The Twilight of the Equine Gods

The horse has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability. Our story resonates with an equine leitmotif – in our dreams, our fantasies, our histories, our literature, and our movies; in our aesthetics and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty.

Hey and away we go
Through the grass, across the snow,
Big brown beastie, big brown face,
I’d rather be with you than flying through space.
Mike Oldfield, On Horseback

Pastorale

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare

What is there not to love about a horse?

Its big, brown, doe eyes; its earthy, sweaty aroma from a land somewhere between babies and barnyards; the warmth of its neck on your palm; the rough feel of its mane in your fingers; the smell and the squeak of saddle leather; the jingle-bells of the bridle. The strength you sense through your thighs; an exhilaration that is close to fear as you kick his flanks into a trot, a canter, a gallop, and whoa! and you’re never one hundred percent sure she will obey you. And then, when it’s over, the radiated heat, the damp hide, the glow of sweat, almost a mist of equine energy as you dismount after the ride. You feel wired, alive, and at one with the horse, with the land, with nature.

I first rode a horse in the late seventies, on my first visit to Australia with my first wife. Her old man was a doctor on locum in Coolah, ‘beyond of the Black Stump’, which is to say, the back of beyond (and there really WAS a black stump on the outskirts of town, for the infrequent tourist to be photographed by in pre-selfie days). A local farmer had invited us out to ride his large property, and so we rode, in the heat haze of high summer, through wide, dry, open, paddocks, mobs of roos scattering as we approached, flocks of cockatoos roosting riotously in the branches of dead trees, and flies. Yes, I learned about the “Aussie salute” that summer. I fell in love with the Australian bush then and there, the “wide brown land” of Dorothea Mackelllar’s sunburnt country“. A few years later, as a newly arrived immigrant, I would go riding again, this time with country friends in the Dungog cattle country north of Sydney.

I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again.

Twopence & Trigger

That was a decades ago, but living in the bush, I still feel pleasure when I see horses in their paddocks. The sight, sound, and smell strike a melodious, atavistic chord that many would  recognize as distinctively Australian. How many Aussies of a certain age would not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough’.

In this centennial year of the Palestine Campaign of WWI and the gallop of the Australian Light Horse towards the strategic Beersheba wells – praised, inaccurately, as history’s last great cavalry charge, the Light Horseman and his hardy “Waler” (from New South Wales) have achieved iconic status in a media supercharged on “Anzacery”. Calmer voices have argued that on the scale of the carnage on the western front, where Diggers died in their thousands, and indeed the Gaza battle itself, where the ANZACs were a very small part of a very large army, it was really no big thing, But never let the facts get between a politician and a photo-opportunity. 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”.

And it was always thus. As German academic and cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s tells us in his captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship: 

“Like love and the stock exchange, 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”.

Farewell to the horse

It is an easy segue from my Australian pastorale to Raulff’s illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride, a revelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days.

“The horse” Raulff begins, “has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant into which we have entered has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability”.

He then recounts how over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung. “For a century, the oat-powered engine was the universal and irreplaceable power unit of the forced mechanization of the world”. And then it was gone, replaced by the internal combustion engine. And yet, the term “horsepower” is to this day a measure of the performance of vehicle engines (although now mostly replaced by kilowatts) – a horse was the equivalent of seven men.

“The twilight of the equine gods”, as Raulff describes it, was a long goodbye indeed, and in the realm of myth, memory and metaphor, horses are with us still; or as he so lyrically expresses it: “ghosts of modernity” (echoes of Dylan, in my mind, at least) that “haunt the minds of a humanity that has turned away from them”.

Like its subject, Farewell to the Horse is a handsome, wide-ranging, beast. More elegy than epitaph, eclectic and imaginative in scope, viewing the horse as muse, as mount, and as metaphor, Raulff sings the song of the horse – and if ever there was a ‘horse opera’, this is it.

Eloquently and at times poetically translated, and generously illustrated with pictures from galleries, libraries, and photo archives, Raulff takes the reader through the many worlds of the relationship. On his academic home-turf of sociology and psychology, his references are primarily German, but straying from his academic stable, he ambles into a lush and diverse pastureland of history and mythology, politics and philosophy. economics and geography, industry and commerce, physics and biology, science and medicine, sport and recreation. And art and literature: how artists and writers brought their perspectives, personas and passions onto canvas, Kodak and the printed page. In many ways, its infinite variety reminded me of English historian Simon Schama’s fascinating Landscape and Memory.

Raulff has divided his book into four broad thematic sections, each with an evocative title – The Centauran Pact, A Phantom in the Library. The Living Metaphor, and The Forgotten Player – each exploring a particular aspect of the horse’s story. But he allows himself much extempore stream of consciousness as he periodically wanders off-script with childhood reminiscences and collected anecdotes, and dips into favourite paintings, books and films. And time-travels through six thousand years, and traverses the globe too in his long ride – from the Steppes of Eurasia to the Great Plains of America, from the cities of MittelEuropa to those of the Midwest, with side trips to the Middle East and Andalusia.

It was contagious. I too got to thinking beyond the page, recalling and contemplating a miscellany of ideas and images that came to mind whilst reading, and indeed, whilst writing this review, wandering down forgotten bridle-ways (literally, a horse riding path, or trail originally created for use by horses, but often now serving a range of travelers). And is this not what a good book should do?

The Song of the Horse

The horse, the intelligent mammal, the great vegetarian, a prey animal whose strength is in flight, who has no desire or need for confrontation or quarrel. It’s speed, its main asset, enabling it to flee its predators, is also what attracted it to the attention of man, with whom it entered into a long-lived, unequal devil’s bargain. “They were able to turn the inconspicuous potential energy of tough prairie grasses, inedible to almost all other animals into the spectacular energy of a fast endurance runner. Thanks to its natural properties as a converter of energy, the horse could bear kings, Knights, female lovers and rural doctors, draw carriages and cannons, transport hordes of workers and employees, and mobilize entire nations”. And indeed, Raulff takes us on a jaunt   through these tableaux.

He quotes historian Ann Hyland: “it was a small step, albeit a brave one, for man to mount a horse”, and writes: “The comparison with the moon landing is certainly not exaggerated. The moment when man began, by domestication and breeding, to connect his fate to the horse – not with a nutritional intention, but with a vectorial aim – may have been, before the invention of writing, the narrow gate through which man entered the realm of history”.

And lo, our story resonates with an equine leitmotif.

The horse is in our dreams and our fantasies, in our literature, and our movies, in our aesthetics, and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty. From the diverse mounts that conveyed Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury to that paragon of American folk culture, the cowboy. From the rambunctious centaurs of Disney’s’ Beethoven Fantasia to the gaunt quartet bearing the seer of Patmos’ horsemen of the Apocalypse. From the teenage innocence of National Velvet and Black Beauty to Thomas Hardy and Carey Mulligan’s sensual and photogenic jaunt in the recent remake of Far From the Madding Crowd. From the patriotic jingoism of Alfred J Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Rudyard Kipling’s East is East and West is West to Banjo Patterson’s blokey bush ballad The Man From Snowy River, which i have quoted above. The horse has even entered into the invented worlds of science fiction, with Joss Whedon’s rollicking space-pirate adventure, Firefly, and more recently, Westworld with its Wild West theme park populated by lifelike android cowboys and Indians on their robot horses.

Westworld

[If I have one small quibble about Farewell to the Horse, it is in its Eurocentricity. The Land Down Under doesn’t rate a mention even though the horse has played an important role in the evolution of Australia’s perceived national identity – “perceived” because here too, we are captive to that “powerful myth” that Raulff believes subverts fact]

Whilst drawing cleverly on the arts – and the book is well-furnished with illustrations that are  well spoken to in the text – Raulff does not venture into poetry, where there are to be found many wonderful images. Take but a few examples drawn from just one poem, and marvel at the metaphors in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Boys Own’ tale of a young British officer tracking down a daring Pathan bandit:

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree”.

“It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go,
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove”.

“They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn”.

And, of course, there are the songs. There’s the doomed Texan troubadour Townes van Zandt’s enigmatic anti-hero:

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel,
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho and Lefty

And whilst Raulff includes a poignant picture of a lone, pedestrian cowboy carrying his saddle through the scrub like a mariner lost on the land, he doesn’t mention Leonard Cohen’s bereft and distraught cowpoke :

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
The Ballad of the Absent Mare

But more from St. Leonard of Montreal later…

Frederic Remington’s Bronco

A Phantom Limb

The horse’s glory days may be over, but the echoes of a long and fruitful relationship linger in our lines and in our language – in our idioms and our figures of speech: like, “getting back in the saddle”, “pulling the reins” and “taking the reins”, “champing at the bit”, “gaining the whip hand”, and the timeless put-down, “get off your high horse!” Phrases such as these are used everyday by people who have never been physically close to a horse let alone ridden one, and whose visual encounters are limited to country outings, circuses, televised equestrian events and westerns (in Australia, as in the US, we can still enjoy country fairs and carnivals that feature rodeos and endurance rides).

And note that these usages are somehow connected to power, control, and aggression – and often, casual, almost matter-of-fact violence (the idea of being “horse-whipped”) – violence inflicted not only on humans but on the animals too.

Raulff asks: Why is it that the most powerful visual images of horses are in their warrior role?  Does it not say more about ourselves than what was genetically a passive, docile, tame-able (we call it “breaking”) grazer?

Equestrian Statues

Salah ud Din al Ayubi, Damascus

The horse has a complex and varied curriculum vitae. For six millennia, it has been our dependable beast of burden, the bearer of people, packages and progress, shrinking distance and opening up new lands. But it has also been the agent of power, politics and pogroms. A bearer of great ideas, and also of great tyrants.

The horse has long been a living metaphor of power – the absolute political metaphor, indeed.

“The combination of horse and rider is a powerful symbol of domination, and one of the oldest in the book”. The caudillo, the martial “man on horseback” so beloved of painters and sculptors – and of putative dictators (although Stalin and Hitler, Raulff reminds us, despised horses). There’s Alexander the Great on Bucephalus, defeating Darius; David’s conquering Napoleon crossing the Alps; bodacious Boudicca reining in her chariot steeds on The Embankment. To be physically and violently unhorsed is to be taken down literally and figuratively. Hence Richard III’s anguished “my kingdom for a horse”, and George Armstrong Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry demountd and doomed on Last Stand Hill.

The rise of the horse changes the position of the people and along with it, their view of the world around them – what Raulff calls the ‘cavalier perspective’. It is rooted in an age-old fantasy of the fusion of man and beast, from centaur to chevalier. The unfortunate Aztecs believed the mounted conquistadors to be half man half beast. That dismissive rebuke “get off your high horse” echoes a primal fear of the mounted marauder, be he the Scythian archer, the Mongol warrior, the rogue knight or the Red Indian (“savage” he was called back in the day) of the Great Plains. Recall the Cossacks lining up on the snow-covered square, about to charge the defenseless marchers in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. Recall the Dothraki, screaming their war cries, thundering down on the doomed Lannister infantry. “We still see traces of horses’ archaic role as inspirers of terror when required to intimidate picketing workers or to drive rallies of protesters out of shopping precincts”.

Something wicked this way comes – Clive Owen’s Slav King Arthur

During his travels, Raulff visited Israel, where he chanced to observe ultra-orthodox Jews protesting against their youth being conscripted into the IDF. Jerusalem authorities mobilized mounted police officers against the recalcitrant religious. He indulges in pogrom projection, imagining the Haredim being intimated by a Cossack Shtetl flashback. Fanciful, perhaps, but as a young man during the Vietnam demonstrations in London’s Grosvenor Square, I learned that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of than a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching.

And yet, the use of the horse in this manner forces it to go against its nature, trained to stand its ground in dangerous circumstances when all its instincts are to flee danger. Ostensible police brutality in Grosvenor Square was juxtaposed by the reality that police horses were stabbed by banners and tripped and stoned with glass marbles. Several were so injured that they had to be euthanized.

Horse meets Haredim in Jerusalem

…and meanwhile, in the other side of town

 The Wide Open Spaces

The power bestowed upon men by horses is much more than such authoritarian, martial muscle. The horse enabled landsmen to conquer what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called “the tyranny of distance”. For Rudyard Kipling’s “fluttered folk and wild”, it ushered in a tyranny of a malevolent kind.

The horse-led conquests of European and Asian empires during the second millennium BCE by the chariots and later, cavalry of the horse-people disgorging from the steppes like some equestrian blitzkrieg, transformed world history. They brought their political structures, their warfare, their masculine, spiritual character – their “asabiyyeh” or, literally “muscle” as famed Arab historian Ibn Khaldun put it. The Eurasian nomadic warrior, “that ‘natural born’ combatant, who, as tough and austere as his resilient horse, emerged as the terror of the sedentary populations of Europe and the orient”. The same could be said of the warriors of Islam as they erupted out of their Arabian heartland and reached the walls of Constantinople and the frontiers of the Franks.

One powerful factor in these invasions was the horsemen’s speed. “In every contemporary account of the Mongols, great stress is laid on their speed: suddenly they were there, only to vanish and appear somewhere else even more suddenly”. The alliance between man, horse, and the arrow was likewise significant, providing the ability to kill from a distance, whilst moving, on horseback.

“Thanks to the horse, distant territories could be conquered and vast dominions could be established. The horse and its rider made the land they traversed tangible, recognizable, and able to be taken”. The horse became indispensable in terms of control of the land, subduing its inhabitants, and enabling Its exploration. In America, it brought the conquistadors, and in time, ensured that The West was won with catastrophic consequences for the native Americans with the loss their land and hunting grounds .

A Day at the Races

Our pact with the horse was much more up more than the power and the glory, the conquest and the trail-blazing. Horses’ fleetness, stamina and beauty satisfied other, more hedonistic yearnings, and today, their days on the field of battle long over, they serve to give us pleasure – and profit.

And they have always done thus – particularly in the antecedents and descendants of the Ancient Greek hippodrome (named thus for horses and the racing thereof). In the downtime between warring and raiding, hunting and horse and chariot racing attracted many a warrior’s energy and enthusiasm, and provided  less martial spectators with, vicarious thrills. We have been racing horses for as long as they have been our companions, and wagering on their speed and stamina. This passion fostered complementary endeavours in breeding, training, thieving, and gambling.

The racing carnival still exerts an atavistic, oftimes addictive spell over riders, owners and punters alike. “The spectacle of race day echoes times and indeed conflicts past, the jockeys’ bright colours, representing a return of heraldry, a way of distinguishing otherwise indiscernable participants”.

It’s there you’ll see the jockeys and they’re mounted out so stately,
The pink, the blue, the orange and green, the emblem of our nation,
When the bell was rung for starting, all the horses seemed impatient,
I thought they never stood on ground their speed was so amazing
Galway Races (Ireland, traditional)

In horse racing, nothing and no one is hunted, only the shadows of time”, Raulff notes prosaicly.

American author EC Morgan is similarly lyrical: “Time is a horse you never have to whip”,

In That Howling Infinite recently published a review of Morgan’s masterwork The Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about an old Kentucky horse-breeding family. She displays an unerring instinct for metaphor and music. A horse’s neck shudders under its rider’s hands “like a dreaming dog”. Of the racehorses, she writes: “they exploded out of the gate like doves from a cote”; and, “now the school of horses swung round the turn as if caught in a sweep net”.

Raulff explains why horse racing was indeed ‘the sport of kings: Britain emerged as the world power of thoroughbred racing under the racIng-mad Stuart Kings who transformed the sleepy village of Newmarket into the Mecca of the turf, supplanting hunting with punting as the favourite pastime of the idle rich and the indolent upper classes. When Scots King James wasn’t corralling and coaxing the best minds in the land into producing his beautiful Bible, he was both patron and participant with a keen eye for quality horse-flesh.

Teenage Daydream

Did I mention that horses can be dangerous? They are large, high, broad, heavy, and for all their tameness in the hands of a seasoned rider, they can also be excitable, unpredictable, and wild.  When you take up the reins, you literally put your life in your hands. In My Early Life , his biography of his cavalry days, Winston Churchill wrote: “No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined by owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them, unless, of course, they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good way to die”.

But danger can come in other guises.

There was probably no way a cultural scientist trained in sociology and psychology could or would avoid how in its variegated pedigree, the horse has also figured as a sexual metaphor, conjuring up thoughts erotic with images of fair maids carried away by amorous riders. Raulff’s copious images include those famous abduction scenes beloved of renaissance painters, but there are many encounters in literature, art, cinema and song that are much less violent. It is as if the rider’s skill with his mount presages his prowess in the sack. There is titillation, there is temptation, and perhaps, surrender. Picture Ross Poldark cantering broodily across the Cornish clifftop, and lifting his Demelza up onto Seamus’ back (that is indeed his name).

True you ride the finest horse I’ve ever seen,
Standing sixteen one or two with eyes wild and green,
And you ride the horse so well, hands light to the touch.
I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to.
Jimmy McCarthy, Ride On (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Ross Poldark and Seamus

Ulrich gets into his stride, so to speak, when he commits to print his daydreams of the object of many a teenage baby boomers’ longing, the androgynous, pony-tailed cow-girl. He ponders also the puzzle of pubescent girls and horses – that tom-boy world, temporary “islands in the flowing river of time”: “Somewhere between a doll and a real-life partner, the horse is the ultimate sex toy. It’s the largest, most beautiful and final plaything before the transition from home and family to a new relationship with a sexual partner”.

Arwen Evenstar

Having raised the subject of women on horseback, there no ignoring the Amazons. Legend says that they were adept horse-women. As are the heroines of the literary canon who express their subversive sexuality in equestrian interludes – Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene. Each are subjected to the author’s affectionate attention. When JRR Tolkien wanted to present a strong and wilful heroine in his ostensibly homoerotic epic, he placed Éowyn on a horse, albeit incognito. But she was the exception to JRR’s macho rule. He would never have sent elf princess Arwen Evenstar out like that. But director Peter Jackson, sensing how well it would translate to film, substituted the luminous Liv Tyler for elf lord Glorfindel to confound the Nazgul riders at the ford of Bruinen.  Here is a Carey Mulligan in glamorous array as Bathsheba:

The Unequal Bargain

There are wealth of emotions associated with horses, such as pride and admiration, a desire for power, fear and joy, compassion, and companionship, and a lust for freedom. The pony is the cowboys’ closest pal. Western star and crooner Roy Rogers described it best:

Who carries your burden, who carries your load
On tumbleweed land or a long dusty road
Who asks you no questions, who tells you no lies
That four legged friend with the two honest eyes
A four legged friend, a four legged friend
He’ll never let you down
He’s honest and faithful right up to the end
That wonderful four legged friend
Roy Rogers, A Four Legged Friend (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Over two millennia  we have lavished depthless emotion, boundless affection and unlimited treasure upon horses. But we have also been capable of great cruelty both casual and calculated,  – from willful neglect and senseless whipping to silent sacrifice as expendable extras on battlefields and motion picture sets. Raulff documents in prose and picture the violence inflicted upon our “four legged friend”, and also how pathos and sympathy for the horses’ plight evolved into a worldwide movement for the prevention of cruelty to all creatures great and small.

But  horses’ iconic place in our hearts and souls are sealed by their status as mobile metaphors of speed, of grace, of the wind in one’s hair, of wild, exhilarating, uninhibited freedom: “Run wild, run free”, like the troubled teen and the wild blue-eyed white colt in the 1969 British film of that name.

And it is with this in mind that Raulff concludes his epic ride, for it  is one of the most poignant paradoxes that the idea of freedom and movement associated with horses and being on horseback, the image of the wild mustangs in The Misfits and Banjo Paterson’s Colt from Old Regret, is juxtaposed with the reality that this “creature of the wind”, as the Arabs described him, has surrendered her freedom and free will in the service of man.

Quoting the poet Albrecht Schaefer, Raulff tells of how “the horse knows that it would like to be free…but the burden is never ending, and it is rarely allowed to run and has to stand there even when it is frightened and when it is seized by the urge to return to its nature, to flee…It is trapped in eternal captivity, always overshadowed by an inescapable will to which it resigns itself without ever realizing”.

This magnificent animal, Raulff  writes, “held in perpetual captivity, is seen by us as the epitome of all in nature that embodies nobility and magnanimity, stature, pride, and courage”.

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare


 Epilogue

The Troubled Trail – an equine parable 

When the white man came into the new world, he brought his horses. He conquered the land and broke it – its ecology, its  pre-Columban history, and its people.

In the early years, the horses of the conquistadors humbled and harried the Native Americans. In time, many horses scattered and ran wild, and on the open prairie grasslands, they prospered and multiplied. The free people of the plains captured and tamed those feral mustangs, and so mounted, were better able to travel over great distances to fresh pastures and to the wide grazing grounds of the vast herds of buffalo, a rich source of food and fashion.

The horse gave the Native Americans mobility and speed, and an economic asset of value. They began trading horses with their neighbours, and also horse stealing, whilst their mounts gave them the edge in their territorial vendettas with neighbouring tribes. They bought steel axes and knives From the white traders who ventured into their lands from the east, and also, firearms which augmented their already effective mounted archery. This gave them a tactical edge when they first came up against the mounted soldiers of the US Army.

They were a formidable foe, their speed and manoeuvrability and their skill with bow and rifle, were more than a match for the clumsy, old-school heavy cavalry, and these, indeed, were compelled to adjust their own style and tactics to match their guerrilla adversaries, taking up light weapons – carbines and revolvers – and fighting on foot as circumstances dictated.

The irony of the Battle of Little Big Horn is that George Armstrong Custer and his men rode on to a battlefield in which they were out-horsed, outgunned, and outmanoeuvred by their numerically stronger foe. But the US Army exacted a terrible revenge for Little Big Horn. The days of the Plains Indian were numbered as the army and the hunters destroyed the buffalo herds that fed and clothed the tribes, and killed their horses, ending forever their wandering ways. As Neil Young was later to sing in Pocahontas:

They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin’ on the ground
But the firesticks and the wagons come
And the night falls on the setting sun

Frederic Remington’s Braves


The Ballad of the Absent Mare

Leonard Cohen 

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood
And the roads are awash
And the bridges break up
In the panic of loss.

And there’s nothing to follow
There’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer
Gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking
His heart with their song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong

Did he dream, was it she
Who went galloping past
And bent down the fern
Broke open the grass
And printed the mud with
The iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet
When he was the lord

And although she goes grazing
A minute away
He tracks her all night
He tracks her all day
Oh blind to her presence
Except to compare
His injury here
With her punishment there

Then at home on a branch
In the highest tree
A songbird sings out
So suddenly
Ah the sun is warm
And the soft winds ride
On the willow trees
By the river side

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky

And she comes to his hand
But she’s not really tame
She longs to be lost
He longs for the same
And she’ll bolt and she’ll plunge
Through the first open pass
To roll and to feed
In the sweet mountain grass

Or she’ll make a break
For the high plateau
Where there’s nothing above
And there’s nothing below
And it’s time for the burden
It’s time for the whip
Will she walk through the flame
Can he shoot from the hip

So he binds himself
To the galloping mare
And she binds herself
To the rider there
And there is no space
But there’s left and right
And there is no time
But there’s day and night

And he leans on her neck
And he whispers low
“Whither thou goest
I will go”
And they turn as one
And they head for the plain
No need for the whip
Ah, no need for the rein

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair

But my darling says
“Leonard, just let it go by
That old silhouette
On the great western sky”
So I pick out a tune
And they move right along
And they’re gone like the smoke
And they’re gone like this song

 

Grosvenor Square, London 1968

Poll Tax Riots, London 1990

Grosvenor Square 1968

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The Children of the Revolution

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows,
all the brave young men
they’re waiting now to see a signal
which some killer will be lighting for pay.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
you whom I cannot betray.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

The Syrian civil war broke lose in March 2011, two months after the events in Tahrir Square, and one month after the fall of Mubarak.

Amidst the tumult and media hype of the Arab Spring, it was as if the distant drums had suddenly hit the volume switch. In the dusty border town  of Dara’a, just north of Jordan, local kids wrote on a wall: “The people want the regime to fall”. The words had been repeated from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain. It was the cry of the revolution. The local governor decided to come down hard. The young people, all under 17, were thrown in jail. The punishment stunned the town, and suddenly, Syria, progressive, diverse, proud, beautiful, but authoritarian Syria greeted the misnamed Arab Spring.

The young men’s families and friends weren’t having any of it. It is said that in broad daylight, dozens of young men pelted a poster of a smiling President Bashar Assad; a statue of the Bashar’s  late father and predecessor Hafiz Assad was demolished; and official buildings, including the HQ of ruling Ba’ath Party’ and the governor’s office, were destroyed. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chanted in shaky mobile-phone footage.

Over that weekend, security forces opened fire on marchers. This was the regime’s well tried negotiating technique. But Assad responded immediately, sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead. The governor was sacked, and the boys released.

So far, so “I mentioned the war but I think I got away with it” But the die had been cast. The demonstrators made demands the regime was unwilling or unable to meet. And the rest is tragedy.

I am not about to retell the story of the Syrian revolution. It is still being written, and as yet, there is no ending. Only more blood. As I write, well over three hundred thousand souls have perished (soon, it will overtake the butchers bill of the Spanish and American Civil Wars), and tens of thousands have disappeared into prisons and oubliez. Millions have been displaced within the country; millions have sought shelter in neighbouring countries; and at least eight hundred thousand have taken to the roads of Central Europe.

But I will quixotically hark back to just before events reached the fork in the road, to when there was an outside chance that Syria could avoid the chaos and carnage that was besetting other children of an Arab Spring that was turning into a bitter winter.

Back to the days before The Fall when pundits were asking whether Bashar would be Hammersmith Man, reflecting his former career as a successful ophthalmologist in London, and his glamorous, cosmopolitan, former merchant banker wife, or Hama Man, recalling his father’s crackdown on an Islamist rising in Hama in 1982, in which uncounted tens of thousand are believed to have perished. We discovered very soon whom he was destined to become.

To the days before The Fall, before the revolution became weaponized and islamized, and demonstrators danced together in the streets, earning the intifada the short lived sobriquet ‘the Dabke Revolution’, named for the circle folk dance popular throughout the Middle East and the Balkans.

image

The days before the slaughters began. First by the forces of regime, led by Bashar’s brutal brother Maher and his notorious Fourth Armoured Division. Then by the thuggish Alawi militia – the Shabiha, or “ghosts” or “shadows”, a double-edged meaning alluding to their underworld origin and methods, and also to the fact that they literally turned people into ghosts. And then, in reciprocal ferocity, by opposition militias that grew and proliferated, fought and died, divided, and divided again, and embraced a jihadi creed, sowing the dragon’s teeth that evolved into Jabhat an Nusra and Da’esh.

The 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. When the picture that is the featured image of this blog was first published in Al Jazeera in early 2011, I was both enchanted and inspired. I immediately started using it, with acknowledgements, in my publications and postings. When more and more of these images appeared, I used them too. But I was becoming a tad suspicious. The lasses looked too clean, too cute, and indeed, many actually looked alike. The photographers’ daughters, perhaps, or those of friends. Were they for-real or where they posed? I guess I will never find out.

Needlessly to say, as the rebellion morphed into harrowing civil war, such images disappeared, and in their place, we saw destruction and carnage, and the broken bodies of little girls and boys slain by bomb and bullet, hardship and hunger. Now, as families were forced to abandon their homes and make their way to the borders, and thence, into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and finally, into Europe, we see children staggering on dusty roads, carried piggy back by exhausted fathers, pushed in strollers, scorched by the sun, soaked by the rain, and frozen by the snow. And we see little Aylan on his golden beach, a Kurdish toddler now a symbol of all the drowned babies of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

Photogenic children no more. Just victims, survivors, lost souls.

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.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture…
you whom I cannot betray.

See also, Bombs and Babies

Children of the Revolution

On a personal note, we were last in Syria in March 2009, and whilst visiting the famed Roman amphitheater at Bosra, just northeast of Dera’a, we had the pleasure of the company of a crowd of Syrian school children. They treated us like visiting celebrities and sang us a song of welcome. It is saddening to look at these pictures now, and wonder where these children are now.

Bosra Bosra 2

 

Bosra

Back In The Day

I was in love with Dusty Springfield. In the drear tea-time of my adolescent soul, I worshiped her truly, madly, deeply. Tiny girl, big hair, panda eyes, hands moving like a beckoning siren. I just had to hear “da da da da da da” and then “I don’t know what it is that makes me love you so…” and I was hers for the next two and a half minutes. Until…

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

dusty

I bought a guitar. A clunky, eastern European thing. I tried ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but what came out was unrecognisable. My dad said he’d break it over my head. One day, that tipping point was reached. It sounded indeed like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, or something similar. I was away, and the rest, as they say, was hearsay.

Young Bob

On a  high of hope and hype, so it all began. With a heritage of Irish rebel songs and folksongs, and the ‘sixties folkie canon (but never, ever ‘Streets of London’). Sea shanties, a capella Watersons, Sydney Carter’s faith-anchored chants, ‘The Lord of the Dance’ being the most beloved (a song now and forever burdened with the curse of Michael Flatley). Across the pond, young Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary decanted fine old wine into new bottles, and during the Easter CND march in London in 1966, billeted in an old cinema in Southall, a first public ‘performance’ with Ewan MacColl’s “Freeborn Man of the Traveling People”. The journey had begun, and, as the father of America poetry had crooned, “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose”.

And it led beside strange waters. “Marc Bolan warbled “My people were fair, and had sky in their hair, but now they’re content to wear crowns stars on their brows“. But didn’t they all in the days when Tolkien was king, and elves and ents walked amongst us. We thoroughly understood and empathized. And we marveled at the Scottish bard who could pen ‘The Minotaur’s Song and ‘Job’s Tears‘, and then run off with Old Father Hubbard. Then Roy Harper, the high priest of Anglo angst, sang ‘McGoohan’s Blues’, a twenty minute digression from the concept if not the plot of an iconic if indecipherable television series. “The Prisoner is taking his shoes off to walk in the rain”.

Unicorn(Album)

‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen’ played in every wannabe poet’s bedsit. “Come over to the window, my little darlin’. I’d like to try and read your palm“. What a pick-up line, so fitting for the generous times that were the ‘sixties. Others might sigh over the agonies of ‘The Stranger Song’, and ‘The Stories of the Street’. But I preferred the drollery of “Sometimes I see her undressing for me; she’s the sweet, fragrant lady love meant her to be“. And the wondrous punch-line of ‘Chelsea Hotel #2‘, that gorgeous tribute to the peerless Janis: not what happened on the unmade bed, but “we are ugly, but we have the music”. Bob segued from folk to rock, carrying with him many if not all of acolytes on the joker man’s journey from “Oxford Town” to “Desolation Row”. To this day, people ponder the meaning of Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule”‘ and marvel at “The ghosts of electricity howl in the bones of her face“.

HangmansBeautifulDaughter

Read on in the full Introduction to In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume Five

© Paul Hemphill 2013.  All rights reserved.

The Grand Old New Imperial Hotel

As I relate in my earlier post, ‘Amazing Grace – There’s Magic In The Air : “from the Jaffa Gate, we look out from our balcony in the Imperial Hotel, a late 19th Century mix of trash and treasure, five-star history, and ten-star views”.

Planning our recent visit to Jerusalem (we were there in May 2014, just two months before the recent events), I wanted to book a hotel that was both historical and conveniently close to The Old City. I also fancied the idea of staying in a pilgrim hotel so we could witness at first hand the excited comings and goings of the faithful (see my post ‘Messianic Carpet Rides‘). The New Imperial Hotel, just inside the Jaffa Gate, was just the ticket. And we struck solid gold! Stepping down from the Nesher bus on the road outside the famed Walls of Jerusalem, we looked up towards the Jaffa Gate and there, right above us was the imposing facade of the New Imperial Hotel

The Jaffa Gate, in the western wall of the Old City (not to be confused with the ‘Western Wall’ or ‘Kotel’ so revered of Judaism), has traditionally been one of the busiest entrances to Jerusalem. Its Arabic name is Bab al Khalil (Gate of the Friend) a reference to Abraham, forefather of both Arabs and Jews. The wall bears the inscription in Arabic: “there is no god but Allah, and Abraham is the friend of Allah”. Topographically the Gate provided the easiest access, so it’s approaches provided a most convenient camping ground for the many invaders who sought to conquer the city. These included Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Frankish Crusaders, Turks, and finally, the British. Caliph Omar Ibn al Khatab entered through this gate after Jerusalem’s capture by the Muslims in 638AD. As did General Allenby, commander of the British forces which captured Jerusalem in December 1917.

Just inside the wall, there were fields of winter wheat until the late nineteenth century; and in summertime, the empty fields became dumping grounds for carcasses of donkeys, camels and horses. The Turkish authorities moved this ‘cemetery’ outside the wall, and what was forever the main thoroughfare, became the location for important commercial institutions, including the Banco de Roma, the Anglo-Palestine Bank, and the German bank of Johannes Frutiger, the Austrian Post Office, The Thomas Cook Tourism and Travel Company, and the studios of a number of Jerusalem’s famous photographers. And also, several hotels catering for the growing tourist industry, including the Mediterranean Hotel (now called The Petra), and in 1884, the Grand New Hotel, built on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. According to the Thomas Cook Tourist Handbook in 1876, the Mediterranean was “the best in Jerusalem”. Travelers were however wont to damn the Med with faint praise, and soon began to write about the really new, really ‘grand’ hotel with great facilities, round arched windows, high roof pedestals topped by Grecian urns, imposing entrance staircase, and balconies looking right out over Omar Ibn al Khatab Square. See the pictures below from the end of the 19th Century,  showing the square in all variety of citizenry and costume.

Omperial 4 Imperial 2

The place comes with a history. During construction, builders uncovered what was believed to be the Pool of a Bathsheba. It was said that Uriah’s wife was bathing thereon when spied upon by a randy King David. David subsequently sent Uriah off on a suicide mission to clear the way for his own passions. The historical record is confused here. Leonard Cohen and the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme apparently got it wrong. They both placed her up on the roof. The Bible says he saw her from the roof.

 Imperial 5

Anyhow, there is still an ancient cistern beneath the hotel. And also, part of the second wall. There are Roman tiles signifying the HQ the Roman Tenth Legion, and part a column erected by the legion, bearing a votive inscription honouring Emperor Augustus’ Legate, Marcus Julius Maximus. It stands there today as a pedestal for a street lamp, in the mews near the hotel front door and right in from of Versavee Restaurant and Bar, where the writer and his companions ate good Jerusalem fare and downed Israeli wine and Taybeh Palestinian beer.

Roman Colomn outside the New Imperial Hotel

Roman Column outside the New Imperial Hotel

Had the hotel been there in Biblical times, what events we might have witnessed from our balcony. King Herod, the ostensibly psychotic master builder of Bible infamy dwelt opposite as he planned his Second Temple (Herod might have murdered most of his nearest and dearest, but he was fitted up for the massacre of the innocents!). So did Pontius Pilate. If one accepts the narrative of Simon Sebag-Montefiore,  in his Jerusaelm : The Biography, we could also have watched the last journey of Jesus of Nazareth. It was but a short distance from the Citadel where he was condemned and Golgotha where he died: cross the square, turn right at the New Imperial, left just past the Med, and straight on to the Hill of the Skull (where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands). The present Via Dolorosa runs from the site of the Antonine Fortress, on the northern edge of the Haram ash Sharif, to The Church, its course set by custom and customers from Byzantine days. But, the wrong side of town!

I digress…From rom our hypothetical balcony, we could watch the comings and goings of the conquerors: the entry of the Roman Titus’ legions; Omar Ibn Al Khatab entering al Quds on foot; the arrival of the First Crusade at the Gates of Jerusalem; the exit of the crusader garrison and the Christian inhabitants when the city fell to Salahuddin (portrayed in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven).  And thence, Mamlouks, Seljuks, and Ottomans. The last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, stayed at the hotel on his visit to the Holy Land in 1898. His bust still sits in the entrance hall. This is when The Grand became the New Imperial! Kaiser Bill came in style. No walking for him. The wall between the Jaffa Gate and citadel was torn down and its moat filled in on orders from Sultan Abdel Hamid II to enable the Kaiser and his wife and their huge entourage (looked after in grand style by Thomas Cook Tourism & Travel) to motor into the Old City (again, read Sebag-Montefiore’s  amusing account). And twenty years later, General Allenby and his British Army marched through the gate. The good general entered on foot just like old Omar. And it is said that he made his proclamation of the liberation of Jerusalem from one of those balconies (probably the big one in the centre, which now serves the office of the present proprietor Walid Dajani). He spoke of how the Holy City had now been freed from the Turkish yoke, and that, safe in the bosom of His Majesty’s forces, the Palestinians, in all their diversity, Jews, Christians and Muslims, would enter a new era of health, wealth and happiness. If he was aware of the nefarious dealings of Messrs Sykes and Picot, and the arrangement made by Lloyd George and Chaim Weizmann, he did not let on. He left the best news for the politicians to reveal a while later, and for the world to agonize over ever since.

So we enter the Twentieth Century, with its momentous political upheavals, the hotel having several changes of management but remaining largely unchanged, with its balconies, and its grand entry staircase. Walid Dajani’s father, Mohammed, took a “protected” tenancy” of the hotel from the Greek Orthodox Church in 1949, In the 1950s and 1960s, the hotel housed a small cinema, and its elegant ballroom was a favourite Palestinian wedding venue. It was damaged during the 1948 war, and during the 1967 Six-Day War, it was used as a base by Israeli troops, then returned to the Dajani family, the tenants of the property. It still owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, a status that ten years ago gave rise to a curious controversy related in the newspaper article linked below. And thence to the present, with Sayyid Dajani greeting us like long-lost relatives, “ahlan wa sahlan bil Quds”.

© Paul Hemphill 2014.  All rights reserved

Imperial 7

https://howlinginfinite.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/amazing-grace-theres-magic-in-the-air   http://www.iaa-conservation.org.il/Projects_Item_eng.asp?subject_id=10&site_id=3&id=112  http://www.academia.edu/3677136/The_Mediterranean_Hotel_in_19th_Century_Jerusalem                                                     http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-man-who-sold-jerusalem-6146508.html

 Imperial 1