Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.
The words of America’s national bard came to me as I read for the first time this very morning Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, written by Bob Dylan in honour of his idol Woody Guthrie, who at the time was dying from Huntington’s disease.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, wrote Walt Whitman, setting song lines for a young nation, and what was seen at the time as its promise and its bold, independent identity. He reflected his country’s growing up and coming of age to his own personal awakening and awareness, in his seeing and being enlightened. Dylan was to become the young voice of an older but not wiser nation that seemed very much like it was not busy being born, but, rather, under the weight of its myriad contradictions – of the old and the new, the youth and their elders, of war and peace, black and white. Dylan heard the his country’s song in the turbulent, transformed and transforming sixties declaiming that he’d know my song well before I start singing.
In 1855, when Whitman published his first incarnation of Leaves of Grass, no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of this self- proclaimed “American”. And the same could be said of the young Bob Dylan when he broke out from the pack that had gathered in the folk cafés and clubs of New York City in the early years of the nineteen sixties, an enigmatic poetic figure whose songs spotlighted the chaos and division that have long defined what it meant to be an American. It is no wonder that in later years, Dylan would acknowledge his debt to Whitman in I Contain Multitudes – unoriginal and some would argue, pretentious, but then Bob has always borrowed, be it from the Anthology of American Folk Music, the British folk tradition, the avant guard poets of Europe, and the great books of the western literary canon.
Dylan read his poem for Woody aloud once only, reciting it at New York City’s Town Hall on April 12th 1963.
Introducing the poem, he told the audience he’d been asked to “write something about Woody … what does Woody Guthrie mean to you in twenty-five words,” for an upcoming book on the icon left wing singer-songwriter. He explained that he “couldn’t do it – I wrote out five pages, and, I have it here, have it here by accident, actually.” What followed was not a simple eulogy, but a lengthy, 1705 word stream of consciousness treatise on the importance of hope.
Dylan sets the scene by describing the stresses and strains of everyday life and challenging choices we have to make as we navigate it. He describes how these can cause us to feel alone, lost, and without direction. He then explains the need for hope and how we need something to give our lives meaning. He concludes by suggesting that, for him, Woody Guthrie is as much a source of hope and beauty in the world as God or religion.
Reading it for the first time ever this morning, I could hear words, lines and themes from songs that were yet to be written, songs that have followed me down these past sixty years, from those early albums of anger and introspection, protest and perception, through to My Rough And Rowdy Ways.
The recitation was recorded, but was not officially released until 1991, on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991, after circulating on bootleg releases for years. The poem is published in full below. The images in the video that follows it are clichéd and distracting; just shut your eyes and listen to the words. I prefer just reading and recalling all those uncounted ballads, songs and snatches and the improbable ‘echoes’ of things to come. I have added a gallery of favourite pictures of the man himself. Enjoy.
The prophet’s lantern is out And gone the boundary stone Cold the heart and cold the stove Ice condenses on the bone Winter completes an age
WH Auden, For the Time Being – a Christmas Oratorio, 1941
I considered using a line from the above as the title of this retrospective of 2022. It was written during 1941 and 1942, though published in 1947, when the poet was in self-exile in the United States and viewing the war in Europe from afar – although the long poem from which it has been extracted does not in itself reflect such pessimism. A more fitting title could be taken from another long poem that was published in another (very) long poem published in 1947 – Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and of foreboding for the impending armed peace that we now look back on as the Cold War, with its oft-repeated mantra: “many have perished, and more most surely will”.
The year just gone was indeed a gloomy one, meriting a dismal heading. There are few indications of where it might take us in ‘23 and beyond, and my crystal ball is broken. Pundits reached for convenient comparisons. Some propounded that it was like the 1930s all over again when Europe constantly teetered on the brink of war. Others recalled 1989 with the fall of the aneroid Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, beware of false analogies. In 2022, things were more confused. The tides of history have often resembled swirling cross-currents.
Things, of course, might have been worse. There are, as I’ve noted in successive posts on my own Facebook page, many qualified “reasons to be cheerful”. The year could have ended with Ukraine under Russian control. An emboldened China might have been encouraged to launch an assault on Taiwan. A red wave in the midterms would have buoyed Trump. And here in Australia, Scott Morrison might have secured another “miracle” election victory. The West could have retreated on all fronts.
Instead, therefore, I have selected a title that hedges its bets, because, to paraphrase the old Chinese adage, and the title of an earlier retrospective, we certainly live in interesting times and in 2023, and a lot of energy will be spent endeavouring to make sense of them – or, to borrow from Bob:
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn that he not busy being born
Is busy dying
The year in review
Christine McVie, longtime and founder member of Fleetwood Mac departed the planet on 30th November this year. And contemplating this year’s posts in In That Howling Infinite, I could not help thinking about one her most famous songs. I recalled that it featured on newsreels of the revolution that ousted the Shah of Iran in 1979.
Why not think about times to come?
And not about the things that you’ve done
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here
It’ll be better than before
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone
The song seemed quite apposite as the soundtrack of a revolution that had overthrown one of America’s many friendly autocrats. At the time, no one could predict what would happen, but, as with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was a time optimistic expectation. And yet its shock waves have reverberated and ricocheted in ways unimagined at the time.
As 2022 ends, with blood flowing on the streets of Iran and in the mullahs’s torture cells as young people rise up against a hypocritically brutal theocratic tyranny, we see again and again how that which goes around comes around.
Women, Freedom, Life
If the malign hand of history has literally reached out and gripped Iran’s young women and girls by their hair, it has also endeavoured to strangle the thousand year old Ukrainian nation in the name of an atavistic irredentism. Russian troops invaded the Ukraineon February 24, causing what has since become the largest conflict in Europe since World War II. Out if the spotlight of the world’s easily distracted attention. intractable conflicts lumbered mercilessly on – in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, the Congo and many other “far away places with strange sounding names”.
On the far side of the world, the USA continued to struggle with the reverberations of January 6th 2021. Donald Trump, like Dracula, has not gone away, and whilst his 2024 presidential run is looking increasingly shaky, he continues to poison the atmosphere like radioactive dust. The unfortunate folk of the United Kingdom endured three prime ministers during the year, including the shortest ever in the history of the office, and after two years of pandemic, are facing a bleak economic winter as well as a frigid actual one.
In Australia, it was the year of the teal – at least according to those who study the evolution of language, the year we lost a queen, our long-serving foreign head of state, and a king of spin, the down-fallen and disgraced Scott Morrison. And a sodden La Nina saw incessant rain drown large swathes of eastern Australia, visiting misery on thousands. COVID-19 mutated, the Omicron variant surging from beginning of the year, ensuring no end to the pandemic – today, it seems like everyone we know has had it, including ourselves (and we were soooo careful for a full two years!). As restrictions were cautiously lifted, we as a nation are learning to live with it.
Politically, it’s been a grand year for the Australian Labor Party. With our stunning Federal election win in May and in Victoria in November, the Albanese government’s star is on the ascendant and it’s legislative record in six months has out run nine years of Tory stagnation on climate, integrity and equality – a neglect that saw the rise of a new political force in the shape of a proto-party, the aforementioned “teal”, named for the colour of the candidates’ tee shirts. The opposition has been reduced to a bickering and carping crew, and whilst Labor continues to ride high in the polls, the Coalition bounces along the bottom of the pond.
Lismore, northern NSW, March 2023
Flooded house aflame, Lismore March 2022
Christine McVie was just one of many music icons who checked out this past year. The coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn, crooned her last, as did rock ‘n roll bad boy Jerry Lee Lewis and Ronnie “the Hawk” Hawkins, who gave the boys in The Band their big break. Rock heavyweight (literally) Meatloaf took off like his bat out of hell and keyboard evangelist Vangelis boarded his chariot of fire.
One could argue that the most significant departure was that of Britain’s longest serving monarch. Queen Elizabeth II had been on the throne for almost all of my life, as has the now King Charles III who was born four months before me, and of whom, as a nipper, I was jealous. I recall how I watched the queen’s coronation on a tiny black and white television in the crowded and smokey parlour of the boarding house run by a friend of our family. By happenstance, Netflix served up two over the top regal sagas to binge on: the penultimate season of The Crown, which whilst entertaining, was a disappointment in comparison with earlier seasons, and Harry and Meghan which was whilst excruciatingly cringe-worthy, was nevertheless addictive viewing. The passing of Her Maj reminded me that in my lifetime, I have witnessed three monarchs and eighteen British prime ministers (and incidentally, eighteen Australian prime ministers). The public outpouring of grief for the Queen’s ascent to the choir invisible was unprecedented – the picture below demonstrates what the Poms do best …
The Queue along the Thames to pay respect to Her Maj
There were farewells much closer to home. My mediation colleague, aspiring author and friend John Rosley, and Beau Tindall, the son of my oldest Bellingen friend Warren, took off on the same day in May. Peter Setterington, my oldest friend in England – we first met in 1972 – died suddenly in London in March, and our friend and forest neighbour, the world-famous war photographer Tim Page, in August, after a short but nasty illness. Pete is memorialized in When an Old Cricketer Leave His Crease whilst Journey’s end – Tim Page’s wild ride,is an adaptation of the eulogy I gave for Tim in September, one of many on that sunny afternoon day in Fernmount. It is a coda toTim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam journey, a story we published a year ago.
Tim Page by Joanne Booker
What we wrote in 2022
The ongoing Ukraine War has dominated our perception of 2022, from the morning (Australian time) we watched it begin on CNN as the first Russian missiles struck Kyiv, to the aerial assault on infrastructure that has left Ukrainians sheltering through a cold, dark winter. Two posts in In That Howling Infinite examinedthe historical origins of the conflict: Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism and The Roots and Fruits of Putin’s Irridentism. “Because of …” Iran’s voice of freedom looks at the song that has become the rising’s anthem. None can predict the outcome – whether it will be a doomed intifada, the Arabic word that literally means a shaking off – historically of oppression – and figuratively, a rising up, like that in Ireland in 1798 and 1916, Warsaw in 1943 and 1945, and Hungary in 1956, or an Inqilab, another Arabic word meaning literally change or transformation, overturning or revolution.
More distant history featured in Menzie’s Excellent Suez Adventure, the story of the Suezcrisis of 1956 that historians argue augured the end of the British imperium, and the role played therein by longtime Australian prime minister Sir Robert Menzies. Johnny Clegg and the Washing of the Spears is a tribute to the late South African singer, dancer and songwriter, and a brief history of the war that destroyed the great Zulu nation, setting the scene for the modern history of South Africa. And journeying further back in time to sixteenth century Ireland, there is O’Donnell Abú – the Red Earl and history in a song, a discussion of the origins of a famous and favorite rebel song.
We cannot pass a year without something literary. We celebrated the centenary of three iconic literary classics in The year that changed literature, and with the release of TheRings of Power, the controversial prequel to The Lord of the Rings, we published a retrospective on the influence of JRR Tolkien. One ring to rule us all – does Tolkien matter? – a personal perspective with an opinion piece by English historian Dominic Sandbrook, an informative and entertaining chronicler of postwar British history and society which featured, in Unherd, an online e-zine that became a “must read” in 2022. A Son Goes To War – the grief of Rudyard Kipling recalls the death in battle on the Western Front in 1917 of the poet’s only son, it’s influence upon his subsequent work, whilst Muzaffar al Nawab, poet of revolutions and sorrowis an obituary for another poet, who seen a lifetime speaking truth to power.
And that was that for what was in so man ways a sad year. Meanwhile, In That Howling Infinite already has several works in progress, including a review of historian Anthony Beevor’s Russia – Revolution and Civil War, what King Herod really thought about the birth of baby Jesus, and the story of a famous and favourite British army marching song.
These were our children who died for our lands: they were dear in our sight.
We have only the memory left of their home-treasured sayings and laughter.
The price of our loss shall be paid to our hands, not another’s hereafter.
Neither the Alien nor Priest shall decide on it. That is our right.
But who shall return us the children?
In an excellent article commissioned by Vanity Fair in 1997, and republished below, the late author and celebrated contrarian Christopher Hitchens told a poignant story of the British poet Rudyard Kipling and the death in battle of his son John in France in 1915.
He prefaced his tale with a scene-setting prelude:
“A ghost is something that is dead but won’t lie down. Those who were slaughtered between 1914 and 1918 are still in our midst to an astonishing degree. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in July 1916, the British alone posted more killed and wounded than appear on the whole of the Vietnam memorial. In the Battle of Verdun, which began the preceding February, 675,000 lives were lost. Between them, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Turkey, and Russia sacrificed at least 10 million soldiers. And this is to say nothing of civilian losses. Out of the resulting chaos and misery came the avenging forces of Fascism and Stalinism”.
Hitchens referred to many of Kipling’s poems in his article, particularly those relating to the First World War, the jingoistic ones that greeted, indeed welcomed the beginning of hostilities, and the melancholy ones that marked their end, reflecting his personal loss and also that of tens of thousands of other parents and partners and siblings.
He does not mention however, Kipling’s post war short story, The Gardener, which directly addresses the grief and the loss felt by so many. John Kipling’s body was never found, but the poet and his wife made fruitless inquiries as to his fate and his whereabouts and, as patrons of the War Graves Commission, made many visits to the military cemeteries of Flanders.
British War Cemetery in Flanders
The Gardener tells the tale of a woman’s search for a loved one who fell. It is told from the woman’s point of view. Is the missing solder her her nephew or or son? Kipling is deliberately ambiguous, reflecting perhaps the morality of his times. It is up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusion. The ending is likewise opaque. Unlike the author, she does indeed find her lost soldier, but only with the the help of a kind, anonymous stranger. Again it is for the reader to judge – although Kipling himself left little room for ambiguity. The story ends in some editions with an asterisk in the text that links to a line from the Bible, John 20:15: “Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, why weepest thou; whom seekest thou?’ She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, ‘Sir, if thou has borne him hence, tell me where thou has laid him.’”
The Gardener is is republished below, following Hitchens’ article.
In 1992 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission announced that it had identified an Irish Guards lieutenant’s body in St Mary’s Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) near Loos as that of John Kipling. Seven years later authors Tonie and Valmai Holt published a book My Boy Jack, named for Kipling’s poem, which disputed that the body in St Mary’s ADS is that of John Kipling. They based their case on two separate arguments: John Kipling was a 2nd lieutenant not a lieutenant when he died, and his body was found six kilometres away from where he fell. My Boy Jack is the story of a father in pursuit oh his son whose body was never found. Although Kipling’s poem, quoted by Hitchens in his piece, was a tribute to a 16 year old sailor, Jack Cornwell, who perished at his post during the Battle of Jutland in 1915, becoming the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, the book and the play and film adapted from it tell the story of Kipling and his son.
For all their money, fame and connections, the Kiplings were just another one of the 415,325 British and Irish families whose sons were killed during the first World War and were left with no place to grieve. It was Kipling who gave us the headstone words “known unto God”.
“It’s hard to talk about a Kipling story without talking about Kipling, a shameless apologist for English imperialism who coined the phrase “the white man’s burden” and who was the first person to refer to the Germans as Huns. He was a man who glorified war without ever having fought in one—and that’s where you get into the intense mix of grief and shame that Kipling surely brought to this story. Like so many young men at the time, Kipling’s son John was frantic to get into the war, but was at first turned down for duty because of weak eyes. His father, a person of almost unimaginable influence for a writer—the youngest Nobel prize winner, a darling of the English military and the British aristocracy—intervened, greasing the wheels and getting his son into the war, with the result that the younger Kipling was killed almost instantly.
When all hope of finding his son alive or dead was at last abandoned, Kipling, in his famous “Epitaphs of the War,” wrote: “If any question why we died / tell them, because our fathers lied.” You sense this same self-implication in “The Gardener.” After all, why were those boys clamoring to go over and get themselves blown up like that? Because a culture had been created that glorified that military sacrifice, and encouraged you to feel that your life was incomplete if you hadn’t fought for your country. Millions of English boys like John Kipling (and like the fictional Michael) were raised in this atmosphere of almost rabid patriotism, an atmosphere that Rudyard Kipling had not only exploited in his writing but also helped to create. And when war was declared, some six million Englishmen, many of them little more than boys, were put to battle; nearly one million were killed, and still more were grievously injured.
The Gardener gets to the grief and futility Kipling must have felt by the end of it all.
In Kipling’s case, he never found that grave. But in Helen’s case, Jesus leads her right to it. Was Kipling himself looking for an expiation of the shame he felt for his share of the responsibility for the loss of his son in such a useless and meaningless way—and all the other hundreds of thousands of wartime deaths? It could be said that all armed conflicts are a ludicrous and shameful waste of lives, but World War I has a special place in the history of futility—a war without clear purpose, a war whose resolution would ultimately make the world a far worse place. What moves me in “The Gardener” is the way Kipling so artfully seeks relief from his own complicity in the myths that led to war
On his 18th birthday, Michael enlists in the British Army, and is slaughtered shortly after, his body covered over by debris and unable to be located. Much, much later Michael’s body is discovered and finally Helen is able to travel to his grave in a military cemetery in France to pay her last respects. The story, which is not very long, moves with the efficiency of a fable—years go by in a half sentence. The tone is almost matter-of-fact, but we are being set up by a master craftsman for the story’s devastating climactic scene. Helen wanders through a vast expanse of graves, all of them marked with a number, not a name, each individual soldier located only through a painstaking process of record-keeping. (It was Kipling who lifted the phrase “known unto God,” out of the Bible and into the cemeteries and the monuments for unknown soldiers.) Then, while searching the endless sea of crosses, helpless, Helen comes upon a gardener. Kipling describes the exchange this way:
[The gardener] rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: “Who are you looking for?”
“Lieutenant Michael Turrell—my nephew,” said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
“Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”
“The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
“Come with me”, he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”
The story ends in some editions with an asterisk in the text that links to a line from the Bible, John 20:15: “Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, why weepest thou; whom seekest thou?’ She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, ‘Sir, if thou has borne him hence, tell me where thou has laid him.’”
Recently, amid the legions of anonymous W.W.I grave sites that cover northern France, the body of Rudyard Kipling’s son, John, was identified, almost 80 years after he died in the Battle of Loos. His tragic story explains the guilt and rage that consumed his father, England’s immortal Bard of Empire
Fin de Siècle
In Regeneration, the opening book of Pat Barker’s “Ghost Road” trilogy, about the First World War, one of the characters summons the waking nightmare of the trenches: “I was going up with the rations one night and I saw the limbers against the skyline, and the flares going up. What you see every night. Only I seemed to be seeing it from the future. A hundred years from now they’ll still be ploughing up skulls. And I seemed to be in that time and looking back. I think I saw our ghosts.”
A ghost is something that is dead but won’t lie down. Those who were slaughtered between 1914 and 1918 are still in our midst to an astonishing degree. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in July 1916, the British alone posted more killed and wounded than appear on the whole of the Vietnam memorial. In the Battle of Verdun, which began the preceding February, 675,000 lives were lost. Between them, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Turkey, and Russia sacrificed at least 10 million soldiers. And this is to say nothing of civilian losses. Out of the resulting chaos and misery came the avenging forces of Fascism and Stalinism.
One reason for the enduring and persistent influence of the Great War (as they had to call it at the time, not knowing that it would lead to a second and even worse one) is that it shaped the literature of the Anglo-American world. Think of the titles that remain on the shelves: Good-Bye to All That, by Robert Graves, Anthem for Doomed Youth, by Wilfred Owen. The poetry of Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon. Translations from German and French, such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Under Fire, by Henri Barbusse. By enlisting in the Great War, a whole generation of Americans, including William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, e. e. cummings, and John Dos Passos, made the leap from small-town U.S.A. to 20th-century modernism. Loss of moral virginity and innocence is the burden of Sebastian Faulks’s elegiac novel, Birdsong, written in this decade, but as full of pain and poetry as if composed in his grandfather’s time. We owe the term “shell shock” to this period, and it sometimes feels as if the shock has never worn off.
I’ve been passing much of my time, over the past year or so, in trying to raise just one of these ghosts. On September 27, 1915, during the Battle of Loos, a young lieutenant of the Irish Guards was posted “wounded and missing.” His name was John Kipling, and he was the only son of the great Bard of Empire, Rudyard Kipling. Kipling never goes out of print, because he not only captured the spirit of imperialism and the white man’s burden but also wrote imperishable stories and poems—many of them to the boy John—about the magic and lore of childhood. And on that shell-shocked September day, the creator of Mowgli and Kim had to face the fact that he had sacrificed one of his great loves—his son, whom he called his “man-child”—to another of his great loves: the British Empire. You can trace the influence of this tragedy through almost every line that he subsequently wrote.
Go to the small towns of northern France today if you want to discover that the words “haunted landscape” are no cliche. Around the city of Arras, scattered along any road that you may take, are cemeteries. Kipling called them “silent cities.” (I came across an article in a French tourist magazine that recommended Arras to those who wished to pursue “de tourisme de necropole”—mass-grave tourism. Indeed, there isn’t much else to see.) This used to be the coal-bearing region of France, and great slag heaps and abandoned mine works add an additional layer of melancholy to the scenery. But otherwise it’s graveyards, graveyards all the way. Some of them are huge and orderly, with seemingly endless ranks and files of white markers stretching away in regimental patterns. But many are small and isolated, off in the middle of fields where French farmers have learned to plow around them. These represent heaps of bodies that simply couldn’t be moved and were interred where they lay. Huge land grants have been made by the government and people of France, in perpetuity, to Britain and Canada and India and the United States, just to consecrate the fallen.
His is one of the few parts of France where the locals are patient with Anglo-Saxon visitors trying to ask directions in French. And those French plowmen know what to do when, as so often happens, they turn up a mass of barbed wire or a batch of shells and mortars or a skeleton. (“A hundred years from now they’ll still be ploughing up skulls.”) They call the police, who alert the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. And then the guesswork can begin. There’s a good deal of latitude. Of the 531,000 or so British Empire dead whose remains have been fertilizing the region for most of the century, about 212,000 are still unidentified.
“Every now and then we have a bit of luck,” I was told by Peter Rolland of the commission, which runs a large and quiet office just outside Arras and which is charged with keeping all the graves clean. “Last year we dug up 12 corpses. Most of their dog tags and uniforms were eroded or decayed hopelessly. But we did manage to identify one Australian chap called Sergeant J. J. White. We even found his daughter, who was two years old when he was killed, and she came over for the funeral.”
And a few years ago, almost eight decades after he went missing, they found Kipling’s son, John. His body had lain in no-man’sland for three years and then been hastily shoveled into an unmarked grave. Kipling and his wife made several desperate visits to the area in the hope of identifying him, touring battlefield after battlefield. But this was in the days before proper dental records and DNA, and they gradually gave up. In 1992, thanks to painstaking record-keeping and the amateur interest taken by a member of the commission staff, one anonymous grave in one small cemetery was finally commemorated as John’s.
This means that a new marker has been erected. The old one read, A LIEUTENANT OF THE GREAT WAR. KNOWN UNTO GOD. The wording is actually that of Kipling Sr., who in order to atone for John’s disappearance became a founding member of what was then called the Imperial War Graves Commission, and helped design its monuments and rituals. As another atonement, he took on the unpaid job of writing the wartime history of the Irish Guards. In that work, he coldly summed up the regiment’s toll of 324 casualties in a single battle and noted that “of their officers, 2nd Lieutenant PakenhamLaw had died of wounds; 2nd Lieutenants Clifford and Kipling were missing. … It was a fair average for the day of a debut.”
John Kipling’s body had lain in no-man’s-land for three years and then been hastily shoveled into an unmarked grave.
Kipling’s autobiography, Something of Myself, is even more eerily detached. “My son John arrived on a warm August night of ’97, under what seemed every good omen.” That’s the only mention of the boy in the entire book. Kipling had already lost a beloved daughter to influenza. He seems to have felt that if he wrote any more he wouldn’t be able to trust himself.
For a father to mourn or to bury his son is an offense to the natural order of things. Yet another reason for the endless fascination of the Great War is the reverse-Oedipal fashion in which, for several lunatic years, the sight of old men burying young men was the natural order. And this in a civilized Europe bred to the expansive optimism of the late 19th century.
John Kipling was only 16 when the war broke out. Pressed, by his father to volunteer, he was rejected on the grounds of poor eyesight. (Those who have read “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” Rudyard’s chilling story derived from his own childhood at the mercy of sadistic guardians, will remember the horror of the small boy being punished for clumsiness and poor scholarship when actually he has an undiagnosed myopia.) The proud and jingoistic father used his influence with the high command to get young John commissioned anyway. His mother’s diary recorded that “John leaves at noon. . . . He looks very straight and smart and young, as he turned [sic] at the top of the stairs to say: ‘Send my love to Dad-o.’ “
He didn’t last more than a few weeks. The village of Loos, where he disappeared, was also where the British found out about modern warfare; it was at Loos that they first tried to use poison gas as a weapon of combat. (It blew back into their own trenches, with unimaginable results.) In a neighboring sector a short while later, the British became the first to deploy a tank. But in late 1915, war was mainly blood, mud, bayonets, and high explosives.
Accounts of the boy’s last moments differ, but Kipling’s friend H. Rider Haggard (creator of King Solomon’s Mines and She) took a lot of trouble interviewing witnesses. He recorded in his diary that one of them, a man named Bowe, “saw an officer who he could swear was Mr Kipling leaving the wood on his way to the rear and trying to fasten a field dressing round his mouth which was badly shattered by a piece of shell. Bowe would have helped him but for the fact that the officer was crying with the pain of the wound and he did not want to humiliate him by offering assistance. I shall not send this on to Rudyard Kipling—it is too painful.”
Indeed it would have been: a halfblind kid making his retreat under fire and in tears, with a devastating wound. No definition of stiff upper lip would have covered it. And almost the last of John’s letters home had said, “By the way, the next time would you get me an Identification Disc as I have gone and lost mine. . . . Just an aluminum Disc with a string through it.” Probably it’s a good thing that the poet of the Raj never knew his boy died weeping. At one point he wrote, in a cynical attempt to brace himself, “My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew / What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.”
To a friend he wrote, “I don’t suppose there is much hope for my boy and the little that is left doesn’t bear thinking of. However, I hear that he finished well. . . . It was a short life. I’m sorry that all the years’ work ended in one afternoon, but lots of people are in our position, and it’s something to have bred a man.” His wife, Caroline, wrote more feelingly to her mother, “If one could but know he was dead …”
Haggard may have wished to spare Kipling pain, but one has to say that Kipling did not try to spare himself. His whole personality as an author underwent a deep change. At different stages, one can see the influence of parental anguish, of patriotic rage, of chauvinistic hatred, and of personal guilt. A single couplet almost contrives to compress all four emotions into one: “If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
These Spartan lines are anti-war and pro-war to almost the same extent. The fathers had lied, not just by encouraging their sons to take lethal risks, but by not preparing enough for war and therefore letting the young people pay for their complacency. Kipling’s longer poem “The Children” possesses the same ambiguity:
These were our children who died for our lands: they were dear in our sight.
We have only the memory left of their home-treasured sayings and laughter.
The price of our loss shall be paid to our hands, not another’s hereafter.
Neither the Alien nor Priest shall decide on it. That is our right.
But who shall return us the children?
At the hour the Barbarian chose to disclose his pretences,
And raged against Man, they engaged, on the breasts that they bared for us,
The first felon-stroke of the sword he had long-time prepared for us—
Their bodies were all our defence while we wrought our defences.
They bought us anew with their blood, forbearing to blame us,
Those hours which we had not made good when the Judgment o’ercame us.
They believed us and perished for it. Our statecraft, our learning
Delivered them bound to the Pit and alive to the burning
Whither they mirthfully hastened as jostling for honour—
Nor since her birth has our Earth seen such worth loosed upon her.
Nor was their agony brief, or once only imposed on them.
The wounded, the war-spent, the sick received no exemption:
Being cured they returned and endured and achieved our redemption,
Hopeless themselves of relief, till Death, marveling, closed on them.
That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven—
By the heart-shaking jests of Decay where it lolled in the wires—
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes— to be cindered by fires—
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater. For that we shall take expiation.
But who shall return us our children?
After a few lines of expressive loathing about the German foe, Kipling returns to the idea that the massacre of the innocents has an element of domestic responsibility to it:
(Chalk Pit Wood was the last place his son was seen alive.) And then, giving vent to all the ghastly rumors he and his wife had heard about what happened to bodies caught in no-man’sland, he continues:
Uncertainty was torturing Kipling here into imagining the worst and most obscene fate for his son. At other times he was more resigned and more wistful, as in the short poem “My Boy Jack” (1915):
“Have you news of my boy Jack? ” Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?” Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?” Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?” None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!
The impression that the seeker in the poem is a woman. Odd to think of Kipling as having a feminine aspect, but perhaps the verse is meant as a tribute to his American wife, who was driven almost out of her mind with grief. On the other hand, one might throw sentiment to one side and remember that Kipling famously wrote (in a poem designed to tease a daughter who favored female suffrage) that “the female of the species is more deadly than the male.” And this is most certainly true of the main character in a subsequent short story of Kipling’s entitled “Mary Postgate.” Angus Wilson once described it as evil; at all events it is a paean of hatred and cruelty and shows Kipling banishing all his doubts and guilts in favor of one cathartic burst of sickening revenge.
Mary Postgate is a wartime spinster who looks after an elderly lady in an English village. One day, a German airman crashes in her garden and lies crippled in the laurel bushes. Mary Postgate decides to see how long it will take him to die. She tells nobody about the intruder and makes no effort to summon help. She waits and watches “while an increasing rapture laid hold on her.” As the young man finally expires, she “drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot.” Then she takes a “luxurious hot bath before tea” and, “lying all relaxed on the other sofa,” startles her employer by looking, for once, “quite handsome!”
It’s really seriously creepy to find Kipling—normally rather reticent in such matters—writing a caricature of a female orgasm and wallowing in the voluptuousness of sadism. The justification for it all is that a child has been killed by a bomb in the village. “I have seen the dead child,” says Mary Postgate to the dying airman. So the link is unmistakable. And the story—published in 1917—is closed by one of the worst sets of verses that this splendid poet ever composed. Its refrain is the line “When the English began to hate.” Omitted from most anthologies, it is a vulgar and bullying rant, which promises that “Time shall count from the date / That the English began to hate.”
I first became aware of the poem when it was dished out as a leaflet by a British Nazi organization in the 1970s. (David Edgar makes use of it in Destiny, his incisive play about the mentality of Fascism.) I have often thought it very fortunate that Kipling died in 1936. He had already begun to praise Mussolini by then, and God knows what he might have said about the manly new Germany-even though his visceral dislike of all Germans would perhaps have kept him in check. He certainly disliked Germans (whom he habitually called “Huns”) even more than he did Jews (whom he generally called “Hebrews”).
His letters are fiercer than his poems and short stories, and like them they took a turn for the worse after John’s disappearance. To his old friend L. C. Dunsterville he wrote, at the height of the bloodletting in September 1916, that things seemed to be going jolly well on the Western Front. “It’s a scientific-cumsporting murder proposition with enough guns at last to account for the birds, and the Hun is having a very sickly time of it. He has the erroneous idea that he is being hurt, whereas he won’t know what real pain means for a long time. I almost begin to hope that when we have done with him there will be very little Hun left.”
The word for this, in or out of context, is “unseemly.”
Most interesting, though, was his extensive wartime correspondence with Theodore Roosevelt. One has to remember that Kipling at that time was the best-known living writer in the English language. His following in the United States was immense. His famous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” more often quoted than read, had actually been written for Roosevelt in 1898 and was addressed to the U.S. Congress. It urged that body (successfully) to “take up the white man’s burden” by annexing the newly conquered Philippines. Such was Kipling’s ability to sway public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic that in 1914, when the Liberal British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, heard that Kipling was planning a trip to America, Grey told the Cabinet that unless he was assured that this dangerous Tory poet was going in an unofficial capacity he would resign at once.
Teddy Roosevelt, of course, favored American entry into the Great War, and Kipling made a point of supplying him with ammunition. The poet didn’t hesitate to make very emotional appeals, and as a result gave a few hostages to fortune. In December 1914 he wrote to T.R. telling him encouragingly that the Germans “have been sending up their younger men and boys lately on our front. This is valuable because these are prospective fathers, and they come up to the trenches with superb bravery. Then they are removed.”
The letter goes on, “Suppose my only son dies, I for one should not View with equanimity’ Mr Wilson (however unswayed by martial prejudice) advising or recommending my country how to behave at the end of this War.” Kipling really despised Woodrow Wilson and his hypocritical neutrality, and after John’s death he gave his contempt free rein, describing Wilson as equivalent to an ape looking down from a tree. “My grief,” he wrote, “is that the head of the country is a man unconnected by knowledge or experience with the facts of the world in which we live. All of which must be paid for in the lives of good men.”
This relentless drumbeat, which also urged T.R. in menacing tones to beware of the millions of potentially disloyal German-Americans, helped breed a prowar atmosphere in the United States. Many of the Americans who went to fight in Europe did so as volunteers, preparing the ground for later, full-scale intervention. And when the American Expeditionary Force got going, it took heavy casualties. Among these was Quentin Roosevelt, son of Teddy, who was killed while serving as a pilot. T.R.’s response was almost Kiplingesque in its gruffness. “My only regret is that I could not give myself,” he said. But of course he could not have given himself, any more than Kipling could. This was an opportunity open strictly to sons.
The creator of Mowgli and Kim sacrificed one of his great loves-his son-to another of his great loves: the British Empire.
The current tenant of Headstone Two I in Row D of Plot Seven in St. Mary’s I Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery never had any idea of what a titanic conflict had snuffed out his life. Nor had he any notion of the role his death would play in his father’s poetry or his father’s propaganda. His is just one of 1,768 British and 19 Canadian graves in St. Mary’s ADS, 1,592 of which are unidentified and likely to remain so forever.
The gardener, Ian Nelson, met me at the gate and took me around. He was a working-class type from my hometown in Hampshire, just one of the many hundreds of people who live and work in northern France, stranded in time, preserving a moment and observing the decencies. He wasn’t the garrulous type, preferring to roll his own cigarettes and to say briefly that he was “old-fashioned” and “felt we owed something” to the fallen. His main enemies were the moles, which spoil the flower beds and lawns. He explained to me how certain alpine and herbaceous plantings protect the headstones from mud splashes in the winter and mowing machines in the summer. Floribunda roses were in profusion, and baby maple trees, and there was the odd Flanders poppy.
The register and the visitors’ book were kept in a metal-and-stone safe in a corner of the cemetery, and as we got there we found an old metal button in the dirt. It was a standard-issue Great War soldier’s button, with a faded lion-and-unicorn motif, and Mr. Nelson let me keep it with a look that said, Plenty more where that came from. Most of the names in the register are printed and have been for decades, and it is reprinted every few years. But a handwritten addition had just been made, showing that John, only son of Mr. and Mrs. Rudyard Kipling of Bateman’s, Burwash, Sussex, England, had made the supreme sacrifice while serving as a lieutenant in the Irish Guards. The visitors’ book had a space for remarks, and many visitors had done their best to say something. I didn’t want to let down the side, so I put in the last few lines of Wilfred Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.”
Owen was killed in a futile canal crossing skirmish just a few days before the end of the war, in November 1918 (his mother got the telegram just as the church bells were pealing for victory and a general rejoicing was getting under way), but before he died he composed the most wrenching and lyrical poetry of the entire conflict. Nearly 50 years later, it furnished the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. In Owen’s rewriting of the story of Abraham and Isaac, the old man is about to press the knife to the throat of his firstborn:
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven, Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
Every one in the village knew that Helen Turrell did her duty by all her world, and by none more honourably than by her only brother’s unfortunate child. The village knew, too, that George Turrell had tried his family severely since early youth, and were not surprised to be told that, after many fresh starts given and thrown away he, an Inspector of Indian Police, had entangled himself with the daughter of a retired non-commissioned officer, and had died of a fall from a horse a few weeks before his child was born.
Mercifully, George’s father and mother were both dead, and though Helen, thirtyfive and independent, might well have washed her hands of the whole disgraceful affair, she most nobly took charge, though she was, at the time, under threat of lung trouble which had driven her to the south of France. She arranged for the passage of the child and a nurse from Bombay, met them at Marseilles, nursed the baby through an attack of infantile dysentery due the carelessness of the nurse, whom she had had to dismiss, and at last, thin and worn but triumphant, brought the boy late in the autumn, wholly restored, to her Hampshire home.
All these details were public property, for Helen was as open as the day, and held that scandals are only increased by hushing then up. She admitted that George had always been rather a black sheep, but things might have been much worse if the mother had insisted on her right to keep the boy. Luckily, it seemed that people of that class would do almost anything for money, and, as George had always turned to her in his scrapes, she felt herself justified – her friends agreed with her – in cutting the whole non-commissioned officer connection, and giving the child every advantage. A christening, by the Rector, under the name of Michael, was the first step. So far as she knew herself, she was not, she said, a child-lover, but, for all her faults, she had been very fond of George, and she pointed out that little Michael had his father’s mouth to a line; which made something to build upon.
As a matter of fact, it was the Turrell forehead, broad, low, and well-shaped, with the widely spaces eyes beneath it, that Michael had most faithfully reproduced. His mouth was somewhat better cut than the family type. But Helen, who would concede nothing good to his mother’s side, vowed he was a Turrell all over, and, there being no one to contradict, the likeness was established.
In a few years Michael took his place, as accepted as Helen had always been – fearless, philosophical, and fairly good-looking. At six, he wished to know why he could not call her ‘Mummy’, as other boys called their mothers. She explained that she was only his auntie, and that aunties were not quite the same as mummies, but that, if it gave him pleasure, he might call her ‘Mummy’ at bedtime, for a pet-name between themselves.
Michael kept his secret most loyally, but Helen, as usual, explained the fact to her friends; which when Michael heard, he raged.
“Why did you tell? Why did you tell?” came at the end of the storm.
“Because it’s always best to tell the truth”, Helen answered, her arm round him as he shook in his cot.
“All right, but when the troof’s ugly I don’t think it’s nice.”
“Don’t you, dear?”
“No, I don’t and” – she felt the small body stiffen – “now you’ve told, I won’t call you ‘Mummy’ any more – not even at bedtimes.”
“But isn’t that rather unkind?” said Helen softly.
“I don’t care! I don’t care! You have hurted me in my insides and I’ll hurt you back. I’ll hurt you as long as I live!”
“Don’t, oh, don’t talk like that, dear! You don’t know what – “
“I will! And when I’m dead I’ll hurt you worse!”
“Thank goodness, I shall be dead long before you, darling.”
“Huh! Emma says, ‘Never know your luck’.” (Michael had been talking to Helen’s elderly, flat-faces maid.) “Lots of little boys die quite soon. So’ll I. Then you’ll see!”
Helen caught her breath and moved towards the door, but the wail of ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ drew her back again, and the two wept together.
At ten years old, after two terms at a prep. school, something or somebody gave him the idea that his civil status was not quite regular. He attacked Helen on the subject, breaking down her stammered defences with the family directness.
“Don’t believe a word of it”, he said, cheerily, at the end. “People wouldn’t have talked like they did if my people had been married. But don’t you bother, Auntie. I’ve found out all about my sort in English Hist’ry and the Shakespeare bits. There was William the Conqueror to begin with, and – oh, heaps more, and they all got on first-rate. ‘Twon’t make any difference to you, by being that – will it?”
“As if anything could – ” she began.
“All right. We won’t talk about it any more if it makes you cry”. He never mentioned the thing again of his own will, but when, two years later, he skilfully managed to have measles in the holidays, as his temperature went up tot the appointed one hundred and four he muttered of nothing else, till Helen’s voice, piercing at last his delirium, reached him with assurance that nothing on earth or beyond could make any difference between them.
The terms at his public school and the wonderful Christmas, Easter, and Summer holidays followed each other, variegated and glorious as jewels on a string; and as jewels Helen treasured them. In due time Michael developed his own interests, which ran their courses and gave way to others; but his interest in Helen was constant and increasing throughout. She repaid it with all that she had of affection or could command of counsel and money; and since Michael was no fool, the War took him just before what was like to have been a most promising career.
He was to have gone up to Oxford, with a scholarship, in October. At the end of August he was on the edge of joining the first holocaust of public-school boys who threw themselves into the Line; but the captain of his O.T.C., where he had been sergeant for nearly a year, headed him off and steered him directly to a commission in a battalion so new that half of it still wore the old Army red, and the other half was breeding meningitis through living overcrowdedly in damp tents. Helen had been shocked at the idea of direct enlistment.
“But it’s in the family”, Michael laughed.
“You don’t mean to tell me that you believed that story all this time?” said Helen. (Emma, her maid, had been dead now several years.) “I gave you my word of honour – and I give it again – that – that it’s all right. It is indeed.”
“Oh, that doesn’t worry me. It never did”, he replied valiantly. “What I meant was, I should have got into the show earlier if I’d enlisted – like my grandfather.”
“Don’t talk like that! Are you afraid of its ending so soon, then?”
“No such luck. You know what K. says.”
“Yes. But my banker told me last Monday it couldn’t possibly last beyond Christmas – for financial reasons.”
“I hope he’s right, but our Colonel – and he’s a Regular – say it’s going to be a long job.”
Michael’s battalion was fortunate in that, by some chance which meant several ‘leaves’, it was used for coast-defence among shallow trenches on the Norfolk coast; thence sent north to watch the mouth of a Scotch estuary, and, lastly, held for weeks on a baseless rumour of distant service. But, the very day that Michael was to have met Helen for four whole hours at a railway-junction up the line, it was hurled out, to help make good the wastage of Loos, and he had only just time to send her a wire of farewell.
In France luck again helped the battalion. It was put down near the Salient, where it led a meritorious and unexacting life, while the Somme was being manufactured; and enjoyed the peace of the Armentières and Laventie sectors when that battle began. Finding that it had sound views on protecting its own flanks and could dig, a prudent Commander stole it out of its own Division, under pretence of helping to lay telegraphs, and used it round Ypres at large.
A month later, and just after Michael had written Helen that there was noting special doing and therefore no need to worry, a shell-splinter dropping out of a wet dawn killed him at once. The next shell uprooted and laid down over the body what had been the foundation of a barn wall, so neatly that none but an expert would have guessed that anything unpleasant had happened.
By this time the village was old in experience of war, and, English fashion, had evolved a ritual to meet it. When the postmistress handed her seven-year-old daughter the official telegram to take to Miss Turrell, she observed to the Rector’s gardener: “It’s Miss Helen’s turn now”. He replied, thinking of his own son: “Well, he’s lasted longer than some”. The child herself came to the front-door weeping aloud, because Master Michael had often given her sweets. Helen, presently, found herself pulling down the house-blinds one after one with great care, and saying earnestly to each: “Missing always means dead.” Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through an inevitable series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope end prophesied word, very soon, from a prison camp. Several friends, too, told her perfectly truthful tales, but always about other women, to whom, after months and months of silence, their missing had been miraculously restored. Other people urged her to communicate with infallible Secretaries of organizations who could communicate with benevolent neutrals, who could extract accurate information from the most secretive of Hun commandants. Helen did and wrote and signed everything that was suggested or put before her.
Once, on one of Michael’s leaves, he had taken her over a munition factory, where she saw the progress of a shell from blank-iron to the all but finished article. It struck her at the time that the wretched thing was never left alone for a single second; and “I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin”, she told herself, as she prepared her documents.
In due course, when all the organizations had deeply or sincerely regretted their inability to trace, etc, something gave way within her and all sensations – save of thankfulness for the release – came to an end in blessed passivity. Michael had died and her world had stood still and she had been one with the full shock of that arrest. Now she was standing still and the world was going forward, but it did not concern her – in no way or relation did it touch her. She knew this by the ease with which she could slip Michael’s name into talk and incline her head to the proper angle, at the proper murmur of sympathy.
In the blessed realization of that relief, the Armistice with all its bells broke over her and passed unheeded. At the end of another year she had overcome her physical loathing of the living and returned young, so that she could take them by the hand and almost sincerely wish them well. She had no interest in any aftermath, national or personal, of the war, but, moving at an immense distance, she sat on various relief committees and held strong views – she heard herself delivering them – about the site of the proposed village War Memorial.
Then there came to her, as next of kin, an official intimation, backed by a page of a letter to her in indelible pencil, a silver identity-disc and a watch, to the effect that the body of Lieutenant Michael Turrell had been found, identified, and re-interred in Hagenzeele Third Military Cemetery – the letter of the row and the grave’s number in that row duly given.
So Helen found herself moved on to another process of the manufacture – to a world full of exultant or broken relatives, now strong in the certainty that there was an altar upon earth where they might lay their love. These soon told her, and by means of time-tables made clear, how easy it was and how little it interfered with life’s affairs to go and see one’s grave.
“So different”, as the Rector’s wife said, “if he’d been killed in Mesopotamia, or even Gallipoli.”
The agony of being waked up to some sort of second life drove Helen across the Channel, where, in a new world of abbreviated titles, she learnt that Hagenzeele Third could be comfortably reached by an afternoon train which fitted in with the morning boat, and that there was a comfortable little hotel not three kilometres from Hagenzeele itself, where one could spend quite a comfortable night and see one’s grave next morning. All this she had from a Central Authority who lived in a board and tar-paper shed on the skirts of a razed city of whirling lime-dust and blown papers.
“By the way”, said he, “you know your grave, of course?”
“Yes, thank you”, said Helen, and showed its row and number typed on Michael’s own little typewriter. The officer would have checked it, out of one of his many books; but a large Lancashire woman thrust between them and bade him tell her where she might find her son, who had been corporal in the A.S.C. His proper name, she sobbed, was Anderson, but, coming of respectable folk, he had of course enlisted under the name of Smith; and had been killed at Dickiebush, in early ‘Fifteen. She had not his number nor did she know which of his two Christian names she might have used with his alias; but her Cook’s tourist ticket expired at the end of Easter week, and if by then she could not find her child she should go mad. Whereupon she fell forward on Helen’s breast; but the officer’s wife came out quickly from a little bedroom behind the office, and the three of them lifted the woman on to the cot.
“They are often like this”, said the officer’s wife, loosening the tight bonnet-strings. “Yesterday she said he’d been killed at Hooge. Are you sure you know your grave? It makes such a difference.”
“Yes, thank you”, said Helen, and hurried out before the woman on the bed should begin to lament again.
Tea in a crowded mauve and blue striped wooden structure, with a false front, carried her still further into the nightmare. She paid her bill beside a stolid, plain-featured Englishwoman, who, hearing her inquire about the train to Hagenzeele, volunteered to come with her.
“I’m going to Hagenzeele myself”, she explained. “Not to Hagenzeele Third; mine is Sugar Factory, but they call it La Rosière now. It’s just south of Hagenzeele Three. Have you got your room at the hotel there?”
“Oh yes, thank you, I’ve wired.”
“That’s better. Sometimes the place is quite full, and at others there’s hardly a soul. But they’ve put bathrooms into the old Lion d’Or – that’s the hotel on the west side of Sugar Factory – and it draws off a lot of people, luckily.”
“It’s all new to me. This is the first time I’ve been over.”
“Indeed! This is my ninth time since the Armistice. Not on my own account. I haven’t lost anyone, thank God – but, like everyone else, I’ve lot of friends at home who have. Coming over as often as I do, I find it helps them to have someone just look at the – place and tell them about it afterwards. And one can take photos for them, too. I get quite a list of commissions to execute.” She laughed nervously and tapped her slung Kodak. “There are two or three to see at Sugar Factory this time, and plenty of others in the cemeteries all about. My system is to save them up, and arrange them, you know. And when I’ve got enough commissions for one area to make it worth while, I pop over and execute them. It does comfort people.”
“I suppose so”, Helen answered, shivering as they entered the little train.
“Of course it does. (Isn’t lucky we’ve got windows-seats?) It must do or they wouldn’t ask one to do it, would they? I’ve a list of quite twelve or fifteen commissions here” – she tapped the Kodak again – “I must sort them out tonight. Oh, I forgot to ask you. What’s yours?”
“My nephew”, said Helen. “But I was very fond of him”.
“Ah, yes! I sometimes wonder whether they know after death? What do you think?”
“Oh, I don’t – I haven’t dared to think much about that sort of thing”, said Helen, almost lifting her hands to keep her off.
“Perhaps that’s better”, the woman answered. “The sense of loss must be enough, I expect. Well I won’t worry you any more.”
Helen was grateful, but when they reached the hotel Mrs Scarsworth (they had exchanged names) insisted on dining at the same table with her, and after the meal, in the little, hideous salon full of low-voiced relatives, took Helen through her ‘commissions’ with biographies of the dead, where she happened to know them, and sketches of their next of kin. Helen endured till nearly half-past nine, ere she fled to her room.
Almost at one there was a knock at her door and Mrs Scarsworth entered; her hands, holding the dreadful list, clasped before her.
“Yes – yes – I know”, she began. “You’re sick of me, but I want to tell you something. You – you aren’t married, are you? Then perhaps you won’t… But it doesn’t matter. I’ve got to tell someone. I can’t go on any longer like this.”
“But please -” Mrs Scarsworth had backed against the shut door, and her mouth worked dryly.
“In a minute”, she said. “You – you know about these graves of mine I was telling you about downstairs, just now? They really are commissions. At least several of them are.” Here eye wandered round the room. “What extraordinary wall-papers they have in Belgium, don’t you think? … Yes. I swear they are commissions. But there’s one, d’you see, and – and he was more to me than anything else in the world. Do you understand?”
“More than anyone else. And, of course, he oughtn’t to have been. He ought to have been nothing to me. But he was. He is. That’s why I do the commissions, you see. That’s all.”
“But why do you tell me?” Helen asked desperately.
“Because I’m so tired of lying. Tired of lying – always lying – year in and year out. When I don’t tell lies I’ve got to act ’em and I’ve got to think ’em, always. You don’t know what that means. He was everything to me that he oughtn’t to have been – the real thing – the only thing that ever happened to me in all my life; and I’ve had to pretend he wasn’t. I’ve had to watch every word I said, and think out what lie I’d tell next, for years and years!”
“How many years?” Helen asked.
“Six years and four months before, and two and three-quarters after. I’ve gone to him eight times, since. Tomorrow I’ll make the ninth, and – and I can’t – I can’t go to him again with nobody in the world knowing. I want to be honest with someone before I go. Do you understand? It doesn’t matter about me. I was never truthful, even as a girl. But it isn’t worthy of him. So – so I – I had to tell you. I can’t keep it up any longer. Oh, I can’t!”
Next morning Mrs Scarsworth left early on her round of commissions, and Helen walked alone to Hagenzeele Third. The place was still in the making, and stood some five or six feet above the metalled road, which it flanked for hundreds of yards. Culverts across a deep ditch served for entrances through the unfinished boundary wall. She climbed a few woodenfaced earthen steps and then met the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath. She did not know that Hagenzeele Third counted twenty-one thousand dead already. All she saw was a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped tin at all angles across their faces. She could distinguish no order or arrangement in their mass; nothing but a waist-high wilderness as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her. She went forward, moved to the left and the right hopelessly, wondering by what guidance she should ever come to her own. A great distance away there was a line of whiteness. It proved to be a block of some two or three hundred graves whose headstones had already been set, whose flowers were planted out, and whose new-sown grass showed green. Here she could see clear-cut letters at the ends of the rows, and, referring to her slip, realized that it was not here she must look.
A man knelt behind a line of headstones – evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: “Who are you looking for?”
“Lieutenant Michael Turrell – my nephew”, said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
“Come with me”, he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”
When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.
Iraq bade farewell on May 20 2022 to one of its foremost poets, Muzaffar Abdul Majeed Al-Nawab. He passed away in the UAE, where he’d lived in exile, after a long illness at the age of 88. His body was brought back to Iraq, where it was met by the prime minister and other prominent officials, and was buried in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.
He was known in the Arab world as the “revolutionary poet” in recognition of a lifetime of publically opposing and criticizing corrupt Arab regimes, and for which, he spent many, many years in jail or in exile.
He was following a long tradition of writers and intellectuals who have ‘suffered’ for their art. Nearly 175 years ago English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his Defence of Poetry: “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In the years since, many poets have taken that role to heart, right up to the present day.
They’ve been rebel-rousers and protesters, revolutionaries and yes, sometimes, lawmakers. Some, like Czech author Václav Havel have become presidents. Poets like Nawab have commented on the events of the day, giving voice to oppressed and downtrodden, condemned tyrants, immortalized rebels, and campaigned for social change. Most chant from the sidelines and the bleachers. Others place themselves in harms way. Many end up in dungeons and torture chambers, and some have perished for their art and articulation. So it was with Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, murdered in 1936 by Generalissimo Franco’s Nationalist soldiery at the beginning of the savage Spanish Civil War. So it was with Chilean folk singer and songwriter Victor Lara, slain in a soccer stadium in September 1973 by Augusto Pinochet’s thugs.
The silencing of singers and poets on account of their words and their voices diminishes our lives and indeed, it diminishes the world in which we live, and in its hatred and nihilism, strikes at the heart of the values we hold most dear. But history has shown that the death of the singer does not kill the song. The dictator perishes but the poet remains.
What is Freedom? – ye can tell That which slavery is, too well – For its very name has grown To an echo of your own.
Shelley The Masque of Anarchy, published posthumously in 1832
Let the word makers and the revolution singers awake!
Egyptian poet Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati
Al-Nawab was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1934, into an aristocratic Shi’ite family of Indian origin that appreciated art, poetry and music, and from an early age, he displayed a talent for poetry . Completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Baghdad he became a teacher, but was expelled for political reasons in 1955 and remained unemployed for three years.
He joined the Iraqi Communist Partywhile still at college, and was detained and tortured by the Hashemiteregime that ruled Iraq at that time. After the Iraqi revolution in 1958 which overthrew the monarchy, he was appointed an inspector at the Ministry of Education. In 1963 he was forced to leave Iraq to neighbouring Iran, after the intensification of competition between the nationalists and the communists who were prosecuted and put under strict observation by the republican regime. He was arrested and tortured by Savak, the Iranian secret police, before being forcibly repatriated to the Iraqi government. An Iraqi court handed down a death sentence against him for one of his poems, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment. He escaped from prison by digging a tunnel and fled to the marshlands, where he joined a communist faction that sought to overthrow the government.
Known for his powerful revolutionary poems and scathing invective against Arab dictators, the first complete Arabic language edition of his works was published in London in 1996 by “Dar Qanbar” He lived in exile in many countries, including Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Eritrea, where he stayed with the Eritrean rebels, before returning to Iraq in 2011. Before he returned to Iraq, he had been essentially stateless, being able to travel only on Libyan travel documents.
Nawab’s popular and eloquent poetry earned him a prominent position at the forefront of modern Arabic literature. He was known as the “revolutionary poet” for decrying corrupt regimes across the Arab world. His poems were filled with revolutionary fervor, social anger, satire, and rebellion against injustice and corruption by Arab dictators. Syrian writer Aws Daoud Yaqoub described Nawab in a book dedicated to his poetry as the poet of “revolutions and sorrow.”
Nawab was also known as a poet of pop culture as his poems spoke to the Iraqis of all age groups, useing simplified folk language in a frank and sharp way. He sometimes resorted to attacks and obscene words to deliver a specific message. In 2018, he was nominated by the Iraqi Writers Union for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many of his poems, composed in the spoken dialect, were sung by some of the most renowned Iraqi singers, such as Yas Khoder. These include the poems called “Oh, Basil” [Ya Rihan], “Al-Rayl and Hamad,” and “The Night of Violet.”
Some Arab intellectuals considered him a great poet with sincere revolutionary principles who railed against oppressive regimes, injustice and corruption, using piercing words to expose the defects and deficiencies of the state, society, and poetry and to strip the emperor naked. He called for an end to the traditional practice in Arabic poetry of setting up poets and singers to perform songs of praise to the regime, sultan, or king.
He took extreme hostile positions against the West, Israel and the allies of the United States, such as the Gulf states. In one of his most renowned poems, he described the commanders of these countries as “the pigs of this Gulf” in the poem of this title. He described Arab meetings to solve the Arab issues, especially Palestine, as “lesbian meetings” in the sense that they produce nothing, and mocked the Arab rulers, saying “a pig’s pen is cleaner than the cleanest of you.”
And yet, many criticized him for his selective attitudes towards the tyrannical regimes in the region, and for behaviour that appeared to contradict to his declared principles. For example, the UAE has normalized ties with Israel, which contradicted Nawab’s opposition to both the rulers of the Gulf states and to Israel. His attitude attracted harsh criticism from critics on social media, who lamented the special treatment he received before his death in Gulf state that he had often condemned. Dhafer Al-Ajmi, Executive Director of the Gulf Monitoring Group,tweetedthat Nawab was mostly known for decrying Gulf leaders using vulgar language to describe them. “Despite that, he died in a Gulf hospital, where he received treatment at the order of a Gulf Sheikh.” Saudi journalist Ali Al-Quhaisnoted that Nawab died in the Gulf states after he offended them and their rules, and even insulted Mecca. “The Gulf countries held poetry evenings for him and opened their hospitals to him,” Quhais said, criticizing Nawab for keeping mute when his own country [Iraq] was occupied
Other critics have described him as sectarian and partisan, since he often attacked Arab rulers, the West and Israel, whilst praising Ayatollah Khomeini and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and failed to take any position on the occupation of Iraq, which brought the Shiites to power in that country after American invasion and the fall of Saddamn Hussein.. His poetry also included strong words against sacred Sunni figures such as Abu Sufyan and Amro bin Al-Aas, who are among the Ansar or Companions of the Prophet – and who are are frowned upon by Shiites because of their attitude towards Imam Ali.
.Others, howver, believe Nawab’s positions were not sectarian at all, but rather, expressed his revolutionary left-wing stance against reactionary principles, colonialism and injustice – he referredto himself in his poetry as an Qarmatian, in reference to a social movement which led a revolution against the Abbasid Caliphate between the years 899 -107, and which included non-Arab nationalities, including black-skinned people.
By describing himself thus, he sought to allude to his Indian origins, family having migrated to Iraq during 19th century. This would explains the diverse cultural aspect of his poems, and why he addressed issues like Iraq’s oppressed Iraqi cultural minorities and their long history of persecution under the dominion of the Arab majority.
Iraq was once distinguished by its ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, as it was home to large communities of diverse origins. Today, these communities are on the brink of disappearance, as they were forced to flee the political, security and societal pressures in the absence of the authority of law and the state.
There are still poets that dare to tell this world about the wrong things that occur. They do that as if they were “Romeo” in Shakespeare’s play “Romeo & Juliet”. However, Arab repression forces them to “praise” rulers, politicians and security apparatus instead of writing for “Juliet”. While doing that, they use a totally very different language to deal with that circle. They curse when hit by batons and spit when tortured. They “pee on this apparatus” when their humanity is killed! The Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawab (1934) managed to develop a unique style to deal with such a thing. He used a language that no other poet can create unless he/she was exiled from an Arab capital or subjugated to physical and psychological torture. Poets even have to face firmly “the beast” in Tehran to develop such a language. There, dozens of flagellants will be waiting to beat the poet with a whip and large boots.
Al-Nawab wrote in one of his poems about that experiment:
“ike two dull houses of ants
Are the eyes of the flagellants’ chief
His nose’s hair was growing like those of a pig
Mucus words were in his mouth
He was dripping them in my ears
He asked me: Who are you?
I was embarrassed to tell him:
I resisted colonization, so my homeland displaced me.
My eyes fainted from torture.
Although his family was an aristocratic one, al-Nawab became a member of the Iraqi Communist Party. After the coup of 1963, he became a fugitive. He fled to Iran and hid in Tehran. He was arrested there and held in prison for 5 months without knowing what was happening in his country. Then, he was sent back from Tehran to Basra in Iraq and afterwards to Baghdad.
His journey of rejection started there. Later rejection turned into a language that Al-Nawab mastered. He produced his first poem of rejection “Acquittal”. This poem became for him the start of being abused and tortured continuously. It was like a monster that kept chasing him.
At that moment, al-Nawab defeated authority for the first time. He uttered his first “no” in public. This refusal costed him 20 years of prison. Writing the aforementioned poem meant also putting him into jail for extra three years. Thus, his journey of rejection started with a “no” and a poem.
The trail was absurd. Al-Nawab stood and they asked him to insult the communist party to claim his acquittal. It wasn’t an easy choice as the poet’s answer would have affected another 120 prisoners by doing what he was asked to do. They said to him: Curse the party. But he said: No. They asked him to curse all parties. He said: No. And he wrote his “Acquittal” poem in a folk Iraqi poetry. While imitating the language of a mother, he wrote the following:
Time crashes your bones for betrayal.
You compromise your wound for meanness
And you have to hide it.
O son, let the wound be cleaned.
Let it bleed.
My son, don’t conceal our honor.
O son, acquittal remains rotten forever.
You know my son with every acquittal,
We rebury each martyr of our people.
Al-Nawab wasn’t using rejection in his poetry alone, but also in each situation of his life. “Semi actions” used to annoy him a lot. In Al Hillah prison, the poet helped in 1965 Hamed Maksood, who was sentenced to death, to escape. Like a painter, he made Hamed back then look like an eighty years old man. He stamped Hamed’s hands with the prison’s stamp to look like a visitor. He also transformed his pillow into a sick sleeping man and the police got deceived by this ruse. After that, Al-Nawab himself escaped from the prison at the beginning of 1967. He got used to escaping with the same way. Meanwhile, his poems were reaching readers and this casted him with homage. He got used to escaping which comes before confrontation and even when he got arrested in Iran, he tried to escape. His second attempt to escape from Al Hillah prison succeeded by digging a tunnel in the prison that 40 prisoners, including Al-Nawab, escaped from. He, then, disappearedin Baghdad before authorities issued an amnesty order for political opponents.
This was his second victory over the authority in poetry and life. These victories were accompanied usually with him being tortured and exiled. He was arrested in 1968 and he met the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. May be the authority was trying to buy his silence or to direct his speech, but he said about both options: “Why does suppression enter the heart and censorship controls my silence, papers, steps and my mazes? Don’t I have the right to be silent, to speak, to walk outside the official path or to cry? Don’t I have the right to publish and distribute fire for free?”
In an unknown building, Saddam Hussein met him and asked him: “Don’t you trust the central government?” Al-Nawab replied: “I don’t trust you; you can send me back to jail.”
These constant escapes from one place to another have violated Al-Nawab’s humanity. In return, he created linguistic violations by attacking ministers, parliament’s meetings, police, informants and Arab league’s summits. He asks in his poem “The old pub”:
“How can man maintain his dignity while security apparatus hands reach everywhere?”
Al-Nawab was cursing on behalf of a whole nation. He represented hundreds of thousands of the poor who couldn’t curse the ones who deserved being cursed. Through this, he was freeing the anger of a whole nation, speaking to it in a way that he learned by blood. He cursed, with generosity, those who deserved that; those who tortured him, occupied his land, sold him and killed his joy. His curses became inclusive. He utters them from his throat that contains the throats of the silenced nation in an era that he called the urine era as he says:
I pee on the governing police.
It is the era of urine.
I pee on the tables, the parliaments and ministers with no shame
As they fought us with no shame.
The authorities of apes,
The parties of apes,
The apparatus of apes,
The apes’ shit is better than you.
Using these linguistic violations in poetry was a response to abusing and suppressing thousands of people. But one person dared to use it and utter words before batons and torture chairs. That one was Muzaffar al-Nawab.
The poet, whose joy was killed in all Arab capitals, acknowledges the outright defeat and declares that in his poem “Summits”:
Now, I confess before the desert
That I’m filthy like your defeat.
O defeated rulers, defeated parties
Oh loser rulers
O defeated public
How rude we are!
And we deny it, how rude we are!
After the curse that he wrote in the poem: “Son of bitches, I exclude none of you”, he was shot but he survived. He says about this sentence: “They now got used to it” and he laughs.
In the home of foreignness and the collective feeling of alienation, Al-Nawab asks:
Oh, my homeland;
Are you the land of enemies?
O my homeland that is displayed as a morning star in the market
Speaking to God, he says:
Glory to you, I have accepted all things except humiliation.
I was satisfied that my share of life to be like that of a bird.
But glory to you, even birds have homes that they come back to.
And I’m still flying.
This homeland that extends from the sea to the sea
Is like adjacent prisons.
They are like a jailer who arrests another jailer.
Al-Nawab asks after all for forgiveness but tries to maintain his rejection:
Forgive my sadness, wine, outrage and harsh words.
Some of you will say that they were saucy.
Show me then a situation that is more insolent
than the one we are now living in!
Australian literary critic and cultural studies writer Peter Craven has been described as both a “literary hack” and “one of the most prolific, erudite and opinionated voices in Australian literary circles”. In 2004 he was awarded the Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year. whatever subject he applies his keyboard to, be it for iconic poets and authors or literary contemplations on the legacies of Easter and Christmas, he turns out admirable pieces that are eclectic, erudite and empathetic. We have republished two of his articles in In That Howling Infinite ; The Magic of Dylan Thomas, and Go ask Alice. I think she’ll know, celebrating Alice in Wonderland’s 150th birthday.
Recently, he celebrated the centenary of the publication of three works he considers to be very near the summit of the western canon. 1922, he writes, was the annus mirabilis, the miracle year – 1922, – the year that modernist literature, by common consent the greatest writing the 20th century and its aftermath would witness, caused its greatest splash.
James Joyce’s Ulysses celebrated its centenary on February 2 this year. In Craven’s opinion, it is ‘the greatest demonstration of what can be done to the English language in the name of fiction’. It was also the year of the death of Marcel Proust, the French author of what would become in English the 12-volume Remembrance of Things Past, and when his English translator began the great English translation of A la recherche du temps perdu (literally, In Search of Lost Time), which Craven considers one of the greatest modern works of fiction in any language.
And in October 1922, English-American poet TS Eliot published The Waste Land, ‘the modernist poem that sounds like nothing on earth and that is in some ways the easiest entry point to the weirdnesses and wonders of modernism because it is short but easy to be seduced by the beauty of its music and the kaleidoscope of its imagery’.
As a teen I’d read Joyce’s’ short A Portrait of the Artist as a young Man, attracted by its Irishness – my parents were from the Emerald Isle – but I gave up on Finnegan’s Wake, although I could sing by heart the song that is said to have inspired Joyce to write it, as recorded by that grand old band The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. The sheer size of Ulysses rendered this literary mountain unassailable even though the controversy that swirled about increased its attractiveness to an adolescent contrarian.
But in a boarding house in Delhi at the end of my outward journey on the Hippie Trail, I casually picked up a paperback copy of Ulysses. And for the next two months, Leopold Bloom’s figurative odyssey became my own as I journeyed back to Britain.
That dog-eared, spine-creased paperback visited Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey as I headed westwards through the Kyber Pass, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. I finished it at last in a boarding house in Sultanahmet in Istanbul, just across from Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and I dip into it to this day. As Craven writes: ‘The rule with the miracle works of 1922 is to listen to them if your eyes reel. Just as Ulysses will continue to unfold its mysteries if you put on your best stage Irish and force yourself to read aloud’. And that, for me, is the best and only way to appreciate its magic – although being of Irish parentage, I don’t need stage Irish. Small wonder that folk around the world celebrate “Bloomsday” by marathon readings.
As a self-indulgent teenage poet in Birmingham, I’d already been sucked into TS Elliot’s dark universe. In reading Rhapsody on a Windy Night, I believed that, for me personally, I’d cracked the code of poetry. The Hollow Men has long served me as a political morality play: ‘Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act falls the Shadow”. And, as a longtime student of the Middle East, I still read The Journey of the Magi to ground my conflicting thoughts about this ever-intriguing part of the world.
As for The Waste Land, to use the language we used back then in that dear, dead decade, it was, well, ‘mind-blowing’, ‘far-out’, and ‘too much’ – and a ‘great trip’. Today, young folk would call it “awesome”. Back then, in bedsits, guitar in hand, I put cantos of it to music – unfinished songs that have never see the light of day.
Craven encapsulates it thus: ‘The Waste Land, which can be read aloud in an hour, is the great circus show of modernism. The collage of languages, the snippets of Dante, and all the many death had undone … this is an Alice in Wonderland world at the edge of madness: dislocated, disturbed and with an extraordinary dramatic power’.
Who am I to blow against the wind?
Marcel Proust, I could never get into to. As the song goes, ‘I tried, oh my god I tried’, but it went on like wallpaper and was like watching paint dry. Life is too short now, and there is too much to read and too few days to fill, so that land will have to remain unexplored.
Again, Craven comes to my aid. He adores Proust, but acknowledges that he can be hard going: ‘Think of Camus’s remark, “The monotony of Melville, the monotony of the Old Testament, the terrible monotony of Proust.” I love Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and for all its length and digression, I consider it one of the best novels ever. The title of this blog is actually taken from it. I regard The King James Bible as one of the most beautiful books ever. But I’ll defer to Albert Camus’ summation of Marcel.
How to read Ulysses in 5 easy steps (according to those who have read it):
1. Read it aloud and reread it.
2. Take your time (years, not months).
3. Start at chapter four.
4. Try to read it without trying to understand it on first go. Let go of the bits you don’t understand.
5. Skip the boring parts and go straight to the racy final chapter of Molly Bloom’s sexual musings (then, if not too shocked, you can go back to the masturbation, fisting and defecating chapters).
The year that changed literature
Peter Craven, The Australian, 25th February 2021
They call it the annus mirabilis, the miracle year – 1922, a century ago now, was the year that modernist literature, by common consent the greatest writing the 20th century and its aftermath would witness, caused its greatest splash.
James Joyce’s Ulysses celebrated its centenary on February 2, and it is the greatest demonstration of what can be done to the English language in the name of fiction. And 1922 was the year Marcel Proust, the author of what would become in English the 12-volume Remembrance of Things Past, died and when his English translator CK Scott Moncrieff began the great English translation of A la recherche du temps perdu (literally, In Search of Lost Time) one of the greatest modern works of fiction in any language.
On top of this, in October 1922 TS Eliot published The Waste Land, the modernist poem that sounds like nothing on earth and that is in some ways the easiest entry point to the weirdnesses and wonders of modernism because it is short but easy to be seduced by the beauty of its music and the kaleidoscope of its imagery.
But let’s stick to the three anniversaries. Ulysses was published on Candlemas, which also happened to be Joyce’s 40th birthday.
It’s called Ulysses as a kind of clandestine joke on the classicism of the world because the hero, Leopold Bloom, is an Odysseus, a Ulysses figure who wanders around Dublin brooding with his own kind of wisdom, even though he knows his wife Molly is having it off with a character called Blazes Boylan. This saddens Bloom but it doesn’t stop the “cultured all round man”, as someone calls him, of acting not only with his own kindness but courage as he distracts himself and feels the depth of his sadness. He enjoys the sight of a girl exhibiting herself for his benefit on the beach, he goes to a funeral and he confronts a benighted patriot, known as the Citizen, the one-eyed Cyclops of this quasi-comical densely encyclopedic retelling of some meta-version of Homer’s Odyssey.
No one, of course, would have cottoned on to the fact Homer had anything to do with this were it not for the title and that Joyce allowed himself to collaborate with Stuart Gilbert (later to be the translator of Albert Camus) about all the obscure parallels. At some Paris party Joyce said to the young Vladimir Nabokov that it had all been “a terrible mistake” and that it was “an advertisement for the book”.
He was a great leg-puller whichever way you looked at him. What calling the book Ulysses advertised was that this was an epical endeavour Joyce was engaged on that used the fullest possible resources of language in an intrinsically if ambiguously poetic way, but it had something to do with the idea of fidelity in a woman and with the idea of a son-figure.
When Bloom confronts that one-eyed Citizen, he speaks on behalf of love: “I mean the opposite of hatred.” Bloom is a deeply civilised man in his bumbling way, but the son figure he stumbles on – Telemachus to his Odysseus – is Stephen Dedalus, whom readers may have encountered before in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is a self-portrait on Joyce’s part of his younger self, “with a great future behind him”, and Stephen is as brilliant as the day is long. Stephen is acrobatically smart, flypapered in the glories of the language of the world. He is proud and quick, and what you cop from the get go is the sheer blinding power of a mind that is Homeric in the compositional sense: this is a talent, it’s insinuated, that might rival Homer and who at first glance is likely to be Greek to anyone who tries to follow him.
“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, sought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.” Stephen’s voice, like the other two major ones – Bloom and Molly – talks to it without any concession of making things easy for the reader, but if you hang on all the main drift of the action, the innuendo and humour and sudden bits of something poignant, will be nakedly clear. It’s a portrait of a city, among other things, and the action is confined to one day. There’s a Nighttown chapter where everything is nightmarish as Stephen gets more and more drunk and where he cries, “Nothung” like a latter-day Siegfried from Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Bloom, full of kindliness, takes him back to his home where Molly (who can be a seductive witch, is also a faithful wife in a fallen world) is in bed, and Bloom asks Stephen if he wants to stay the night.
“Was the proposal of asylum accepted?
“Promptly, inexplicably, with amicability, gratefully it was declined.”
This second last chapter of Ulysses is in question and answer form like a Catholic catechism, and perhaps in secular terms the voice it is couched in represents the spirit that personifies the feeling (love’s too big a word) between Bloom the father figure and Stephen the son. “What spectacle confronted them?” the wholly ghostly voice asks them. And the answer?’ “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”
There is an extraordinary grace in the stiltedness of this parody of a Q&A but everything in Ulysses works by principle of parody because the book is deeply comical and it constantly sends up ways in which words fail while also being intent on the well-worn ways in which common garden language is the only language we have to express the things in the heart.
And this is all turned on its head by the grandeur of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy because Molly is also the muse and she can say anything in the most uninhibited way. She can say anything as she mixes everything together. She thinks about sex and then about lions and says, “I imagine he’d have something to say for himself, an old lion would.” And she says, “With him never embracing me except sometimes the wrong end of me.”
The great Irish actor Siobhan McKenna recorded the last half-hour of Ulysses with Molly’s unpunctuated drowsy and erotic ramblings, and she makes the syntax clairvoyantly clear and it remains far and away the finest introduction to Ulysses. A hundred years after its first publication the great climactic “Yes” remains breathtaking. “I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
The rule with the miracle works of 1922 is to listen to them if your eyes reel. Just as Ulysses will continue to unfold its mysteries if you put on your best stage Irish and force yourself to read aloud, so Proust with his extraordinary long sentences (all those jewel-laden subordinate clauses) can sometimes be easier to read aloud than for the eye to comprehend. Among Proust performances the Ralph Richardson reading of Swann in Love is the parallel miracle to McKenna’s Molly Bloom.
But when Proust died in 1922 having left behind a completed (though not fully revised) text of the great work he’d changed fiction forever. “For a long time I used to go to bed early” is the first sentence of it and before we know where we are we are brought up close, with the greatest intimacy, to this exquisite sook of a child who is obsessed with being kissed goodnight by his mother and who as an adult narrator sees a lost past rising up for him simply because of the taste of that madeleine and that cup of tea.
Proust is the most essayistic but also the most lyrical of novelists and you can see why William Empson, one of the founders of modern criticism, could say his masterwork sometimes reads like criticism of genius of a lost masterpiece because part of the clairvoyant aspect of Proust is to make the interpretative unfolding part of the narrative drive of a book that can seem to make the earth stand still. Think of Camus’s remark, “The monotony of Melville, the monotony of the Old Testament, the terrible monotony of Proust.”
But the terrible monotony of Proust can be a chimera, an illusion. When you try to find it in any individual passage it fades away. The Proustian effect is a monumental thing created out of the book’s cumulative power.
Yes, it’s a quest for time lost. Yes, it narrates a hero’s infatuation with the Guermantes aristocrats – no one has ever captured the besotted fascination with mindless glamour so effectively. Yes, it is also one of the greatest works to depict the power and enfeeblement of helpless, blind obsessive passion. Hence George Steiner saying, “No one could read Proust without feeling a frailty at the heart of their sexual being.”
At the same time, to read A la recherche du temps perdu is to feel you’ve experienced something like the totality of what the novel as an art form can express and represent, the novelistic power of a created world that is also blindingly and absolutely compellingly a recapitulated world.
And what a world. There’s the gay girl who spits on her dead father’s photo. There’s the fact he’s actually a great composer. There’s that extraordinary couple of lovers of the artistic, Madame and Monsieur Verdurin, and she is the greatest portrait of a vulgarian in history. There’s Gilberte with whom the hero – occasionally called Marcel – loves to wrestle. There’s his grandmother, a woman of absolute sincerity and culture and depth of love. There’s Albertine, who’s no better than she should be but can look like the abiding memory of everything. And then there’s the tremendous figure of the Baron de Charlus, gay and growling, an immense comic creation, black and brilliant and unforgettable.
Proust has a sustained treatment of the Dreyfus case that rocked Paris just as in Time Regained the characters are shadowed by the Great War. There is no greater memory of life than Proust. It falls on the reader like a revelation of what? The power of art, the power of life.
The Waste Land, which can be read aloud in an hour, is the great circus show of modernism. The collage of languages, the snippets of Dante, and all the many death had undone, the music of the Rhinemaidens, the cockney speech and the terrible dialogue of the woman who is mentally distressed and the man answering with what might be dispassionate hatred from inside his head. All that summoning up of a world where the gestures of lust are unreproved and undesired and then the kind of word salad where the French poem about the prince in the ruined tower blends with the injunctions of classical Indian precept and right at the end the repeated “shantih” is a token of peace or music or nothing.
But this is an Alice in Wonderland world at the edge of madness: dislocated, disturbed and with an extraordinary dramatic power.
If you don’t know the masterpieces of the annus mirabilis or need to revisit them, the centenary of 1922 is a good excuse
There is history in old songs, and particularly in the songs that tell the story of a nation’s resistance to invasion and occupation. Ireland’s long and troubled relationship with its powerful neighbour across the water has inspired a compendium of such songs of rebellion.
One of my favourites, Let Erin Remember, encapsulates it: “
On Lough Neagh’s banks as the fisherman strays In the clear cold eve declining He sees the round towers of other days In the waters ‘neath him shining Thus shall memory often in dreams sublime Catch a glimpse of the days that are over Thus sighing, look through the waves of time For the long-faded glories they cover
In That Howling Infinite has published two essays about old Irish songs and their colourful history, Mo Ghile Mear and The Boys of Wexford. What follows is a song contemporary to these in composition, but takes us back a century and a half to Ireland’s struggle against the Tudor crown in the late sixteenth century.
O’Donnell Abú (Ó Domhnaill Abú) is a traditional Irish song. Its lyrics were written by Michael Joseph McCann, a Fenian, in 1843. It tells of the Gaelic lord Red Hugh O’Donnell who ruled Tyrconnell(present day County Donegal) in the late sixteenth century first with the approval of the Crown authorities in Dublin and later in rebellion against them during Tyrone’s Rebellion.
Hugh Rua O’Donnell (Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill), also known as Red Hugh O’Donnell (30 October 1572 – 10 September 1602), was a sixteenth-century Irish nobleman who, with his father-in-law Hugh O’Neill of Tyrone, led an alliance of Irish clans in the Nine Years’ War against the English government in Ireland. He led an Irish army to victory in the Battle of Curlew Pass, but after defeat in the Siege of Kinsale, he travelled to Spain to in an unsuccessful effort to obtain support from King Philip III. He never returned to Ireland and he died in Spain.
There is no extant portrait or visual representation of Red Hugh though a contemporary suggested that he was “above middle height, strong, handsome, well built”. An idealised image of Red Hugh is this post’s featured image. Romantics picture the youthful Red Hugh as fiery, headstrong, quick-witted, passionate, committed to Catholicism, and to the preservation of the values, language, and culture of the Gaelic world into which he had been born and reared. Above all, he is determined to rid Ireland of its English overlords.
Though limited and often biased against him, extant historical records largely validate this portrayal. They also recapture the complexities of Red Hugh’s highly militarized world, where local lords raided for cattle and reduced neighbouring lords to submission, and show Red Hugh to be a wily negotiator, an effective and pragmatic power broker, and a brave soldier.
The title refers to the Gaelic war cry of “Abú,” “To victory,” which followed a commander’s name, and is the rallying cry for the O’Donnell clan, called to assemble at a location on the banks of the River Erne in Donegal. The Bonnaught and Gallowglass were Irish and Scots mercenaries employed by O’Donnell to guard the mountain passes. They were now summoned to join the rest of O’Donnell’s forces, who await the arrival of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and the Borderers who protect his lands.
The song’s martial melody is proud and energetic, and its descriptive imagery is striking. You can almost visualize the war wolf and the eagle, the fires of the marauders, and the serried ranks of horsemen and foot soldiers in their chain mail advancing to avenge “Erin” with trumpets and war cries. To modern ears, the neo-Gothic romanticism of the lyrics and the aggressiveness of the melody may come across as jingoistic and over the top, but passionate nationalist McCann was probably endeavouring to emulate the bards of old. A stirring rendering of the song follows in a spirited live performance by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. This world famous folk group was an especial favourite of mine back in my teenage and folkie days.
Proudly the note of the trumpet is sounding;
Loudly the war cries arise on the gale;
Fleetly the steed by Lough Swilly is bounding,
To join the thick squadrons on Saimear‘s green vale.
On, ev’ry mountaineer, strangers to flight or fear,
Rush to the standard of dauntless Red Hugh.
Bonnaught and Gallowglass, throng from each mountain pass.
On for old Erin, “O’Donnell Abú!”
Princely O’Neill to our aid is advancing
With many a chieftain and warrior clan.
A thousand proud steeds in his vanguard are prancing
‘Neath the borderers brave from the Banks of the Bann:
Many a heart shall quail under its coat of mail.
Deeply the merciless foeman shall rue
When on his ears shall ring, borne on the breeze’s wing, Tír Chonaill‘s dread war-cry, “O’Donnell Abú!”
Wildly o’erDesmondthe war-wolf is howling;
Fearless the eagle sweeps over the plain;
The fox in the streets of the city is prowling–
All who would scare them are banished or slain!
Grasp ev’ry stalwart hand Hackbut and battle brand–
Pay them all back the debt so long due; Norris and Cliffordwell can of Tirconnell tell;
Onward to glory–“O’Donnell abú!”
Sacred the cause that Clan Connell’s defending–
The altars we kneel at and homes of our sires;
Ruthless the ruin the foe is extending–
Midnight is red with the plunderer’s fires.
On with O’Donnell then, fight the old fight again,
Sons of Tirconnell, all valiant and true:
Make the proud Saxon feel Erin’s avenging steel!
Strike for your country! “O’Donnell Abú!’
The hyperlinks in the song link specific names to their Wikipedia references, but here is a brief glossary:
Bonnaught is type of billeting or a billeted soldier. From Irish buannacht, billeting or billeting tax. A gallowglass (from gallóglach) was a Scottish Gaelic mercenary soldier in Ireland between mid 13th and late 16th centuries. A hackbut is a harquebuss or arquebus, the first long-arm gun fired from the shoulder. John Norris and Conyers Clifford were English commanders who fought O’Donnel and O’Neill, whilst Tír Chonaill, a kingdom of Gaelic Ireland, associated geographically with present-day County Donegal the home of the the Ó Domhnaill clan. It was the location of fighting during the Nine Years’ War
The Red Earl and the Dark Daughter
“It is hard to think, looking at the peaceful countryside of modern Donegal, “writes Ciaran Conliffe in an excellent post on his Scribbler blog, “that in days gone by men fought, bled and died on these hills. But the history of Ireland, up until relatively recently, was one of almost constant strife”. So begins his enthralling tale of Red Hugh and his feisty mother Iníon Dubh. Read it HERE
An impassioned ballad, entitled in the original Roisin Duh (or The Black Little Rose), was written in the reign of Elizabeth by one of the poets of Red Hugh’s entourage, and translated by nationalist mid-19th Century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan. It is an allegorical address by Hugh to Ireland, represented in this and many other Irish songs as a beautiful woman, of his love and his struggles for her, and of his resolve to raise her again to the glorious position she held as a nation before the irruption of the Saxon and Norman spoilers – for that’s how the romantic poets saw it: “Sons of Tirconnell, all valiant and true: make the proud Saxon feel Erin’s avenging steel! Strike for your country! “O’Donnell Abú!'”
The Red Hand
Red Hugh’s soldiers had their war cry with O’Donnell Abú. That of the O’Neill clan, led in O’Donnell’s ally Hugh O’Neill of Tyrone, was Lámh Dhearg Abú! – The Red Hand to Victory!
The Red Hand symbol and the war cry are believed to have been used by the O’Neills during the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603) against English rule in Ireland, A contemporary English writer observed: “The Ancient Red Hand of Ulster, the bloody Red Hand, a terrible cognizance! And in allusion to that terrible cognizance—the battle cry of Lámh Dhearg Abú!”
The motif of the Red Hand is a common one in Irish and particularly Ulster folklore. It originated in in Gaelic culture and, although its origin and meaning are unknown, it is believed to date back to pre-Christian times. There is a theory that the ancient Phoenicians may have brought the symbol to Ireland. able seamen and adventurous traders that they were, the Phoenicians of the Levant did indeed venture as far as what are now the British Isles.
A story is also told that the Red Hand symbol originated in a legendary ancestor who put his bloodstained hand on a banner after victory in battle. Bards and balladeers argue its origins, harking back to real and legendary heroes and kings, and commonly relating to shedding the blood of enemies. It was adopted by the O’Neills around 1335. Whilst demonstrating their ancient lineage, they may also may have regarded it as signifying divine assistance and strength.
The Red Hand is present in the arms of a number of Ulster’s counties, such as Antrim, Cavan, Londonderry, Monaghan and Tyrone. Itt also appears in the Ulster Banner, and is used by many other official and non-official organisations throughout the province. It can be regarded as one of the very few cross-community symbols used in Northern Ireland (which makes up six of Ulster’s nine counties) crossing the sectarian political divide.
Let Erin remember the days of old
Ere her faithless sons betrayed her
When Malachy wore the collar of gold
That he won from the proud invader
When her kings with standards of green unfurled
Led the Red Branch Knights to danger
Ere the emerald gem of the Western World
Was set in the crown of a stranger
On Lough Neagh’s banks as the fisherman strays
In the clear cold eve declining
He sees the round towers of other days
In the waters ‘neath him shining
Thus shall memory often in dreams sublime
Catch a glimpse of the days that are over
Thus sighing, look through the waves of time
For the long-faded glories they cover
James Clarence Mangan
O my dark Rosaleen,
Do not sigh, do not weep!
The priests are on the ocean green,
They march along the deep.
There’s wine from the royal Pope,
Upon the ocean green;
And Spanish ale shall give you hope,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!
Shall glad your heart, shall give you hope,
Shall give you health, and help, and hope,
My Dark Rosaleen!
Over hills, and thro’ dales,
Have I roam’d for your sake;
All yesterday I sail’d with sails
On river and on lake.
The Erne, at its highest flood,
I dash’d across unseen,
For there was lightning in my blood,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!
O, there was lightning in my blood,
Red lighten’d thro’ my blood.
My Dark Rosaleen!
All day long, in unrest,
To and fro, do I move.
The very soul within my breast
Is wasted for you, love!
The heart in my bosom faints
To think of you, my Queen,
My life of life, my saint of saints,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!
To hear your sweet and sad complaints,
My life, my love, my saint of saints,
My Dark Rosaleen!
Woe and pain, pain and woe,
Are my lot, night and noon,
To see your bright face clouded so,
Like to the mournful moon.
But yet will I rear your throne
Again in golden sheen;
‘Tis you shall reign, shall reign alone,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!
‘Tis you shall have the golden throne,
‘Tis you shall reign, and reign alone,
Over dews, over sands,
Will I fly, for your weal:
Your holy delicate white hands
Shall girdle me with steel.
At home, in your emerald bowers,
From morning’s dawn till e’en,
You’ll pray for me, my flower of flowers,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My fond Rosaleen!
You’ll think of me through daylight hours
My virgin flower, my flower of flowers,
My Dark Rosaleen!
I could scale the blue air,
I could plough the high hills,
Oh, I could kneel all night in prayer,
To heal your many ills!
And one beamy smile from you
Would float like light between
My toils and me, my own, my true,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My fond Rosaleen!
Would give me life and soul anew,
My Dark Rosaleen!
O, the Erne shall run red,
With redundance of blood,
The earth shall rock beneath our tread,
And flames wrap hill and wood,
And gun-peal and slogan-cry
Wake many a glen serene,
Ere you shall fade, ere you shall die,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!
The Judgement Hour must first be nigh,
Ere you can fade, ere you can die,
My Dark Rosaleen!
The best thing one can say about 2021 is that it is not 2020. i guess we’ll all be glad when twenty one is done.
There were no bushfires to entertain us like last year, but the pandemic hung like a dark cloud over our everyday lives. In this, the second year of the pandemic, economies continue to struggle, livelihoods continue threatened or destroyed, many borders remain closed, and cities, towns and homes continue to be locked-down and isolated, and restrictions and precautions are ever-present.
There’s a sense that time has stood still, as if nothing much has really happened since the pandemic struck and that we’ve been treading water, awaiting wake if not rescue, them at least, release.
Things have changed, of course. The affairs of gods and men carry on above it all. But in our personal lives, there have been changes too – our behaviour and the nature of our interactions with others and the outside world, have indeed changed utterly. And our outlook on life, the universe and everything has changed too.
Most of all, we’re all feeling tired. Burnt out. Disengaged. Cynical.
I noticed it during the recent local government election when otherwise astute and active folk could not summon up the energy and interest to involve themselves with the issues at stake. The elections had been cancelled twice due to COVID19, and many had just lost interest. “When is the election again?” they’d ask apathetically.
A year ago almost to the day, we wrote in our our review of 2020, A year of living dangerously: “Time during 2020 has been elastic and confused. On 21st December, The Guardian asked readers to sum up how they felt about 2020 in one word – and likewise their feelings for 2021. As of Xmas Eve, the standout words were respectively (a) shit, fucked and challenging and (b) hopeful and better. My poll responses were “fascinating” and “unpredictable”.
And a year hence, I would give much the same response. Compared to other folk here in Australia and overseas, we’ve had a “good” Covid – if that indeed is the most appropriate descriptor. We don’t have to earn a living and we live on a beautiful rural acreage that is totally stand-alone and off-grid – there couldn’t be a more congenial spot to self-isolate. But we’d love to be able to escape the padded cell – to exit the Australian bubble for a while, to visit friends and relatives in England and to reconnect with the history and geography that we love in the world outside. Perhaps in 2022, we’ll have that opportunity.
The title of this review is borrowed from the famous American baseball coach Yogi Berra. As we leave 2021, here’s another:
“Predictions are always very hard, especially when they’re about the future”
The World in review
It was for us personally the saddest of years. Our close friend, neighbour and forest warrior, Annette, departed our planet mid-year after what seemed like short, aggressive illness – although in retrospect, we know that it was a slow train coming for a long while. I wrote Farewell to a Tarkeeth Tigerin tribute to her. And in September, our beautiful, talented, wise friend and soul sister Krishna Sundari.
As for the world at large, COVID19 continues to dominate the news, with more contagious variants popping up all over the place lake a game of “whack a mole”. As does the ongoing struggle to reach global consensus on the need to confront climate change. Tackling both looks a little like the story of Sisyphus, the Greek King of old who was condemned by Zeus to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down as soon as he reached the top.
The year kicked off to a fine start with the January 6th Insurrection in Washington DC as Donald Trump endeavoured to cling on to office by inciting his supporters and sundry militias to storm the Capitol to stop the count of electoral votes that would cede the presidency to Joe Biden. Though he failed, and was impeached
for a second time, and the Biden administration sought to calm America’s troubled waters, the Orange One haunts The US’ fractious and paralyzed politics and the prospect of a second Trump term is not beyond imagination.
Trump’s bestie, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime’s minister, also got the push in the wake of the third election in just over a year. The unique coalition that emerged from torturous negotiations spanned the political, social and religious spectrum – left and right, secular and orthodox, Arab and Jew, and promised little more than maintaining the unsatisfactory status quo, that pertaining to the occupation and the settlements, illegal migrants, and the disproportionate influence the Haredim, none of which are morally, politically, socially or economically sustainable.
China under would-be emperor Xi Jinping continues to aggressively build its military and economic power, determined to take its rightful and long overdue place at the top of the geopolitical ladder, causing consternation among its neighbours and also other powers and fears of war in our time. With Xinjiang’s Uighurs and Hong Kong firmly under its autocratic boot, it continues to expand its nautical footprint in the South China Sea and signals loudly that Taiwan’s days as a liberal democracy are numbered. Its belligerency is increasingly meeting blow-back as other nations react in various ways to what they perceive as clear and present danger. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
Russia under would-be czar Vladimir Putin continues to aggressively rebuild its military power and influence, determined to revive the glory days of the defunct Soviet Union, whist channeling memories of its former imperial glory. Whilst in no way as powerful as China, it is taking advantage of the the world’s preoccupation with the ascendancy of the Celestial Kingdom Redux to reassert its influence in its own backyard – including the veiled threat to reconquer Ukraine – and also in the world, particularly in Syria and through the use of shadowy proxies and mercenaries, in Africa. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
Turkey under would-be Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to aggressively pull its self away from the west and towards some concept of a leadership role in the Muslim world.Its economy, meanwhile, is in free-fall, with unemployment and food prices rising and the lira tanking. At the heart of the problem is Erdogan’s attempt to take a sophisticated globalized economy and run it as an emirate does, replacing state institutions with personalized rule.You cannot run a sophisticated, modern economy on conspiracy theories and doctrines from the 7th century.But President Erdogan, having rigged the electoral system and cornered the religious and nationalist vote, and with no rivals in sight, isn’t gong anywhere soon.
America finally ended its “endless war” in Afghanistan, in a chaotic, deadly scramble that left that country’s forever unfortunate people in the hands of a resurgent and apparently unreformed and unrepentant Taliban. It’s over a 100 days since the last evacuation plane took off in scenes of chaos and misery, leaving behind thousands of employees and others at risk of retribution, and the new regime has yet to establish a working government. Meanwhile professionals, human rights workers, officials of the former regime, members if the old government’s security forces, and especially women and girls wait, many in hiding, for the worst. Meanwhile, winter is coming and the country is broke and on the brink of of starvation. A major humanitarian crisis is imminent. What happens next, everybody does indeed know. As St. Leonard said, “We have seen the future and it’s murder!”
Whilst the war in Afghanistan ended, there are still plenty to go around for the weapons manufacturers and arms dealers, the mercenaries and the proxies. The year began well for Azerbaijan when it emerged victorious from a vicious 44 day drone and missile war against Armenia for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave that saw Turkish and Syrian proxies engaged each side of the conflict. An old War was rekindled in Ethiopia as a Nobel Peace Prize winner sent his troops to rake pillage and conquer a fractious province which turned the tables and is now poses to seize his capital. Hubris extremis? Meanwhile, war went on in the usual places – Syria, Libya, Yemen, Mali, the Central African Republic, and places too obscure to mention.
Meanwhile, back home DownUnder, the story that dominated political news – apart from COVID19 and the shmozzle of the vaccine roll-out, was the delinquent behaviour of politicians and their staffers in Parliament House – commentators have likened the goings-on in there to a school yard or frat house, and more bluntly, to a Roman orgy, with tales of bullying and sexual harassment, drunken parties, mutual masturbation sessions, and even rape. The prime minister huffed and puffed and asked his wife how he should deal with the situation; commissions of inquiries were set up; and reports handed down. The motto is “we must do better – and we shall!” But as with most things these days, nobody believes what politicians say anymore.
And not just here in Australia, but all over the world. Trust is in short supply, and indeed, people’s faith in democratic traditions and processes is shaking as populism and a taste for autocracy spreads like … well, a coronavirus. The US was recently named a “backsliding democracy” by a Swedish based think-tank, an assessment based on the attempted Capitol coup and restrictions on voting rights in Red states. In the bizarro conspiracy universe, American right-wing commentators and rabble-rousers are urging their freedom-loving myrmidons to rescue Australia from totalitarianism. Apparently we have established covid concentration camps and are forcible vaccinating indigenous people.
In early December, US President Joe Biden held a summit for democracy, and yet his administration are still determined to bring Julian Assange to trial, a case that, if it succeeds, will limit freedom of speech. The conduct of the trial also poses a threat to the US’s reputation because it could refocus attention on the ugly incidents during the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were exposed by WikiLeaks. There is a strong humanitarian and pragmatic case to look for a way out of Assange’s Kafkaesque nightmare, but the bastions of freedom, America, Britain and Australia show no interest in doing so notwithstanding the harm it does to their democratic credentials.
I chose these invigorating times to stand as a Labor candidate for Bellingen Shire Council in those elections I referred to at the beginning of this review. What we thought would be a short, sharp two month campaign extended to an exhausting five month slog as the Delta variant necessitated delaying the elections for a second time.
Few in the Shire can remember the last time Labor candidate stood for council, so we began with a very low public recognition, but we ran a good, honest campaign and raised our profile.
But alas, we were outgunned, outspent and outnumbered by the well-funded, professionally organised chamber of commerce independents coordinated, advised and directed by the National Party, who played to a disengaged and cynical electorate by gas-lighting us with the claim that we were “infiltrators” from mainstream political parties, bankrolled by big party money, and dictated to by Macquarie Street (the NSW Parliament), and thence, with no entitlement to represent the Shire – even though we were long-standing residents well-known in the community. Progressives on council are now but two against five, and the Nationals have reclaimed the Shire for business, development and traditional values. Back to the future. There will be buyer’s remorse for many ho voted for them without checking their credentials. And meanwhile, I’m quite happy not to have to sit in the council chamber with a bunch of neo-Thatcherites.
And finally, on a bright note, in the arts world, there was Taylor Swift. Fresh from her Grammy award for the sublime Folklore, she released her re-recorded version of her copyright-purloined album Red. How can anyone improve on the fabulous original? Swift does! It’s brighter, shinier, sharper, bigger, beatier and bouncier (I stole the last alliterations from the Who album of yonks ago), and her mature voice is a pleasure. Released just over nine years ago, when she was 22, it feels as fresh today, and for all the gossip and innuendo that surrounded its conception and reception and endure to this day, even in the hallowed habitats of the New York Times, the Washington Post and Rolling Stone (the Economist hasn’t weighed in yet), I find it refreshing and encouraging to listen to an artist so articulate and audacious, precocious and prodigious for one so young. Tay Tay also delivered one of the pop culture moments of the year, beguiling us all with the adventures of her old scarf. It out that not only did actor Jake Gyllenhall take her innocence, but he nicked her scarf too, and for one weekend in November all the internet cared about was its whereabouts. Safe to say it was a bad 48 hours to be Gyllenhaal.
Our year in review …
True to its mission statement, In That Howling Infinite reflected the events of the year with an eclectic collection. But, curiously, deliberately or by mere circumstance, we published nothing about the plague that had dominated our lives.
A Celtic heartbeat inspired Over the Sea to Skye, the story of the famous folk song and of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald, whilst a continuing interest in The Middle East saw the completion of a log-standing piece, a contemplation on the Crusade: Al Tarikh al Salabin – the Crusader’s Trail. Our Israeli friend and guide Shmuel Browns explored the Anzac Trail in the Negev Desert and discovered a forgotten battle that had a direct connection to our own neighbourhood and the ever-evolving story of Chris Fell of Twin Pines: Tel al Sabi’ – Tarkeeth’s Anzac Story.
Our own Kalang River was the subject of the latest in the Small Stories series, Crossing the South Arm– how that wide river was first spanned back in the day. On Christmas Eve last year, a koala took up residence on our property and stayed for several weeks – the only koala we have actually seen in forty years (we do hear them often). This led to a historical and contemporary commentary on the parlous predicament of our much-loved marsupial: The Agony and Extinction of Blinky Bill. Last year, we exposed the alarming reality that Tarkeeth Forest wood was being chipped and used to generate electricity. Our earlier The Bonfire of the Insanities- the Biomass Greenwash was followed by The Bonfire of the Insanities 2 – the EU’s Biomass Dilemma.
In Australia, there is no song more iconic than that based on the poem by AB ‘Banjo” Paterson, Waltzing Matilda. Back in the days gone by, schoolchildren across the Anglophone world would sing it, and most of the adult population could hum it – although I am informed that this is no longer the case in our globalized culture. But at one time, folk singers would croon it, bush bands would rollick it, and film scores would kitsch it. Sentimental souls would hold back tears at its tragic denouement. It was as Australian as football, meat pies, Vegemite, and Holden cars, as dinky di as Chips Rafferty, Barry “Mckenzie” Crocker, Paul “Crocadile Dundee” Hogan and Dame Edna Everage.
No wonder then that from its eariiest days it made an ideal marketing hook – as writer and commentator Monica Dux points out in an entertaining article in the Sydney Morning Herald (read it below):
“In the early 20th century, a copy of the song was included in packets of the popular Billy Tea, as a promotional stunt. The tea manufacturers were concerned that the song ended on a pretty grim note, so the word “jolly” was added to the opening line. To liven things up a bit. Shocking, isn’t it? That one word changes the whole feel of the thing, elevating the swag man from an impoverished, homeless man, hounded to death by police, to a happy-go-lucky bush scamp. Yet the only reason the word is there is so the song would work better as an ad.”
Waltzing Matilda is recognizable around the world. Tom Waits excerpted it in Tom Traubert’s Blues, and saloon dogsbody Jewel sung it to Al Swearagen as he lay dying in the Deadwoodwrap-up -incongruously, as historically, the song hadn’t been written then. Our old mate Victor Mishalow, the onetime Carlingford Cossack and formerly one of the iconoclastic HuldreFolk, performs his own arrangement (see below).
Such is its status in our folklore that when anational plebiscite was held to choose a new anthem to replace God Save The Queen, it was one of the four songs selected for the people’s choice. I voted for it, but it came in second to Advance Australia Fair and well ahead of that British entry. No candidate received a majority of votes – the field was full of wannabes which delivered an informal vote of nearly 11% of ballots issued – doubtless including Johnny Farnham’s rousing You’re the Voice, Men At Work’s ironic Downunder, Slim Dusty’s The Pub With No Beer, and, ahem. Rolf Harris’ Sun Arise.
I pondered why Advance, flawed and fallacious as it was, got the gig. I concluded that it was because in our multicultural country’s changing demographic, cultural and social landscape, a plurality of voters were ether ignorant of the song or indifferent to its context and status. And in truth, a song about a person who steals a sheep and commits suicide when the police arrive is hardly an inspirational and aspirational anthem. Paterson’s original poem is republished below.
But it remains in some quarters an enduring tribal totem. The Banjo would’ve been surprised and perhaps flattered at its sustained popularity. His poem told the tale of a bloke who would rather die than succumb to authority. Historians now argue that Banjo was inspired by the story of a German gold prospector, down on his luck and mentally unstable, who took his own life when confronted by the law. It is also believed that he actually co-wrote Waltzing Matilda with a Queensland lass he was courting (and it is said, leading on) and that he took all the credit. That’s show biz, I guess!
Although it lost out as our anthem, I still cheer for Matilda. Maybe it would have made the grade if our anthem just had music, and not words open to potential controversy and ridicule. And yet, critics would argue that the tune is itself not original, and is actually an old English one, a march played by Marlborough’s army at the beginning of the eighteenth century. I have a recording of it, The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant, sung by an English folk group called Strawhead. On a flight of fancy, the aforementioned HuldreFolkused to perform the Italian version – sung and played as an actual waltz to the tune of the famous Neapolitan song Farewell to Sorrento (Torna a Surriento). As far as I know, there is no recording – although the concert may have been taped and retained by the National Archive in Canberra.
Monica Dux, Sydney Morning Herald September 24th 2021
I was lucky to read an early copy of Symbols of Australia, a soon to be republished collection of essays about things that have traditionally been used to represent and define Australia. Included in the assortment are essays on wattle, Vegemite and cooees, all tired national cliches, yet the book still manages to surprise, and is packed with curious and unexpected detail.
Take Waltzing Matilda. In the early 20th century, a copy of the song was included in packets of the popular Billy Tea, as a promotional stunt. The tea manufacturers were concerned that the song ended on a pretty grim note, so the word “jolly” was added to the opening line. To liven things up a bit. Shocking, isn’t it? That one word changes the whole feel of the thing, elevating the swagman from an impoverished, homeless man, hounded to death by police, to a happy-go-lucky bush scamp. Yet the only reason the word is there is so the song would work better as an ad.
Fair enough. But could she sing it? I was a little shocked to discover that she could not. I certainly could, so I did. With gusto. Prompting my son to pop his head out of his bedroom, appalled, as he always is when I break into song. This gave me an opportunity to question him about his own familiarity with the adventures of the swagman and the jumbuck. “Yeah, I know it,” he grunted. “Sort of. But can you please stop singing now?”
Like his sister, he was vaguely aware that Waltzing Matilda existed, but that was about it. “Ra-ra Australia, or something”, he replied, when I grilled him on what he thought the song was actually about.
I felt a strange mix of pride and sadness at discovering my children’s ignorance about Waltzing Matilda. My own childhood was awash with Australiana. Growing up, I sang Waltzing Matilda countless times, but also other bush ballads, such as The Wild Colonial Boy. I was also fond of Rolf (spit on the ground) Harris, particularly his Six White Boomers – the eugenically white kangaroos that helped Santa deliver presents across Australia – which I listened to every December, in anticipation of Christmas.
The stories and songs of Australia that I heard were filled with bearded bushrangers, stockmen, damper and diggers; people who said things such as “fair dinkum” and “true blue”, and greeted everyone with hearty “giddays”. Very few people I knew actually spoke like that, and my class at school had to have damper explained to us, as it was an entirely mysterious substance. Yet that’s how we were encouraged to see our country, our culture and our history.
As a child, I was happy with that simplistic story. But it quickly soured as I entered my teens, and started learning more about the realities of colonisation, and our relationship to First Nations. About the White Australia policy, and the complexity of our many wars, seen through a very specific Anglo-male prism. To quote my son, Ra Ra Australia!
My children have a very different understanding of their country. And I’ve actively encouraged that. I’ve taught them that the accident of birth should not in itself be a source of pride, and that the real measure of a nation is not how hairy-chested its soldiers and bushrangers are, but how it treats its most vulnerable.
But it’s not just my aversion to jingoism that has resulted in a pair of children who can’t sing a single bush ballad. It has more to do with the internationalised world they inhabit, one that all too often obscures what’s local and home-grown. And that’s where my twinge of sadness came in. After all, Waltzing Matilda is a lovely little song, and a delight to sing. And I do sometimes wonder whether we’ve done much better in trading some of our local culture for the hyper-commercial global version we see on YouTube and social media.
So, maybe Waltzing Matilda is still relevant. A song with a dark undercurrent, brightened up and made more palatable so that it could be used to flog tea. That really does sound like an apt representation, not only of what we were, but of what we’ve become.
Monica Dux is a writer, columnist and social commentator
Our could’ve been national anthem
In June 2019, in our own antipodean version of America’s footballers “taking the knee” to protest racial injustice and particularly, police violence against people of colour, Aussie football players refused to sing our national anthem, In a fresh bout in our ongoing history and culture wars, the white and angry brigade are rallying around Advance Australia Fair.
Personally, though i am not a sports fan, I was on the side of the players. Our anthem is archaic, Eurocentric and corny, And it’s a simply awful song – as i write above, I would have much preferred Waltzing Matilda – and it’s poetry is doggerel. And, at the time, its motif was anachronistically inaccurate – we are not a young fair country at all. It was only on January 1st this year that our the government officially altered the song’s second line, It was a move cheered by some of the country’s almost 800,000 Indigenous people, and millions of other Aussies of goodwill, “Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free” (young we are not – our first people have been here for sixty thousand years and more) with “one and free”.
So, if I don’t like Advance and i cant have Matilda, if the choice was solely mine, what would I pick?
Well, I loved that old Qantas ad of the children’s choir singing Tenterfield son Peter Allen’s I Still Call Australia Homeas they stood before iconic Aussie places, like the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Kimberleys and Uluru. I would hum it every time I’d fly into Sydney from overseas on the Flying Kangaroo,
But just the other night, I watched a government advertisement that featured children in COVID19 lockdown all over Australia, children of many cultures singing “We are One but we are Many”. It was written and often sung by our ever popular vocal group The Seekers.
Old softy that I am, I thought “now that make a fine anthem!”. I am sure that i would not be alone on that.
A new version has been created to celebrate ninety years of the ABC. This one celebrates our cultural and ethnic diversity, with a dynamic mix of dancing and drumming. It’s a lot of fun and quite uplifting too.
Australia’s rugby team has received praise for singing a version of the country’s national anthem in a First Nations language. The Wallabies sang “Advance Australia Fair” in both the Eora language and English before their international match against Argentina on Saturday. It is the first time a joint-language version of the anthem has been performed at an international event. The players, wearing their indigenous jerseys, sang along with both versions.
Young musician Olivia Fox performed the anthem in the language of the Eora Nation – a clan from around the coastal area of Sydney, where the match was held. All of the players sang along. They had regular practice sessions with Ms Fox before the match in order to learn the words and sing it confidently, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.”
Who am i to blow against the wind?
In June 2019, eZine New Matilda waded through Facebook comments on a tabloid morning TV show’s poll on changing the national anthem. It is entertaining and informative. And yet, at the same time, it is sad insofar as it shows how ignorant of history and lacking in empathy many of us Australian are. Here are a couple of choice pieces:
Comment: Leave things alone most people in Australia want things left alone. Stop the minority from interfering. Who are these people who want to change everything. Don’t like our anthem go home
New Matilda” Aboriginal people are Indigenous to Australia. They already are ‘home’.
Comment: amazing 40 years ago when I arrived in this land, they used to say it was 40000 of indigenous history, so what happened, how can it be, in 40 years we added 20000 years.
New Matilda: It’s called ‘science’. Current indications are that Aboriginal people have lived here at least 120,000 years.
Oh there once was a swagman camped in the billabongs,
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree;
And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling.
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag.
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Up came the jumbuck to drink at the waterhole,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee;
And he sang as he put him away in his tucker-bag,
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling.
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag.
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Up came the squatter a-riding his thoroughbred;
Up came the policeman – one, two, and three.
“Whose is the jumbuck you’ve got in the tucker-bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with we.”
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling.
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag.
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Up sprang the swagman and jumped into the waterhole,
Drowning himself by the Coolibah tree;
And his voice can be heard as it sings in the billabongs,
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling.
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag.
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Written 1895, first published as sheet music 1903
We are Australian
I came from the dream-time
From the dusty red-soil plains
I am the ancient heart
The keeper of the flame
I stood upon the rocky shores
I watched the tall ships come
For forty thousand years I’ve been
The first Australian
I came upon the prison ship
Bowed down by iron chains
I fought the land, endured the lash
And waited for the rains
I’m a settler, I’m a farmer’s wife
On a dry and barren run
A convict, then a free man
I became Australian
I’m the daughter of a digger
Who sought the mother lode
The girl became a woman
On the long and dusty road
I’m a child of the Depression
I saw the good times come
I’m a bushie, I’m a battler
I am Australian
We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice
“I am, you are, we are Australian”
I’m a teller of stories
I’m a singer of songs
I am Albert Namatjira
And I paint the ghostly gums
I’m Clancy on his horse
I’m Ned Kelly on the run
I’m the one who waltzed Matilda
I am Australian
I’m the hot wind from the desert
I’m the black soil of the plains
I’m the mountains and the valleys
I’m the drought and flooding rains
I am the rock, I am the sky
The rivers when they run
The spirit of this great land
I am Australian
We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice
“I am, you are, we are Australian”
We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice
“I am, you are, we are Australian”
We Acknowledge the Gumbaynggirr People, the traditional custodians of the Land we are gathering upon, and the Land from the Tablelands to the sea; and who have been here for over sixty five thousand years. And we pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.
Our dear friend and forest neighbour departed our planet at eight in he morning of Monday 7th June 2021, and bid farewell to country on a beautiful winter’s afternoon on Saturday 19th June.
There must have been some two hundred friends gathered at Paradise Park, her lovely property in Fernmount in the Bellinger Valley. Many beautiful eulogies were delivered recalling and celebrating her long and remarkable life.
And it was indeed a colourful one. Like many in the Shire, she hailed from the United Kingdom, but as the daughter of a regimental sergeant major in the Grenadier Guards, she and her mother and sister lived in many corners of the British Empire. She had so many amazing stories to tell about her family’s nomadic wanderings and also, of our beautiful valley.
It was a honour to be asked to deliver one of those tributes. and this is what I said:
I cannot sing the whole song – I have been here for but part of it. But Annette’s story is a long one and glorious. Others will fill in the gaps – most particularly, the story of those early days. She was one of those present at the creation of the town that we know today, those optimistic days in the seventies which many describe, some in tribute, some in rebuke, as “when the hippies came to town”. It’s all there in Peter Geddes’ films of way back when (View his films HERE). At the end of this piece, i have written a brief guide to the ‘tribes of Bellingen”.
Warren Tindall, one of our oldest Bellingen friends, told us a tale of those early days. He e recalled how Annette was so gorgeous, she once stopped the traffic on main street street when she was crossing the road. Another longtime friend, from one of the old logging families of the valley told us how on seeing Annette on the sidewalk, a local drove his car into the bowser of the local petrol station. Of such tales are legends made.
I’ve been on at her for years to write The Great Australian Novel about those days gone by. She’d even come up with a ripper title: Gone with the Weed.
It’s the organic way Bellingen as we know it was built. My oldest Bellingen friend Warren Tindall met Annette in Annandale in inner Sydney in the mid-seventies and came up here. He stayed for a while in this very house until he settled at Boggy Creek. I first met Warren in Coffs Harbour in January 1984 when HuldreFolk played at the Coffs Harbour Folk Festival. Warren brought the band up to Bellingen and we were the first musicians to play at La Bohème, which is now Number 5 Church Street which Annie Arnold over there ran for as The Cool Creek Café – that’s where we first met Annie. If I hadn’t met Warren, I’d never have come to Bellingen, Adèle and I would never have met Annette, and we’d never have been here, as Annette’s closest neighbours.
Big wheel keeps on turning.
Annette loved the Tarkeeth Forest with a fierce passion. She took the fight to its enemies, and Adèle and I were there with her when fainter hearts fell by the wayside. She defended her forest literally to her last breath.
We now know that her illness was a longtime coming, but the day she started to die was was the day FC started to cut down the trees right next to her home, the forest where her beloved animals lived. We’ve lost a fine forest defender and an irreplaceable one.
Four days before the end, I read to her a poem by the wonderful Irish poet William Butler Yeats. I’ve loved Yeat’s poetry since my schooldays, from the moment our headmaster recited to us Aedh wishes for the cloths of heaven. She hugged me to her, kissed me and said “thank you”. When I’d left, a nurse told her sister that a lovely man came in today and read to her from the Bible.
Annette would’ve smiled at that.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half-light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Farewell, old friend, forest neighbour, and drinking buddy – we’ve lost count of the many bottles of fizz we’ve downed together (most always French) – and Farewell to a Tarkeeth Tiger.
What I did not say on that day – and I regret they I did not – was that in addition to her well-known passion for the forest and its animals, Annette was a passionate advocate for indigenous Australians, and particularly the Gumbaynggirr, the traditional custodians of the Tarkeeth Forest:
I’d intended, but right there in the moment, failed, to say this:
We are, indeed, gathering here on a registered Gumbaynggirr cultural heritage site. Important artifacts have been found here. Simple everyday tools, weapons and some extremely rare sacred items – which have all been repatriated by Annette’s much loved friend Michael Donovan. It is believed that this cultural area extends well into the logging area to my left and to the north up onto the Fernmount Range. Not far too, from here, in the Tarkeeth Forest, are rare, living, old growth scarred trees, and Annette brought Michael Donovan in to search.
Unfortunately, Michael Donovan cannot be here today. Here is in South Australia. Nor could his parents be here to represent him. They are in Queensland. But Di will now read a letter from him. It was Di who brought Annette and Michael together.
In June 2020, in the wake of the devastating bush fires of 2019-2020 and the midst of the COVID19 pandemic, Annette spoke to Bellingen community radio 2BBB about the Gumbaynggirr heritage of the Tarkeeth Forest:
On the afternoon Thursday 12th August, a smaller group of friends gathered to celebrate Annette’s birthday and to lay her ashes in the Buddha Garden close to her cottage. As on 19th July, a rainbow appeared in the north. Her beloved but aged cat Jet followed her into the hereafter on the following Monday.
Our deepest condolences to Annette’s mother Kay, her sister Marianne, and her brothers Paul and Mark, and Marianne’s partner Tim.
Bellingen is famous for its diversity. Not its cultural diversity – it has always been predominantly white man’s land – on land appropriated from Gumbaynggirr nation. But rather, it’s social diversity.
Bellingen is broadly made up of four amorphous “tribes”.
Here for ever, it seems, are the old farming and logging families. They were and remain conservative and Christian, and traditionally vote for the rural-based,National Party. Some call them the “born to rulers” because they’ve dominated local politics since local politics were invented – when you own the ball, you pick the team.
Then, in the mid-seventies, enter “the new comers”, predominantly city-bred young folk, seeking what was then called an “alternative lifestyle”. People still remember, some in tribute, others in rebuke, “when the hippies came to town.
Many bought up cheap land from dairy farmers who wanted to get out of the business, and established what were colloquially called “communes” but were officially designated “multiple occupancies” because families and friends would form cooperatives among themselves, buy land “in common”, and allot members house sites on which they built their own homes. There are still many such multiple occupancies in the Shire, characterized by their ‘new age’ names;; but most have lost their ‘communitarian’ ethos and lifestyle.
Some hippies wanted a life on the land. Others became artisans, artists and musicians; and many established businesses in town, like ”healthy food” shops and cafés and galleries and craft shops. They looked, dressed, thought and lived differently to the rest of the population. They practiced alternative religions, healthcare and lifestyle, and were politically progressive.
There was inevitably resentment on the part of many locals – and conflict. Town hall meetings were held to “run the hippies out of town”. When the newcomers opened a market in town, the council closed it down. When they established a community centre where the present council chambers stand, council tore it down in the dead of night.
But if time does not heal all wounds, these don’t hurt as much. As the years went by, many people married someone from the “other mob”, and the children of the old tribe and the new mixed with each other in schools, workplaces and social gatherings. Mostly, of the offspring followed the political, social and cultural footsteps of their parents.
In the nineties, and right up up to the present, a fourth and fifth “tribe” arrived in town.
Bellingen continues to attract younger people with what they perceive as Bellingen’s “hippie” and “alternative” reputation., with love and peace in their hearts and wellness and wokeness in their souls.
But increasingly, the town has witnessed an influx of more well-off city people seeking what is called a “sea change” or “tree change”. Many are retired and have sold their city homes at a good price, and purchase country properties with the idea of leading a quieter, slower life in beautiful surroundings. Others are professional people and tradespeople who also want a change of lifestyle, and a pleasant place to raise their families.
As with the earlier migrations, the reception of the newcomers is a mixed one. Some do not like the way the character of the town is changing with the arrival of people who are unaware of and even indifferent to the town’s past. Others are anxious when they see rents and house prices increase beyond what they can afford.
As always, the place is changing, and we cannot see what will become of the town and its diverse residents. But, always, at the end of the day, it’s a grand place to call home.
We have been visiting Bellingen Shire for the last thirty years, and moved a house onto our bush block over twenty years ago. Bellingen, the Bellinger Valley on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, is well known as a picturesque, well-preserved (founded in 1870) country town. In former times, it was the centre of a thriving dairy and timber industry, and more recently, as a popular tourist spot between the university city of Armidale and the country music capital of Tamworth to the west, and the Pacific “holiday coast” of Coffs Harbour, Sawtell, Urunga, and Nambucca Heads, to the east, with their sand, surf and sun.
Between the two is the Great Dividing Range, the rolling, high country escarpment of the New England Plateau with its gorges and waterfalls, and the world-heritage Dorrigo National Park with it timeless, untouched rainforests – a “land that time forgot”. And linking them all, the old trunk road, aptly if touristically named Waterfall Way.
Bellingen is popular for its cafes and coffee shops, craft industries and shops, music festivals, and federation facades. It’s visual appeal, and it’s bucolic rural environs have seen the town used on many occasions as a film location. In the seventies, it was a Mecca for young people seeking an alternative lifestyle. The hills thereabout are still scattered with cooperatives and communes, or, in local council-speak, multiple occupancies. In the old days, no love was lost between the “hippies” and the farmers and loggers, and politics were dominated by the rural, conservative “born to rule” National and Country Party. Nowadays, it’s heir, the National Party still dominates the political scene, but its clear majorities decrease fractionally election by election, and by the turn of the century, there may no longer be a National Party member. But demographics do change, as does society. The hippies’ children and the farmers’ kids grew up together, attended the high school together, played, partied, and paired together, and now, there are grand children and great grandchildren.
As the timber and dairy industry has declined, Bellingen’s economy has changed. Once exclusively agrarian – including a time as one of the prime producers of cannabis sativa – tourism now plays a vital role. Bellingen advertises itself to visitors and to present and future residents as a clean, green and sustainable shire. Nature’s wonderland, from its golden beaches to its mountain rainforests and waterfalls. A Tourist Heaven with a cornucopia of recreational activities for young and old – from lazy bathing and picnicking to energetic rambling and trecking, camping and climbing, canoeing and fishing. A cultural mecca with many cafes, live music, craft and artisan shops, and music and writers’ festivals.
Two years ago,the online magazine Traveller published a breathless paean to “the bohemian town that is heaven on earth’. Happy traveller Sheriden Rhodes wrote: Some places are so beautiful; it feels like holy ground. For me, Bellingen has always had that consecrated feeling. It’s obvious, given the name the early pioneers gave the Promised Land, a scenic 10 minute-drive from Bellingen’s township itself. Here the land is so abundantly verdant and fruitful; it literally drips with milk and honey. It’s a place so special the fortunate locals that call it home, including its most famous residents George Negus and David Helfgott would much rather keep all to themselves”.
This is the marketing spin hyped up by the council, the chamber of commerce, and real estate and B&B interests. The reality is somewhat different. Bellingen and the “Holiday Coast” generally have seen a large influx of city folk seeking a different lifestyle for themselves and their children, and also of retirees seeking rural or seaside tranquility – in such numbers that Coffs Harbour and its seaside satellites have become in many ways the Costa Geriatrica.
Many newcomers are not fully aware that the Coffs Coast generally is one of the poorest areas of rural New South Wales. Statistics for youth unemployment and senior poverty are among the highest in the state with all the attendant economic, social and psychological impacts as evidenced by high rates of depression, domestic violence and substance abuse. Health and transport services outside the urban centres are pretty poor. Rising property values and high rents price low-income families and singles out of the market. Decreasing profit margins have forced many of those attractive cafes and coffee shops to close.
Nor is the clean, green, sustainable shire as picture perfect as the brochures portray It. There is environmental degradation with clear-felling and land-clearing, and flammable, monoculture, woodchip-bound eucalyptus plantations that encircle Bellingen – a potential fire bomb primed to explode during one of our scorching, hot dry summers. There is generational degradation of the Bellinger’s banks and the graveling up of its once deep depths. And there the encroachment and expansion of water-hungry, pesticide and herbicide reliant blueberry farms,
But on the right side of the ledger, we in the Shire are indeed blessed by Mother Nature. The coastline boasts magnicent headlands and promontories, and long, pristine and often deserted beaches. The World Heritage Gondwana rainforests are a national treasure, and surrounding national parks truly are a natural wonderland. We never tire of the drive from Urunga to Armidale via Waterfall Way, as it crosses the Great Dividing Range and the New England Plateau. The Kalang River as it flows beside South Arm Road and between the Tarkeeth and Newry State Forests is itself one of the Shire’s hidden and largely unvisited secrets, a haven for fishermen, canoeist and all who love mucking about in boats.
Compared to many places on this planet, we’ve really not much to complain about …
Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.
WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Recently, I’ve been enjoying very much the Definitely Dylanpodcasts produced and narrated by broadcaster Laura Tenschert, a board member at the Institute of Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma (and yes, you’ve read it right – the Bobster is now a legitimate focus for the academy). With an enchanting Celtic lilt, she brings a fresh, and indeed very original perspective in her exploration of Dylan’s work. Listen, do!
This week, the New York Review of Books published an essay by one of Laura’s Institute colleagues, addressing Bob Dylan’s lyrical narratives of American history. Across the six decades of his career, Bob Dylan has mined America’s past for images, characters, and events that speak to the nation’s turbulent present. And Sean Wilenz discusses in some detail the chronological development of Dylan’s historical songs from With God on Our Side, to Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, to Blind Willie McTell, to Tempest, and the to the history overload of his latest album of original songs Rough and Rowdy Ways, and most specifically in Murder Most Foul. But what caught my attention, was Cross the Green Mountain.
Now, I’ve been tangled up in Bob Dylan for near on sixty years. Neither a fanatic nor a completist, I bob (yes, I know – bad pun!) out and back in. And sometimes I miss stuff. I missed Blind Willie McTelI, and it is now one of my Dylan favourites. I missed Love and Theft, but caught up with great pleasure – Mississippi is a gem! And I deliberately ignored his take on The Great American Songbook. Diana Krall does it better and she’s also a hot pianist and gorgeous.
And I missed Cross the Green Mountain, which he wrote for the soundtrack of Ted Turner’s American Civil War film Gods and Generals. Though based on a successful book, the film sank without trace. Ted was a Civil War aficionado – he joined the serried ranks of Civil War recreationalists in the epic, hours-long Gettysburg – in the forlorn hope that was Pickett’s Charge, the denouement of that harrowing two day battle. Bob’s song ended up in one of his many Bootleg releases. Here is a truncated version featuring footage from Turner’s film. You can listen to the the complete song together wit Sean’s essay, below.
It is a remarkable song, drawing on a multitude of theological, literary, and historical sources. Sonic ally, it seems to me to reflect the mood and ambiance of the 1997 album Time Out Of Mind, and specifically It’s Not Dark Yet, and also, 2001’s Love and Theft. A blog called Waxing Lyrical describes it thus.
“Cross the Green Mountain is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.
“Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song”.
And he concludes his review of Bob Dylan as a historian thus:
“It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.”
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there
It’s a gloomy conclusion. For many, however, the glass is half full rather than half empty. As Paul Simon sang In American Tune, “we come in the age’s most uncertain hour and sing an American tune”. But he also added: “you can’t be forever blessed”.
The United States of America is more than North and South, Red and Blue. There are probably more than two Americas: North, South, Black, White, East and West Coast, and the Mid West; the heirs of the Mid 19th Century Know Nothings, nativists and immigrants, and indigenous, and more. It is the country of Trump and his carpetbaggers and of the tele-evangelists, the bitter and twisted, revanchist and retro America, the dangerously blinkered and overconfident America driven by its creation myths of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. But it is also, the America of Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Quad compadres. It is Walt Whitman’s America and the America of Herman Melville and John Steinbeck. It is the America of Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. It is Leonard Bernstein’s America, Paul Simon’s America, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s America.
As Leonard Cohen said, America is “the cradle of the best and the worst”.
But outsiders do indeed look at America today and shake their heads in wonder.
I have prayed for America I was made for America It’s in my blood and in my bones By the dawn’s early light By all I know is right We’re going to reap what we have sown
Jackson Brown, from Lives in The Balance
Both the NYRB and Waxing Lyrical articles are republished in fill below.
This essay is adapted from a keynote lecture delivered at a conference to honor Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday, “Dylan @ 80,” convened by the Bob Dylan Institute at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 24, 2021.
Bob Dylan performing at a SNCC voter registration drive, Mississippi, 1963
Two American presidents, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, bite the dust on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s latest record (his thirty-ninth studio album, released last year), and a third, Harry S. Truman, pops up on the next-to-last track, on Mystery Street off Mallory Square in Key West, where Truman had his winter White House. Elsewhere on the album, we cross the Rubicon with Julius Caesar; and on the beautiful song “Mother of Muses,” three Union senior officers from the Civil War as well as two great commanders from World War II (one American, one Soviet), clear the way for Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. This is not the same phenomenon as the appearance of Ma Rainey and Beethoven, emblems as much as people, in “Tombstone Blues” on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan brings a different kind of history to bear on this album, though hardly for the first time in his writing. Mystery Street doesn’t actually exist—it’s the one spot in the Key West song that’s imagined—but it is at the center of everything in that liminal paradise, just on Dylan’s horizon line. Once you get to the Mystery, it seems, you’ll find History dwelling there.
This in itself is highly unusual, as few songwriters if any have exhibited Dylan’s historical knowledge, let alone his historical consciousness. In Dylan’s case, though, history is only one branch of knowledge and creativity that absorbs him: whether it’s a Juvenal satire or a picture at an exhibition or a recording of Robert Johnson, Dylan responds by breaking things down, trying to understand how they work and what makes them different from everything else. As the critic Greil Marcus recently noted, it’s helpful to think of Dylan as a scholar, as well as craftsman. Do so and we might better understand how his art works.
But what difference does history—and more specifically, American history—make to Dylan’s work? Dylan has long populated his songs with historical characters, as well as characters from the territory where history shades into legend, and his work is never too far from the larger American mythos emanating from its rough and rowdy past, with its gamblers, prophets, false prophets, and outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Lenny Bruce. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Dylan writes, convincingly, of reading deeply in history books once he’d reached Greenwich Village, and of how figures such as the antislavery and civil rights congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who had “a clubfoot like Byron,” made a deep and lasting impression on him.
Dylan has also often seemed to depart from the mental clatter of the present, by living according to a time-warped calendar, in which the Galveston flood or the great Mississippi flood or the sinking of the Titanic have only just happened. Long ago, he has said, he discovered in folk songs a parallel universe of old-fashioned virtues and actions; and in time, that universe became real, so that if someone asked what was happening, the answer was (to take another assassination) that President Garfield had been shot down and there was nothing anybody could do, just as Bascom Lamar Lunsford sang it. “All of this was current, played out and in the open,” Dylan writes, of his Village days. “This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.” It’s hard to listen to the last two decades of Dylan’s compositions especially and not hear him living in some version of that time warp and pulling his listeners into it, too.
How does he go about it? Well, for one thing, he studies. For a historian, it was fascinating, even thrilling to read, in Dylan’s memoir, of the young rising artist’s visiting the New York Public Library and researching in American newspapers from the Civil War era on microfilm to help calm his mind. Of course, it may never have happened: although I can attest to the book’s spiritual accuracy about the Village in the early Sixties, the author of Chronicles also fabricates, which tells you something about Dylan and his relationship with history. (Indeed, I’m not entirely certain whether he really first encountered Thaddeus Stevens in the early Sixties, when most historians portrayed Stevens as a deformed, vindictive radical, or if he only discovered him later.)
Still, Dylan builds his fantasies from facts, and it was exciting to read of his carefully studying primary historical sources, as assuredly he does. Such was the routine until the Internet made microfilm largely obsolete—and the thought of an ambitious Bob Dylan’s seeking inspiration by threading one of those strips of film into one of those plastic or metal reels on one of those archaic machines, then turning a knob or pressing a lever, trying to keep everything in focus, just as we once did, felt like a kind of validation of his work and, I suppose, of mine. That Dylan remains fascinated with documents from the nineteenth century was affirmed recently by the historian Douglas Brinkley, reporting on Dylan’s research into the details of the gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.
What Dylan takes from the past obviously isn’t the same as what the average historian does; the differences and the similarities are equally important. Dylan is no stickler for the kind of factual accuracy that the historian’s craft demands but that the songwriter’s safely ignores. When someone asked E. L. Doctorow if Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit ever met, as they do in his novel Ragtime, Doctorow replied, “They have now.” That’s the spirit Dylan works into his songs.
“A songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.” Yet to discover and express that kind of truth requires knowing as much as you can about what actually happened, as much as any historian might hope to. This is surely the reason, I imagine, why Dylan pressed Brinkley for all that he knows about what happened at Sand Creek (which turns out to have been be much less than Dylan had already learned from his studies.).
A trained historian commonly dives into sources with a particular topic or line of narrative in mind and can block out the rest. Dylan, though, can get disoriented and nearly overwhelmed by the unexpected. “The issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern,” he writes in Chronicles of the 1850s. “There were news items about reform movements, antigambling leagues, rising crime, child labor, temperance, slave-wage factories, loyalty oaths and religious revivals. You get the feeling the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everyone will perish.”
Once over his bewilderment, though, Dylan soon surpasses most historians in quickly building a syncretic sense of the whole. For example, Civil War–era America, as he says he discovered it a century later, was an unrealistic, grandiose, immensely suffering land, riven by clashing comprehensions of time itself. Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, the Declaration of Independence, checks and balances, everything Americans supposedly prided themselves on—indeed, reason itself—could carry you only so far. “After a while,” he continues, “you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.” Shine a light on that America, he writes, and “you could see the full complexity of human nature,” in a place that did not at all resemble the America of the Sixties, “but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot.” A reasonable man tracking unreason, Dylan offers a summary metaphor, more pithy and powerful than any historian would ordinarily use: “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected.” As important is where Dylan later claimed that perception took him: “The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”
That shows how seriously Dylan takes history. And looking back at some of his major efforts at historical perception, from his early songwriting through Rough and Rowdy Ways, it’s plain that his use of history has matured and become more sophisticated and nuanced over the decades.
A mural by Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2020 Brian Peterson/Star Tribune via Getty Images
Dylan debuted his first obviously historical song, “With God on Our Side,” written when he was twenty-one years old, at Town Hall in April 1963. Although it became something of a favorite over the next couple of years, most famously as performed with Joan Baez, it fell out of his repertoire in 1965, and has remained largely untouched ever since. A sanctimonious lecture about American sanctimony—a counternarrative to what he portrays as the false one the history books tell us—the song is in keeping with an easy iconoclasm, asserting that the American history you’ve been fed is a pack of lies designed to glorify war and conquest. That easy iconoclasm is very much with us amid today’s social and political turmoil, but many of the feelings, as well as observations, inside that song are long out-of-date, stuck inside the high cold war, ban-the-bomb period of American antiwar protest, when every day felt as if human existence was on the brink of superpower thermonuclear annihilation. (In 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was falling, the Neville Brothers recorded an updated version of the song that substituted a new verse about Vietnam for the original one about World War II and the Holocaust. It didn’t catch on.)
As a songwriter’s history lesson, “With God on Our Side” is barely coherent. It has a point to make about the US military’s slaughter of the Indians, and maybe another about the futility of World War I. About the Spanish–American War, though, all it can is say is that the war had its day, whatever that means. It doesn’t know what to make of the Civil War, by which, a historian might point out, the US Army and Navy, with upward of 200,000 Black recruits, nearly half of them formerly enslaved, killing and dying to the strains of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” effectively brought about slavery’s abolition—something the emancipated reasonably regarded as a godly outcome. The song’s most graphic, unsettling line concerns not American war crimes but Nazi Germany’s eradication of the Jews. The song’s final betrayal, of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, though assuredly timeless, invokes absolute evil in ways that reduce American history into foreshortened fable.
What can be said on behalf of the song is that it expresses an outrage, utterly innocent of tragedy, which encapsulates the first two critical lessons anyone needs to learn about American history alongside its achievements and promise: first, that the deadly gap between reality and the nation’s proud, sometimes messianic professions has, at its worst, been real and too often wide; and second, that America the beautiful also has some twisted roots planted in dark and bloody ground. “With God on Our Side” is a preachy song that Dylan had to outgrow, but without its historical foundation, there would have been much less for him to grow on.
“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” written less than two years later and released on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, is no less a protest song than “With God on Our Side,” but the similarities end there. One of the first efforts in Dylan’s shift from folk to rock, it is seemingly a song about what used to be called the discovery of America, and it is as rollickingly uplifting and zany as its predecessor was sententious and leaden. The recorded version opens with a carefully edited false start, but the musicians regroup for a six-and-a-half-minute roller-coaster ride, more joyful than scary, a display of clackety exuberance that brushes the guardrails yet stays on course. Dylan has written of how much, in his early New York years, he came to admire the frenzied comic work of the downtown artist Red Grooms, and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” sounds like a Red Grooms composition put to music. That Dylan has thought to perform it publicly only six more times since that recording session fifty-odd years ago might signal that, unusually for him, he’s decided he likes the recorded version well enough that there’s little to be gained from revisiting it.
Unlike “With God on Our Side,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” puts us in a real, if also fantasized, historical place—“I think I’ll call it America,” Captain Ahab/A-rab announces early on from his ship as the place comes into view. The song gives us a couple of actual historical names and events—but, as in a dream, the names slip: A-rab’s ship starts out as the Mayflower then morphs into the Pequod; and at the end, when A-rab and the crew prepare to shove off back to sea, they spot the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailing their way, to discover an America that’s already been discovered. And so, as the names slip, time does, too.
The song’s protagonist, one of A-rab’s men, was already familiar to Dylan listeners from an earlier song, the Chaplinesque figure, assumed to be a traveling salesman, forever getting in and out of jams in “Motorpsycho Nitemare” (of which “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is a rewrite, with the identical melody). But this time, the maybe salesman is a hipster sailor traveling across a historical landscape where it’s sometimes 1620, sometimes 1851, sometimes 1492, but always 1965 as well—and could just as easily be America today, which is really the point. From the start, when A-rab, momentarily transformed into Peter Minuit on Manhattan, sets about writing deeds, building a fort, and buying the place with wampum, America’s history collapses into stories of sharp dealers and confidence men, with a handsome ambiguous male waitress dressed in a powder-blue cape, and an undertaker who’s only interested if you’re dead, and people demanding not “Ban the Bomb” but “Ban the Bums” along what Peter Stuyvesant knew as the Bouwerie—an America that always has been and always will be: a newfound land that is frantic, exasperating, jumbled, and irrational beyond the point of absurdity.
Eighteen years later, in 1983, Dylan wrote what some have considered a historical masterpiece.“Blind Willie McTell” is as allusive as “With God on Our Side” is didactic, and as spare and exact as “115th Dream” is rambunctiously ramshackle. It’s another traveling song, but this time, the road is time, starting in a condemned Southland soaked with martyrs’ blood, moving back to the closing-down of a nighttime country tent show, then further back to slavery days and the Civil War, then up to the present via a chain gang and rebel yells, ending with the traveler on the road, his mind on the recurring, punctuating presence of Blind Willie McTell, the Georgia songwriter and bluesman who made his name recording in the 1920s and 1930s. The song offers a lesson about human greed and corruption, envisaged inside Southern history, born of slavery’s whips, the Middle Passage, and Sherman’s March to the Sea, yet with a trace of redemption, or, at any rate, of enduring beauty, and heard as sung and played in a blind black man’s blues.
I’ve sometimes seen “Blind Willie McTell” described as an updated protest song, intended to chart the continuing tragedy and suffering of Blacks in the American new world, and that’s there to be heard in the version recorded nearly forty years ago. But Dylan famously had doubts about the song in 1983 because he didn’t think it was finished, which is why it didn’t appear on Infidels, and, although it’s now esteemed, even beloved among Dylan’s songs, he’s struggling with it still. In contrast to “With God on Our Side” and “115th Dream,” he’s performed it frequently in concert (more than two hundred times since 1997), but over the years, the song has changed and continues to. None of Dylan’s work is fixed, but some songs are less fixed than others, and “Blind Willie McTell” is one of those—though even so, as with every song he alters, the original version never disappears. It is a matter of multiplication, not substitution.
Dylan’s current version of “Blind Willie McTell” eliminates the verse about burning plantations and slavery’s ships; and the chain gang and the rebel yells are gone, too. The song now confines itself historically more or less to McTell’s own time, or maybe as far back as the 1880s; and the verse that is now one of the two remaining historical verses, involving a woman and a fine young handsome man, notes that “Some of them died in the battle/Some of them survived as well,” leaving both “them” and the battle they fought to the listener’s imagination.
I can’t say why Bob Dylan has struggled with the song or why the struggle has led him here, but just as history seriously rendered has ironies and ambiguities as well as certainties, so a master of ambiguity has made this historical song more ambiguous, the suffering less specific, less singular, and less explicit, yet leaving nothing easy about it; while the “power and greed and corruptible seed” that the singer sees everywhere taint us all.
Ironies, more than ambiguities, mark what was, until recently, Dylan’s most ambitious and dedicated work of history: “’Cross the Green Mountain,” written nearly twenty years after “Blind Willie McTell” as part of a film soundtrack, one bright spot in an otherwise abysmal Ted Turner movie about the Civil War. In a mournful arrangement notable for Larry Campbell’s keening fiddle, and written in the style Dylan showcased two years earlier on Love and Theft (released, as luck had it, on September 11, 2001), it is a song of war that the precocious author of “With God on Our Side” could scarcely have imagined writing, yet with a curious possible connection to that older song.
Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song.
Two striking verses, both reworkings of relatively obscure Civil War poems, spring cruel ironic traps, with a touch of Ambrose Bierce’s spirit, as well as Whitman’s. The first, containing a line lifted from an Ohio-born Confederate poet, relates the moment of the death of “our Captain,” “killed outright he was by his own men.” The second, a condensed rewrite of one of Whitman’s lesser-known poems, relates a mother’s initial shock at receiving a letter that her son has been severely wounded, shock relieved by the letter’s assurance that he has survived and is recovering in a hospital bed—“but,” the narrator encroaches, “he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.”
The living God’s presence pervades “’Cross the Green Mountain,” as something real and not an instrument for warmongering propaganda. But as the song’s cruel ironies dramatize, God’s ways are as inscrutable as His purposes. In that inscrutability, there is an important restatement of “With God on Our Side,” with a twist and a much deeper resonance. There is no godly side in “’Cross the Green Mountain”—Dylan certainly chooses no sides, either in the poetry borrowed or the stories related. And while we know that both Northerners and Southerners prayed to the same God and proclaimed He was on their side, in the song, at least, the Almighty picks neither.
Instead, Dylan writes of “an avenging God,” to whom all must yield—but whom or what, exactly, is God avenging? Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, began at one point to indict blasphemous Southern justifications of slavery—slavery, which he called the fundamental cause of the war—but he stopped short, lest he turn pharisaical, remarking, “Let us judge not that we be not judged.” Lincoln ventured, rather, that God had inflicted terrible carnage on both the North and the South, as both sides had shared in “the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” Dylan, who has certainly read Lincoln’s address, is chiefly interested in other aspects of the war, but his invocation of God the Avenger, smiting “the land of the rich and the free,” squares with Lincoln’s.
Just past sixty years old when he recorded “’Cross the Green Mountain,” Dylan has, over the two decades since, seen the world in which he started out crumble to dust, and watched fiercely urgent events he wrote about in traditional forms pass into history. He was drawn, early on, to the ballad form, not simply as the source of mythic archetypes like John Henry and Stagolee but also as a means of rendering deadly incidents of injustice that touched him. He has lived long enough now for his once-current ballads to become as ancient-seeming as the original ones that inspired him. Give or take a few years, today we stand as distant in time from the killings of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Hattie Carroll as Dylan stood, in 1963, from the killings of William “Billy” Lyons in “Stagolee,” Albert Britt in “Frankie and Albert,” and Delia Green in “Delia.” Longevity has similarly shaped Dylan’s most recent approaches to history, as he has inhabited old ballads about monumental catastrophes from well before his time and invented new ones about catastrophes he remembers well.
Other songwriters’ ballads about the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, form a subgenre all their own, with a dozen or more different compositions, of which Lead Belly’s “The Titanic” and the campfire favorite “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down” are among the best known. Of all these, Dylan’s “Tempest” (from the album of the same name, released in 2012) is by far the longest, its melody and some of the lyrics lifted from the Carter Family’s “The Titanic,” recorded in 1956. Dylan must have thought the Carters’ version unfinished, and he supplied the missing material, including a couple of time-warp cameos by Leonardo DiCaprio, borrowed, in turn, from James Cameron’s overblown movie. There is a recurring tragic note of a sleeping watchman, but otherwise, the song is a plain yet progressively riveting account that turns to horror: a chaos of floating dead bodies, flooded cabins, and exploding engine rooms, at times resembling a Civil War battle in which, as Dylan sings of the sinking ship, “Brother rose up against brother/In every circumstance/They fought and slaughtered each other/In a deadly dance.” The song offers vignettes of unreflective heroism alongside vignettes of betrayal, human nature in all its complexity amid the disaster.
And so, finally, eight years after that song—that is, in the plague year of 2020—Dylan’s historical quest brought him to the venerable presidential assassination genre with the song “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. He would have known the traditional songs “Charles Guiteau” (about James Garfield’s assassin) and “White House Blues” (about William McKinley’s death) no later than when he first listened to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952, in which both appear. Around the same time, he would also have heard Bascom Lamar Lunsford performing “Mr. Garfield” on Lunsford’s Smoky Mountain Ballads album, which had been released by Folkways in 1953.
Long-mislaid manuscripts from late 1963, rediscovered and later obtained by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, and Nash in 1989, show that Dylan was deeply affected by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, scribbling lines that included what would become the central image in “Chimes of Freedom.” His only public reaction at the time of that event consisted of his notorious, bungled, confrontational remarks three weeks later, upon receiving a civil liberties award, about seeing something of Lee Harvey Oswald in his own alienated self. He later denied that Kennedy’s killing had stunned him: If it had so affected him, he asked, why hadn’t he written a song about it? Today, just at the point when his songs from 1963 are passing from memory into history, he has written “Murder Most Foul” as a kind of incantatory ballad.
Kennedy’s murder inspired an important song in 1966, perhaps Phil Ochs’s finest, “Crucifixion,” even if its starry imagery, recalling Whitman’s elegy to President Lincoln, at times whirls a little grandly. (Ochs suggested his song was not only about JFK but about Dylan himself, also.) Like Ochs, Dylan presents Kennedy as a lamb led to ritual slaughter. Dylan, however, wishes for little imagery: although the song warps time and constructs its own truth, “Murder Most Foul” is as literal as can be, as literal as the Zapruder film (the footage that is described by the song’s narrator as ugly, vile, and deceitful, but which he has watched thirty-three times or more, trying and failing to make sense of what happened). Unlike the older assassination songs, which focus on the assassin or the deed’s aftermath, “Murder Most Foul” dwells on the actual killing, one cold fact after another feeding the tale, to the point at which Kennedy himself—though, in reality, his head would have just been shattered by the assassin’s bullet—describes falling into his wife’s lap, realizing in a flash he’s been caught in a trap.
The song begins by describing the assassination as a coolly calculated conspiracy, with Kennedy, like Julius Caesar, murdered shamelessly, mockingly, in the broad light of day. The singer then calls upon a mysterious wolfman to howl about the evil deed, when suddenly the song jumps from 1963 to 1964 and the Beatles’ arrival in the US, and then moves ahead in time to the rise and fall of the hippies’ Aquarian Age. Yet the irrepressible evil deed just as suddenly intrudes, uncontained; time slips, bits and pieces from the assassination story swirling around and piling up and blotting out the rest.
The Who’s Acid Queen flashes but swiftly disappears into the song’s most horrible couplets, placing us inside the presidential Lincoln at the fatal instant. We then encounter what seems like an odd reference to Patsy Cline, which in turn refers to Lee Harvey Oswald as a “patsy,” no longer a fellow alienated young man as Dylan had pegged him in 1963 but a fall guy.
Then, out of nowhere, the mysterious wolfman reappears, and he’s none other than the famous rock-and-roll disc jockey Wolfman Jack, crazed, shouting, speaking in tongues, just maybe a prophet, and it’s radio request time, and thence begins the better part of the entire second half of Dylan’s longest song ever, a six-hundred-word cascade of callouts, from Nat King Cole to On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy to Etta James to Charlie Parker, some of the best of what America has had to offer the world (plus Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata), tilting to the years since World War II. As in “Blind Willie McTell,” redemption or at least beauty glimmers out of a monstrousness that one of the song’s characters suggests has marked the arrival of the Antichrist. Yet nothing seems to work, and as the requests rampage, the fatal day returns to the song like a revenant, one more time. The perfectly timed bullet left the nation forever changed, forever conflicted, forever haunted: “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell,” the song concludes, Dylan’s voice combining elements of fear, resignation, and menace, “Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’—play ‘Murder Most Foul.’” The song becomes a part of the mercurial history it has just related, a history from which there seems to be no escape.
Dylan has studied the events closely, right down to the minute when Lyndon B. Johnson got sworn in. He connects Dealey Plaza with different layers of American culture, from the horror franchise Nightmare on Elm Street to the legendary Dallas barrelhouse and red-light district from which the traditional song “Deep Ellum Blues” takes its name, two miles from the old Texas School Book Depository sitting at 411 Elm Street. He sees the assassination as a ripping point, not a tipping point, when the three Graces died and when the nation, its soul torn away, began “to go into a slow decay.” With the full story unknowable, never to come out—“What is the truth, where did it go/Ask Oswald and Ruby—they oughta know”—“Murder Most Foul” is in part about the nation’s calamitous failure to come to terms with what happened. You don’t need to buy into the song’s conspiratorial set-up, reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s paranoid fantasy film JFK—which might even appear to be a symptom of the cynical nihilism that the assassination unleashed and that has poisoned the nation—in order to find its larger point deeply moving, the point about reckoning and failing to reckon with the dreadful moment in November 1963, when the fall of America began.
More history appears in the songs that precede “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. In “Mother of Muses,” which sounds inspired by something he’d seen in the Nobel Prize medal that he finally picked up in 2017, Dylan looks back in honor to the military he’d denigrated in his 1963 song, when he sang about “the names of the heroes/l’s made to memorize/With guns in their hands/And God on their side.” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” weaves subtle references to the dead bluesman into a juxtaposition of holiness and sex that is at least as old as the tent show in “Blind Willie McTell.” The awful killing of President McKinley as rendered by Charlie Poole’s slightly macabre 1926 recording of “White House Blues”—not the shooting itself, which the song barely mentions, but McKinley’s unexpected death from gangrene eight days later—is the entryway to Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a dreamlike song about a divine paradise, way down at the end of the line.
Bob Dylan performing in Hyde Park, London, England, July 12, 2019 Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for ABA
Thus, then nearing eighty, Dylan concluded his latest meditations, with American history all over the place. It turns out that Dylan was being straight in Chronicles, if not necessarily about every detail of what happened in 1961, then about a deeper truth in all that followed: if the songs have been, as he has said, his lexicon and prayer book, the American past has come to serve as his template for viewing, in a multitude of ways, an explosive culture of feeling, a place where human nature is visible in its full complexity. In his historical view, this is an America utterly different from our own and yet, in some mysterious and traditional way, not so different at all.
Along with the raging mayhem of history, there has been, also, a powerful elegiac quality to Dylan’s recent songwriting in this vein: a backward glance over traveled roads that appears elsewhere in his recent output, especially in the paintings of American cityscapes and byways in his “The Beaten Path Series,” first exhibited in 2016. That quality, which pervades Rough and Rowdy Ways, actually dates back many years, before Chronicles, and is tied to a feeling that a time is soon coming, if not already here, when truth will be erased and, with it, traditional songs and even history itself. Then, he intimates, anything that came before the here-and-now will be time out of mind. “Look out! there wont be songs like this anymore, factually there arent any now,” he wrote in his liner notes to World Gone Wrong, back in 1993. It’s become a late autumnal feeling in his work—call it November-ish, while recalling that November 22, 1963, was a hot, sunny day in Dallas—a feeling that speaks to a wider condition that has built to this very moment.
It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton. His most recent book is Richard Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays, 1956–1965, the first in a multivolume edition of Hofstadter’s work that he is editing for the Library of America. (July 2021)
In a lifetime of writing and performing music, Bob Dylan has constructed a considerable body of work comprised of innumerable songs that speak to individual listeners in distinct yet profound ways. It is my belief that Dylan’s song writing abilities have only increased with the passing years, and that the some of the songs he has composed since his creative “rebirth” in the late 1980’s are equal – if not superior – to anything he wrote in the halcyon days of his youth. I think that whilst his earlier lyrics captured the desired spirit of a generation – which ultimately catapulted Dylan to the forefront of public consciousness – in a more powerful and immediately persuasive manner, I think that in reaching maturity, Dylan has even more to say; and his breadth of understanding of history, contemporary society and his craft has allows him to articulate lyrics that are considerably more controlled than the lyrics of youth, but that don’t compromise the extent to which evocative imagery and alluring ambiguity operate as key components of his style.
Songs such as “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Ain’t Talkin” and “Not Dark Yet” are magnificent songs that contain lyrics of the highest calibre. It is the depth and complexity of ideas and feeling that render them works of such stark beauty. They also typify Dylan’s current style of ambiguous and resonant simplicity, as opposed to the unrestrained, passionate imagery of earlier times. Each of these songs deserves fulsome analysis, if only to ensure time is actually given over to enjoying them. But it is “’Cross the Green Mountain – Dylan’s contribution to the largely unwatched civil war film, “Gods and Generals” – that in my opinion sits on par with his finest ever lyrics. It is a bold, rich, evocative and ultimately redemptive exploration of conflict on earth. It may take the American Civil War as an inspiration, but the implications of the themes it contains transcend historical connections. It certainly seems to have been designed to encourage listeners to forge meaningful connections between events, peoples and concepts; the very kinds of connections that I would argue that Dylan views as necessary to avoid the kind of bloodshed that he evokes so poignantly.
The song opens with a multilayered invitation to an experience grounded in reality and reflection, via the allusion to dreams and flood. The framing of the ensuing narrative with the context of “monstrous” dream lends the entire lyric a reflective and meditative air. The image of something rising out of the sea seems an image readily associated with the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2005; an event contemporaneous with the song’s origins.
The final lines of the opening stanza attain a level of authoritative ambiguity that Dylan sustains throughout the lyric; the ominous notion of something rising Leviathan-like out of the sea – a kind of vengeful force. But what is interesting is why a vengeful force would strike a land rich and free; intriguingly, the “otherness” of ‘something’ obscures motive, and Dylan’s selection of “rich” as opposed to brave suggests some uncomfortable possibilities.
The image of a “merciful friend” in the song’s second verse conjures an image of death as saviour or one capable of offering release from struggle or strife; but Dylan blurs this redemptive distinction through the placing the image within a question, and then transfers the narrative from the present to the future tense in a manner that accentuates doubt and emotive resonance, rather an any kind of reassuring certainty.
The concluding lines of the second verse are amongst Dylan’s very best. He twists the Shakespearean sentiment of parting as sweet sorrow into a subversive rejoinder, where in death, the departed meet. In the context of a lyric penned as an accompaniment to a civil war dramatisation, one wonders of whom Dylan is thinking when he “thinks of the souls in heaven who will meet”, as the notion of those on opposing sides meeting and accepting each other in death is a tragic counterpoint from which to consider lives lived and lost in brutal conflict.
The apocalyptic imagery of burning altars in the first couplet of the song’s third verse acts an horrific counterpoint to the battleground imagery of advancing troops in its second. Significantly, Dylan moves fluidly, if mysteriously, from either side of the rather abstract conflict that he recounts, so that listeners cannot easily align themselves to the conflict’s heroes. His shifting, elegiac and compassionate narrative dissolves the hero-villain dichotomy into something far more human, and more tragic.
The notion of a foe having crossed over from the other side is mordant and obtuse, an image that, in the context of far-reaching flames most strongly evokes the notion of the devil walking amongst man. It’s a disconcerting image, as is the notion of those soldiers with “more brave blood to spill”, whose sacrifice is simultaneously poignant and pointless, driven both by honour, desperation, and bloodlust. No wonder the flames fall wide, and that the foe has crossed over; it is as though the actions of man have enlarged hell itself.
The shift from foe to God in the fifth verse is startling; suggesting perhaps that an “avenging God” and the foe could be one and the same. The wide streets and dim lines seem oddly redolent of the chartered world of Blake’s “London”; a comparably savage mediation on troubled times. It segues poignantly into one of those eminently quotable Dylan lines sagely reminding us that “lessons of life can’t be learned in a day”. In this context, the grey world seems a neglected pot of wisdom, unwisely discarded.
It’s here that again the boundaries between historical account and contemporary reflection blur darkly. And the fact that our narrator listens while he “stands” is a fascinating detail. Within lies the possibly that this is an act of remembrance, and that the music from a far better land is that of the past, or of Heaven. It’s curious that the natural tendency is to extrapolate forward or backwards in order to locate the better land, even though it may be a lateral leap that is required. Perhaps inevitably, Dylan has drawn upon the innate ethnocentrism inherent in all cultural examinations. The important question that remains all but unanswered is the source of the superiority of the better land; but the return to conflict and loss in the following verse gives a world-weary clue.
The death of the Captain seems drawn with the broad brush-strokes of an oil painting; the lament for what horridly would be termed today a “friendly fire” death seems a poetic tragedy, reclaimed in this context from the self-serving euphemism of the ‘friendly fire’ cliché. There is also, buried within these lines subtle allusion to rebellion and to mutiny; and the “great” is as much an affectation as it is affection. Again, Dylan has selected imagery that is readily interpretable, but with multiple, frequently contradictory possibilities.
In the following stanza, where a seeming time of judgement draws inexorably closer, the “unknown world’s” nature can be simultaneously seen from opposing sides: one on hand it is the hellish uncertainty subsequent to an annihilated world, but on another, it is the world beyond the vicious vices of mankind, where even virtue – perhaps no longer needed in Dylan’s utopia – exists only as memory. The “happy year” images makes the former more plausible than the latter, but both readings exist on an implicit level, and it is the latter interpretation’s presence that shades the deathly imagery of the lyric with such profound melancholy.
The assertive declarative tone of the lyric’s eighth verse is fascinating yet elusively troubling. The notions of blasphemy are disturbing, as is the persona’s exhortation of loyalty to truth and right, in spite of blasphemy being on “every tongue”, which logically must include its own. The irony is resolved only through an embracing of the kind of pluralism that accusations of blasphemy logically preclude through their very existence.
The hectoring self-righteousness of the persona at this point seems satirically designed to induce a knowing inscrutability, one that ultimately coheres with the lyric’s weary blend of compassion and indifference to those involved in the central conflict, albeit in a rather opaque manner. The stated fealty to “truth and to right” seems to be advocating a kind of declarative autonomy fused with an ambiguous incarnation of faith or
fidelity, whereby the writer has simply conveyed things as they are, which serves, bewilderingly, to obfuscate the meaning and message of the lyric still further, behind yet another layer of possible interpretations.
The next verse is one of Dylan’s finest ever creations. It delves further into an exploration of the relationship between purpose, perspective and meaning, with the command to “serve God and be cheerful” seeming both logical and ludicrous in equal measure, in that it may be the only sane choice, in spite of an insane context of war. The choice to link the instruction to serve with being cheerful is fascinating, in that being cheerful can be read as either the end product of serving God, or a second (necessary or tautological) instruction. Depending on how this enigmatic half-line is read, it is either comforting, cynical or something else again. And yet, the concluding, tense-defying “look upward beyond” with its otherworldly overtones seems to yolk together an existence both earthly and spiritual into a single decree, startling in its fusion of futility and its lack of stated alternatives.
These words connect with the following line via one of Dylan’s better employments of the technique of enjambment, as two distinct meanings emerge from within lines that are distinctly (and rhythmically) complete. The notion of looking upward “beyond/the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn” is a surreal subversion of night and day imagery, as the song (and particularly the music)’s somnambulant creep staggers through a world of dark, disturbing visions; and, rather than emerge into a clear, comforting world, it is the night that becomes the place of certainty – underscoring its allure – thereby reinforcing the notion that our day’s actions are little more than an illusory defence against the true darkness and the empty anxieties of each new day.
In this context, the men’s position within the “green grasses of the bloodstained world” seems strangely logical; as though our day’s delusion will inevitably hold sway over other possibilities. At a stroke, Dylan gently, implicitly endorses the notion that reality is little more than smoke and mirrors, but to set it aside is akin to abandoning consciousness, which is as unfathomable in war time as it is in peace time.
The tenth verse is almost unbearably poignant, with its evocation of a world where ghosts permeate every pore of existence. With a deft shift in emphasis, Dylan’s directs the reader/listener’s gaze from the stars above – and their heavenly associations – to a world where the living are “walking in dreams, whoever you are”. Walking in the dreams of the living, including one’s own. And even more powerfully, walking in the dreams of the dead. It’s a startling image of the spirit world; one that simultaneously decries the futility of war, whilst painting the entirety of existence as a sacred place. The final couplet is tightly focused, suffused with sense of stifled grief that comes in acknowledgement of all that must needs be unspoken in times of tragedy and loss, both in terms of the loss of human lives in conflict and in the loss of human possibility that inevitably comes from clinging to the coldly familiar and shunning the bright unknown.
The lyric’s penultimate verse is its most personal, with the tantalising personal touch of a wounded soldier and his mother, where the solider lives on – if only for a fleeting, tragic moment – in the illusion of a letter that lists him as wounded, rather than deceased. It’s a deftly cutting dramatic touch, positioning the reader/listener to feel – apart from sympathy for the mother and her son – that the real tragedy is the delusion.
It’s at this point that the narrator detaches from his worldly reportage, signified initially by notions of being “lifted away”, but ultimately realised in its shift to a collective first-person point of view. Here, Dylan pulls off the astonishing narrative trick of rendering the present and future into the past tense, and acts as the conscience and consciousness of the entirety of humanity. In it, two key understandings are offered: that the fate of humanity rests of the surrendering of fear – or perhaps the fear of fear – and the embracing of the uncertainty and weakness inherent in change and growth; and secondly, that the past, present and future are tangible, malleable and extant, and that the world we inhabit is a stranger, darker, more beautiful and more tragic reality than our limited perspectives allow us to see.
“’Cross the Green Mountain” is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.
They say artists hold a candle to the world so we all can see it a little more clearly. On this occasion Dylan’s light is searing, and we can see just how rocky are our surroundings, and just our precarious our footing. But certainty – however daunting – must eventually hold sway over delusion. It’s just that reality might be a little more complex – and considerably less tangible – than we would like it to be.
Bob Dylan – ‘Cross the Green Mountain
I crossed the green mountain, I slept by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up out of the sea
Swept through the land of the rich and the free.
I look into the eyes of my merciful friend
And then I ask myself, is this the end?
Memories linger sad yet sweet
And I think of the souls in heaven who will meet.
Altars are burning with flames falling wide
The foe has crossed over from the other side
They tip their caps from the top of the hill
You can feel them come; more brave blood to spill.
Along the dim Atlantic line
The ravaged land lies for miles behind
The light’s coming forward and the streets are broad
All must yield to the avenging God…
The world is older, the world is grey;
Lessons of life can’t be learned in a day.
I watch and I wait and I listen while I stand
To the music that comes from a far better land.
Close the eyes of our Captain; peace may he know.
His long night is done; the great leader is laid low.
He was ready to fall; he was quick to defend;
Killed outright he was, by his own men.
It’s the last day’s last hour, of the last happy year
I feel that the unknown world is so near
Pride will vanish and glory will rot,
But virtue lives and cannot be forgot.
The bells of evening have rung
There’s blasphemy on every tongue;
Let them say that I walked in fair nature’s light,
And that I was loyal to truth and to right.
Serve god and be cheerful, look upward beyond
Beyond the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn
In the deep green grasses of the bloodstained world
They never dreamed of surrendering; they fell where they stood.
Stars fell over Alabama, I saw each star;
You’re walking in dreams, whoever you are.
Chilled are the skies, keen in the frost
The grounds froze hard, and the morning is lost.
A letter to Mother came today;
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say.
But he’ll be better soon; he’s in a hospital bed.
But he’ll never be better. He’s already dead.
I’m ten miles outside the city and I’m lifted away
In an ancient light at the start of day
They were calm, they were blunt we know them all too well,
We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell.