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

Police officers raided the École des Beaux-Arts and forcibly expelled the students who had occupied it, turning the complex into a workshop. In this poster, a helmeted officer, complete with wolf-sharp teeth, grips a paintbrush in his mouth, a symbol of the police takeover of the school.The slogan plays on the French verb “afficher,” which means “to display” but in its reflexive form, “s’afficher,” means “to show up.” The poster says: “The police show up at the Beaux-Arts, the Beaux-Arts displays in the street.”

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

The poster above is a straightforward reference to the ties that bond factory workers and university students and that calls on them to unite.

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

This poster shows the silhouette of Charles de Gaulle, a World War II general and the French president at the time, covering the mouth of a young man. “Be young and shut up,” he says. The expression was also an adaptation of a well-known phrase, sometimes used to denounce sexism, from a popular French film of 1958 titled “Be Beautiful but Shut Up.”

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

A sketch of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a French-German student leader during the uprising, above the French words for “We are all undesirables.” It refers to Mr. Cohn-Bendit’s expulsion from France during the protests, when he was deemed “an undesirable.”

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

In this poster, the factory chimney completes the last letter of “Oui,” or “Yes,” above the words “Occupied factories,” to encourage workers to take over more of them. At the time, factories all over France were closed or occupied by striking workers. Among the many companies affected were the auto manufacturers Renault and Citroën, and the aeronautics firms Sud Aviation and Dassault.

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

In response to the protests, Mr. de Gaulle was reported to have said: “Reform, yes. Havoc, no.” The poster above reads “Once again, the havoc is him.” Until 1968, Mr. de Gaulle was primarily associated with the resistance in World War II, but in ’68 he tried to repress the strikes with armed police officers. His lack of sympathy for the strikers and his seeming inability to understand them made him the target of much of the protesters’ anger.

CreditÉcole des Beaux-Arts

This classic poster of May ’68 depicts unity between French and immigrant workers. France had recruited many workers from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to help build railroads and other infrastructure or industrial installations. A short man, who appears to symbolize the factory owners or owners of capital, tries to push them apart. The slogan reads, “Workers united.”

Daphné Anglès contributed reporting from Paris.

Alissa Johannsen Rubin is the Paris bureau chief for The New York Times. @Alissanyt

A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

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

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

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”’.

Epilogue
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014

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.

Children of the Revolution

Children of the Revolution

© Paul Hemphill 2013, 2016. All rights reserved

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

Some References

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)

 

Deconstructing Dunkirk

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.

During early 2018, I posted the following on the In That Howling Infinite Facebook page in response to an article in The Independent:

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.

For more posts by In That Howling Infinite, visit:
https://m.facebook.com/HowlingInfinite/
https://m.facebook.com/hf1983/

Splendid Isolation
Max Hastings, New York Review of Books, October 12 2017

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.

 

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

P1050095

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

  P1050093

P1050086

P1050079

P1050078

P1050076

P1050073

P1050092