A Son Goes To War – the grief of Rudyard Kipling

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 poemwhich 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”.

The Death of Son

American novelist Scott Spencer wrote about The Gardener in an opinion piece in The Atlantic in June 2017. He wrote:

“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.’”

See also in In That Howling Infinite, November 1918 – the counterfeit peace and  Dulce et ducorem est – the death of Wilfred Owen

Rudyard Kipling

Kipling and the Great War

© Paul Hemphill 2022. All rights reserved

Young Men and War

Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair, February 1997

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.

fl o to the small towns of northern I. France today if you want to disU cover 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.

I” or a father to mourn or to bury his Ison 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,
This tide,
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!”

I t’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.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one. □

British women tending war graves, Abbeville

The Gardener

By Rudyard Kipling

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?”

Helen nodded.

“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.

Muzaffar al Nawab, poet of revolutions and sorrow

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

Revolution Road

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 Party while still at college, and was detained and tortured by the Hashemite regime 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, tweeted that 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-Quhais noted 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 referred to 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.

From an obituary published by e-zine al Monitor on 27th May 2022.

For more on Arab poets, in In That Howling Infinite, see: Ghayath al Madhoun – the agony of an exiled poet, and O Beirut – songs for a wounded city (Syrian poet Nizār Tawfīq Qabbānī and  Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz).

Poetry Defeats Authority: Muzaffar al-Nawab 

An Iraqi man feeds seagulls

An Iraqi man feeds seagulls on a bridge across the Tigris River in central Baghdad,
December 11, 2020. Ahmad al Rubaye AFP

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, disappeared in 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,
No!
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.
Ok!
Show me then a situation that is more insolent
than the one we are now living in!

One ring to rule us all – does Tolkien matter?

The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone,
When Durin woke and walked alone.

The Song of Durin, JRR Tolkien

In Innovation, the final installment of Peter Ackroyd’s entertaining and informative History of England, he writes:

“The post-war years had brought fables of splrltual or material collapse, from That Hideous Strength to Brave New World to Ninteen Eighty-Four. During the Fifties, the novel seemed to be settling back to its journalistic roots – quotidian in subject, unpretentious in style – but the zeitgeist is a wayward wind. Among writers of fiction, another response was offered to the bewilderments of the post-war world, which was to fly above it. In 1955, Return of the King, the last installment of R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, was published. It was the resurrection of heroic romance, tempered by its author’s memories of war. It tells of a small, unregarded race of Middle-earth, the ‘hobbits’,who ‘arise to shake the counsels of great’. The freedom of the world hinges upon the destruction of something tiny, beautiful and evil, evil, a ring forged by a fallen angel. While elves, men and dwarves fight, two hobbits are tasked with the destruction of the great destroyer. A whole world, formed of its author’s experiments in language came into being to the extent that if anyone were to point out that Middle-earth’ is only a translation of the Norse ‘Mittlegard’, the hearer would respond with a shrug. It was there, whatever its origins. For the English journalist Bernard Levin, it offered a beautiful and salutary reminder that the ‘meek will inherit the earth’; for the American critic Edward Wilson, it was “juvenile trash”, a story of good boys being rewarded. In spite of the naysayers, the popularity and influence of The Lord of the Rings grew to unprecedented heights. Tolkien himself, a scholar and devout Catholic, was later to find his work taken up as a banner by most unlikely allies, a group that came to be known as ‘hippies’”.

Whenever a survey or poll crowns JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the public’s favourite novel – and there have been many during the past seventy years – and lauds the author as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, the reaction has always been the same from critics who have been sneering at his books since their publication. The Lord of the Rings has been dismissed as trivial, juvenile even, and not worth arguing about. It has been called archaic, backward looking, nostalgist and sentimentalist, and has been gaslit for misogyny and homo-eroticism, violence and and even racism (with its ethnocentric and androgynous elves and it’s Graeco-Roman Gondorians besieged by darker races from the south and east). Yet, most critics have probably never read it.

On the side of the angels (or is it the elves?) are the millions who came of age with and fell in love with the books, and adopted a Tolkienesque taxonomy for viewing the world as a perpetual  dialectic between the forces of light and of darkness. Some have even studied the lineages and languages. The actress Liv Tyler, who plays a luminous Arden Evenstar in Peter Jackson’s award winning film trilogy is said to have learned elven, and I sometimes see people on the street with elven rune tattoos. Liv probably has one too. I recall that as we queued at the cinema to see The Fellowship of the Ring, young folk rhapsodized among themselves on the delights about to unfold before their very eyes. The Hobbiton film set on New Zealand’s North Island is one of that country’s premier tourist destinations – indeed, during the three years of the films’ successive release, a big sign at Auckland International Airport declared “Welcome to Orc Land!” The films’ casting prompted criticism in some quarters insofar as the elves, men and dwarves were played by predominantly white Anglo Celtic actors whilst New Zealand’s indigenous Māori portrayed the evil orcs and Uruk Hai. Nevertheless, hundreds of kiwis, Pakeha and Māori alike, were employed as extras, the scenery dazzled the world and the economy of Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud,  enjoyed a Middle Earth boom.

Arwen Evenstar

In an opinion piece in the Unheard e-zine, republished below, British historian and author Dominic Sandbrook asks whether Tolkien’s works are indeed trivial. “Surely not”, he retorts. “Even if you can’t stand them, only a fool would deny that The Lord of the Rings occupies an extraordinary place in the modern imagination … he wasn’t just a man of his time; he remains a guide for our own … And his themes might have deliberately been chosen to appeal to modern readers, anxious about the consequences of science, the environmental costs of industry, the dangers of war and the fate of the individual in the face of the vast forces reshaping Western societies in the early 21st century. To put it simply, then, Tolkien matters. How many writers can you say that about, these days?”

Tolkien and me

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Walking Song, JRR Tolkien

My own life has intersected with JRR Tolkien on many serendipitous levels.

I first encountered The Lord of the Rings in my late teens when curiosity, imagination, and various substances bought me admission to his fantasy world, along with that of his fellow Inkling CS Lewis, creator of The Chronicles of NarniaI read all three books in the trilogy over a weekend in the autumn of 1968, and when I’d finished, I felt bereft and out of sorts. I reread it soon after, and again, and again – but didn’t we all in the days when Tolkien was king, and elves and ents walked among us. I set many of the songs to music – now long forgotten – and an apposite quotation was always on hand. I recall reciting the opening lines of The Song of Durin, which prefaces this piece, as I was walking home from a concert under a full moon on the eve of the landing of Apollo 11 upon the moon in July 1969. And many times as I headed eastwards on what we now call the hippie trail, I would recall Bilbo Baggin’s Walking Song.

In subsequent years as I evolved from naïf to cynical, and thence to other passions, the rereads slowed and then stopped, although I read and enjoyed The Silmarillion, and still treasure the opening chapter describing in a manner reminiscent of the St. James Bible of how the world was created by music. I began to pick holes in The Lord of the Rings’ story linewith its derivative ‘hero’s quest’, a monomyth popularised by Joseph Campbell in his celebrated book The Hero with a Thousand Faces; what I now viewed as stereotypical characters; the outdated and anachronistic perspectives of earlier generations; and what I perceived as old-school English prejudices. But, as Sandbrook points out, Tolkien was of his times, and those times were not kind to diversity and dissent.

And yet, The Lord of the Rings is ever present in my cultural and literary consciousness, and is often referred to and quoted. Here us one of my favourites:

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” The Return of the King

I have never lost my love for the poetry and the songs that complement the narrative  – the archaic syntax, rhyme, rhythm and balladry that I’ve incorporated into my own writing. There was a wonderful lyricism and, indeed, musicality to them that I still love. It’s as if they are just waiting for a tune to accompany them. Compare Tolkien’s Song of Ëarendil with own No Bull – the style, that is, not the subject matter:

JRR:

In panoply of ancient kings,
in chainéd rings he armoured him;
his shining shield was scored with runes
to ward all wounds and harm from him;
his bow was made of dragon-horn,
his arrows shorn of ebony;
of silver was his habergeon,
his scabbard of chalcedony;
his sword of steel was valiant,
of adamant his helmet tall,
an eagle-plume upon his crest,
upon his breast an emerald.

Me:

With massive head,
And shoulders broad,
As lean and mean as Rambeau
(That’s Sly, and not that fey French bard
This bruiser was no bimbeau!).
His hide as dark as ebony,
As tough as old mahogany,
His horns shone like chalcedony,
This massif of solidity
Was built like a Pajero.

Years passed without a revisitation, but working for a publishing company that ‘owned’ the rights to his work, I collected the latest editions and often gave them away to young people who had yet to enter the magical world of Middle Earth. For all my later cynicism, I still regarded it as a book all young people ought to read. I read the whole thing once more prior to the release of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy. The films were excellent, although I found the hobbits increasingly irritating, wishing that they’d all jump into the fires of Mount Doom, and the ents were a disappointment, a mob of corny and badly conceived muppets (they were indeed conceived by Jim Henson, the ‘father’ of Kermit and Miss Piggy). I am looking forward to the upcoming, uber-expensive television series – but I don’t reckon I’ll reread in preparation this time around. As for Jackson’s three part Hobbit extravaganza, in my opinion, it was a travesty.

Learning more about the author, I was to discover that he’d grown up in Birmingham, my home town, first in leafy Edgbaston (the home of Cadbury and the Warwickshire County Cricket Club), where he’d attended the prestigious King Edward’s Grammar School – my own school, Moseley Grammar, was not in its league. He lived near Sarehole Mill, in present day Hall Green, around the turn of century, between the ages four and eight, and would have seen it from his house. The locale at that time was rural Worcestershire farmland and countryside and not in the Birmingham ‘burbs. He has said that he used the mill as a location in The Lord of the Rings for the Mill at Hobbiton: “It was a kind of lost paradise … There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill … “

Sarehole Mill was just down the road from my school, and our sports field and cross country tracks were adjacent to it. On many a wintry, cold, wet and windy Wednesday afternoon, I’d stagger past it on a muddy track. How I hated wet Wednesdays; dry ones were for rugby, and I hated them too!

Tolkien died aged 81 on September 2nd 1973 in Bournemouth, Dorset, a town that I’ve visited infrequently. But I was actually in Bournemouth on that day to meet an old friend. Perchance his spirit swept passed me. On 2nd September 2017, the Oxford Oratory, Tolkien’s Roman Catholic parish church during his time in Oxford, offered its first Mass to advocate for his beatification, the first station on the road to canonisation, as an evangelist for nature, beauty and love.  A prayer was written for his cause:

“O Blessed Trinity, we thank You for having graced the Church with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and for allowing the poetry of Your Creation, the mystery of the Passion of Your Son, and the symphony of the Holy Spirit, to shine through him and his sub-creative imagination. Trusting fully in Your infinite mercy and in the maternal intercession of Mary, he has given us a living image of Jesus the Wisdom of God Incarnate, and has shown us that holiness is the necessary measure of ordinary Christian life and is the way of achieving eternal communion with You. Grant us, by his intercession, and according to Your will, the graces we implore [….], hoping that he will soon be numbered among Your saints. Amen.”

Just imagine, Saint John Ronald Reuel of Middle Earth!

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

Read also in In That Howling Infinite, Tolkien’s Tarkeeth – in the darkest depths of Mordor

Gandalf the White

This is Tolkien’s World

The Lord of the Rings is more than nostalgic medievalism

Dominic Sandbrook, Unheard December 10th 2021

It’s exactly 20 years since I stood in line to see a film I had dreamed about since I was a little boy. Ever since I had first turned the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I had wondered what it would be like to see it on the big screen: the hobbits, the battles, the sweeping landscapes, the blood and thunder. When I read that the director Peter Jackson was filming a trilogy of Tolkien’s masterpiece in New Zealand, I felt almost sick with anxiety. Would it be terrible? Would they sound like the All Blacks? What were they going to do about Tom Bombadil?

I need not have worried, of course. From the moment the lights dimmed in the Odeon, Leicester Square on 10 December 2001, the Lord of the Rings films were a phenomenal success. And although poor Tom B. never made it onto the screen, Jackson’s trilogy carried all before it, grossing a staggering $3 billion and winning a record-equalling 11 Oscars for the final instalment alone.

Two decades on, the films stand up remarkably well. As for the wider Tolkien industry, the bestselling books just keep on coming: The Fall of Arthur in 2013, Beren and Luthien in 2017, The Fall of Gondolin in 2018. And next autumn sees the release of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel series – at a cool $1 billion over five seasons, the most expensive television project in history. Not bad for a writer who’s been dead since 1973.

To some people, all this could hardly be more infuriating. For as we all know, Tolkien is still associated in the public mind with a sweaty, furtive gang of misfits and weirdos — by which I mean those critics who, for more than half a century, have been sneering at his books and their readers.

As far back as the mid-Fifties, the American modernist Edmund Wilson published a comically wrong-headed review dismissing Tolkien’s work as “juvenile trash”, marked by — of all things! — an “impotence of imagination”. Decades later, Philip Pullman, never happier than when sneering at his Oxford forebears, called Tolkien’s efforts “trivial”, and “not worth arguing with”. And whenever some new survey crowns The Lord of the Rings as the public’s favourite novel, the reaction is always the same.

“Another black day for British culture” was Howard Jacobson’s verdict after a Waterstones poll put Tolkien’s work well clear at the top. “Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964,” agreed Germaine Greer, “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has been realised.” Yet by her own admission, she had never even read him.

So are Tolkien’s works “trivial”, as Pullman claims? Surely not. Even if you can’t stand them, only a fool would deny that The Lord of the Rings occupies an extraordinary place in the modern imagination. Indeed, in his trenchant defence of Tolkien’s reputation, the literary scholar Tom Shippey suggests that much of the criticism is rooted in pure social and intellectual condescension, not unlike the rank snobbery that Virginia Woolf directed at Tolkien’s fellow Midlander Arnold Bennett. Shippey even argues that in the future, literary historians will rank The Lord of the Rings alongside post-war classics such as Nineteen Eighty-FourLord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five. Who’s to say he’s wrong?

One reason highbrow people dislike The Lord of the Rings is that it is so backward-looking. But it could never have been otherwise. For good personal reasons, Tolkien was a fundamentally backward-looking person. He was born to English parents in the Orange Free State in 1892, but was taken back to the village of Sarehole, north Worcestershire, by his mother when he was three. His father was meant to join them later, but was killed by rheumatic fever before he boarded ship.

For a time, the fatherless Tolkien enjoyed a happy childhood, devouring children’s classics and exploring the local countryside. But in 1904 his mother died of diabetes, leaving the 12-year-old an orphan. Now he and his brother went to live with an aunt in Edgbaston, near what is now Birmingham’s Five Ways roundabout. In effect, he had moved from the city’s rural fringes to its industrial heart: when he looked out of the window, he saw not trees and hills, but “almost unbroken rooftops with the factory chimneys beyond”. No wonder that from the moment he put pen to paper, his fiction was dominated by a heartfelt nostalgia.

Nostalgia was in the air anyway in the 1890s and 1900s, part of a wider reaction against industrial, urban, capitalist modernity. As a boy, Tolkien was addicted to the imperial adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard, and it’s easy to see The Lord of the Rings as a belated Boy’s Own adventure. An even bigger influence, though, was that Victorian one-man industry, William Morris, inspiration for generations of wallpaper salesmen. Tolkien first read him at King Edward’s, the Birmingham boys’ school that had previously educated Morris’s friend Edward Burne-Jones. And what Tolkien and his friends adored in Morris was the same thing you see in Burne-Jones’s paintings: a fantasy of a lost medieval paradise, a world of chivalry and romance that threw the harsh realities of industrial Britain into stark relief.

It was through Morris that Tolkien first encountered the Icelandic sagas, which the Victorian textile-fancier had adapted into an epic poem in 1876. And while other boys grew out of their obsession with the legends of the North, Tolkien’s fascination only deepened. After going up to Oxford in 1911, he began writing his own version of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. When his college, Exeter, awarded him a prize, he spent the money on a pile of Morris books, such as the proto-fantasy novel The House of the Wolfings and his translation of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. And for the rest of his life, Tolkien wrote in a style heavily influenced by Morris, deliberately imitating the vocabulary and rhythms of the medieval epic.

But there’s more to Tolkien than nostalgic medievalism. The Lord of the Rings is a war book, stamped with an experience of suffering that his modern-day critics can scarcely imagine. In his splendid book Tolkien and the Great War, John Garth opens with a rugby match between the Old Edwardians and the school’s first fifteen, played in December 1913. Tolkien captained the old boys’ team that day. Within five years, four of his teammates had been killed and four more badly wounded. The sense of loss haunted him for the rest of his life. “To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years,” he wrote in the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

Tolkien arrived on the Western Front in June 1916 as a signals officer in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, and experienced the agony of the Somme at first hand. In just three and a half months, his battalion lost 600 men. Yet it was now, amid the horror of the trenches, that he began work on his great cycle of Middle-earth stories. As he later told his son Christopher, his first stories were written “in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candlelight in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire”.

But he never saw his work as pure escapism. Quite the opposite. He had begun writing, he explained, “to express [my] feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalise it, and prevent it just festering”. More than ever, he believed that myth and fantasy offered the only salvation from the corruption of industrial society. And far from shaking his faith, the slaughter on the Somme only strengthened his belief that to make sense of this broken, bleeding world, he must look back to the great legends of the North.

Yet The Lord of the Rings is not just a war book. There’s yet another layer, because it’s also very clearly an anti-modern, anti-industrial book, shaped by Tolkien’s memories of Edwardian Birmingham, with its forges, factories and chimneys. As a disciple of the Victorian medievalists, he was always bound to loathe modern industry, since opposition to the machine age came as part of the package. But his antipathy to all things mechanical was all the more intense because he identified them — understandably enough — with killing.

And although Tolkien objected when reviewers drew parallels between the events of The Lord of the Rings and the course of the Second World War, he often did the same himself. Again and again he told his son Christopher that by embracing industrialised warfare, the Allies had chosen the path of evil. “We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring,” he wrote in May 1944. “But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.” Even as the end of the war approached, Tolkien’s mood remained bleak. This, he wrote sadly, had been, “the first War of the Machines … leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines”.

Dominic Sandbrookis an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982

The year that changed literature


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.

For more in In That Howling Infinite on books and reading, see:  Better Read Than Dead.

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
Irish writer James Joyce. Picture: SuppliedIrish writer James Joyce

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”.

Poet and dramatist TS Eliot (1888-1965).Poet and dramatist TS Eliot (1888-1965).

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.”

Marcel Proust.French novelist Marcel Proust.

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.

A statue of poet and author James Joyce in downtown Dublin.A statue of poet and author James Joyce in downtown Dublin.

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

The ballad of ‘the Breaker’ – Australia’s Boer War

The Breaker Morant story is back in the news here in Australia with the investigation of our SAS for the unlawful killing and torturing of Afghanis.

Every once in a while, the matter of the trial and execution by firing squad of Harry “the Breaker” Morant for killing unarmed prisoners of war during the 19th Century fin de siecle Anglo-Boer War surfaces as his partisans push for a pardon. The war was Australian troops’ fourth overseas military adventure in the service of British Empire (the first was New Zealand’s Maori Wars, and later, in Sudan and during The Chinese Boxer Rebellion – with few engagements and no battle casualties (see Postscript below).

The argument goes like this: Lieutenants Harry Morant, an immigrant to Australia from Devon, England, and Peter Handcock, Australian born, were tried by a military court and executed unjustly as scapegoats of the British Empire. Some partisans are more nuanced. Celebrated lawyer and human rights advocate Geoffrey Robertson questions whether there was due legal process and not whether the two were guilty as charged.

The general consensus here in Australia, however, is that the two men received a fair trial (by martial law standards, that is ) and got what they deserved. It’s a similar “hero or villain” debate to that which has persisted for a century about our most famous bad guy,  bush ranger Ned Kelly. The consensus here too is that Ned received his just deserts for the shooting of the policemen at Stringybark Creek. As Ned said just before dropped through the trapdoor at Melbourne Gaol, “such is life”.

But back to “the Breaker”, Harry Morant, and the subject of the latest book from Australian author Peter FitzSimons, Breaker Morant. Morant earned his sobriquet for his superb horsemanship. Most folk know him only from Bruce Beresford’s excellent 1981 film, Breaker Morant and particularly, his famous last words: “Shoot straight, you Bastards! And don’t make a mess of it!”

Fitz is a “popular historian” and a fine storyteller – and Bob Dylan tragic (I once asked him to write a book about the Bobster, but he hedged with his answer). He has written prolifically on subjects as diverse as Captain Cook, the gruesome Batavia mutiny, and Ned Kelly, and particularly Australian military history, including books about Gallipoli, Pozières, Tobruk and Kokoda. He is an ardent republican, and that comes through strongly in his writing. He is excellent at drawing characters out of history and describing events in detail. I enjoy his tales very much, but I do not like his style – he writes in the vernacular, which is not a bad thing, but embroiders the story much to much, putting words into his historical characters’ mouths and retelling the event, be it a battle or a horse race, as if they were a contemporary action novel.

His Breaker Morant is true to form. Fitz bulls up his voluminous text with extraneous aphorisms and superfluous intrusions “of shreds and patches, of ballads, songs and snatches” (I can be as guilty as he) as if they were intrinsic to the narrative. And his sub-paragraph headings, employing puns and tabloid catchphrases seems to me as contrived and, well, naff.

He has little affection for his subject. “… that ragged, red faced charmer, the ever garrulous Breaker Morant” is introduced to us in the Australian bush as a Pommie, a compulsive liar and cheat, con-artist and impostor, faker and fantasist, one step ahead of creditors and the law. But man, he ride and shoot! There is no colt he cannot tame nor race or polo game he cannot win. And he can drink any man under the table.

Morant is a story teller non parièl – mostly about himself and his much embroidered exploits. He is able to impress and ingratiate himself upon people of all genders, classes and occupations, not the least, our celebrated poet lorikeet Henry “Banjo” Paterson. They bond over a shared accuity for penning bush ballads – and by the standards of that genre, The Breaker holds his own among Australian poets:

There was buckjumping blood in the brown gelding’s veins,
But, lean-headed, with iron-like pins,
Of Pyrrhus and Panic he’d plentiful strains,
All their virtues, and some of their sins.
‘Twas the pity, some said, that so shapely a colt
Fate should with such temper endow;
He would kick and would strike, he would buck and would bolt
Ah! – who’s riding brown Harlequin now?

From starlight to starlight – all day in between
The foam-flakes might fly from his bit,
But whatever the pace of the day’s work had been,
The brown gelding was eager and fit.
On the packhorse’s back they are fixing a load
Where the path climbs the hill’s gloomy brow;
They are mustering bullocks to send on the road,
But – who’s riding old Harlequin now?

Style aside, Fitz’s take on the Boer War is well researched, and his narrative is gripping and colourful in descriptions and language, and also characters. His is a cast of hundreds, including entertaining walk-on roles for the likes of young Winston  Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Banjo, all of whom served as newspaper correspondents at one time or another during the conflict, and also, the celebrated Daisy Bates, remembered still for her work in remote indigenous communities, who was married to Harry for a short while up Queensland way until she tired of his drinking and gambling.

A dirty little war

The Anglo Boer War (October 1899 to May 1002), second of its name, was a dirty little war, fought for gold and diamonds and sold to the public throughout the empire as a “just war” to defend the interests of the non-Boer Uitlanders (‘outlanders’, who were predominantly British residents of the legitimate Boer republics) and to uphold Imperial honour (the Boers attacked first – a preemptive strike like Israel in 1967). Some sixty thousand Boers and their African auxiliaries (bribed or conscripted) faced off against six hundred thousand British and colonial soldiers, and again, African auxiliaries.

Most of the Imperial forces were British, including militias from Cape Colony and Natal, but Australians, Kiwis, Canadians, and Rhodesians served as eager volunteers in defense of the “home country”, and Indian soldiers were “volunteered” by the Raj, whilst indigenous people served as auxiliaries, and also as porters and servants who were often in the firing line. Mahatma Gandhi served as a stretcher bearer, again, in the line of fire, and established an “ambulance” service for the British army.

Boer (meaning “farmer”) is the common name for Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans descended from the Dutch East India Company’s’s original settlers at the Cape of Good Hope who adhered to the fundamentalist strictures of the Dutch Reformed Church.The Boer forces were citizen soldiers, but small numbers of Irish, Scots and English also served in the Boer commandos, and even some Americans and Frenchmen. Most were often long time settlers who fought to defend their farms and families and also, their country, and others were soldiers of fortune attracted by the Boers’ defense of their liberty.

The Imperial forces were commanded by the ageing but highly respected Lord Roberts, but operational command lay with General Kitchener, a man who was not averse to stringent measures and also to sacrificing his own men if it served his tactical or strategic purpose. Whilst he decreed that once a combatant had laid down his arms he was to be taken prisoner, his directive was sometimes ignored, as the tale of  The Breaker illustrated. In the conquest of the Sudan, Kitchener sanctioned cold-blooded murder of tens of thousands of captured and wounded mahdists in revenge for the death of General Gordon.

In his excellent Empire, economic historian Niall Ferguson’s has no kind words for Cecil Rhodes, who had an influential part to play in the events that led to the war, and he is quite iconoclastic with regard to imperial icons like Gordon, Kitchener and also, Baden Powell, the “hero of Mafeking” and subsequent founder of the Boy Scout Movement,  all of whom he characterizes as eccentric and potential nutcases. He likes Lawrence and Churchill, however, for all their faults, foibles and fables.

Once introduced in the opening chapter, the eponymous Breaker does does not figure prominently in the narrative until the second half of the book – the first half is taken up with the “formal” war – the military campaigns that conclude with the capture of the Boer capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria after the conquest and annexation of the independent Boer republics of The Orange Free Sate and Transvaal.

Thence follows the guerrilla war waged by the “bittereinders” that compelled Generals Roberts and Kitchener to resort to extreme measures to subdue the hold-out Boers, including a scorched-earth policy of demolition and confiscation, barbed wire and blockhouses, and herding civilians, including women and children into concentration camps – their African servants and workers were confined in separate camps. Thousands perished of starvation and disease.

Compelled by the inability of regular military Kitchener authorized the establishment of irregular formations to counter the Boer guerrillas with like-tactics – which is where colonial volunteers, like Harry Morant and his comrades, used to living in the saddle and off the land, came into their own. The latter part of the Boer war thus became one of the first instances of modern counterinsurgency operations, setting a president for further colonial wars – for example, the French in Indochina and Algeria, the British in Aden and Cyprus, and the Americans in Vietnam.

When Roberts returns home to retirement and his chief of staff assumes total command, Kitchener is implacable, vengeful and ruthless in his determination to bring in the bittereinders dead or alive, and to collectively punish their womenfolk and children and their African servants and field hands with the destruction of their livelihood and transportation to the camps outside the main towns. Captured combatants receive the punishment often meted out to rebels against the crown – they are transported – to India, Ceylon, Bermuda, and even Portugal and Madagascar – and ironically, St. Helena, the last exile of Napoleon Bonaparte. In their own way, the exiled Boers were the heirs of the Fenians and trade unionists who ended up in Australia where so many of Kitchener’s bushmen originated.

As peace talks were initiated and ended in stalemate, Kitchener dialed the brutality knob to full. He and his soldiers would refer to Kitchener’s “bag”, the tally of Boers killed or captured – a grim precursor to General William Westmoreland’s fixation with the “body count” during the Vietnam War.

Boers at rest

Boers in action

Dark deeds in a sunny land

Enter the infamous Bushveldt Carbineers. The recruiters were by now literally scraping the barrel; as FitzSimons puts it, “a motley crew, a mix of the old and the bold, the young and the desperate, and those with no better options than joining an outfit destined to be operating in such dangerous realms. No fewer than a third of the new recruits have no military experience whatsoever, and some have never even ridden a horse”. “Rangers, rogues and renegades”  and “the rough and the rowdy, the wild and the woolly, and sometimes the demonic and dangerously”, and whilst in the field, as often as not, drunk – both officers and men. And among them, down on his luck in England and almost destitute and desperate, Harry Morant.

In control though not in command is Captain Alfred Taylor, Intelligence Officer and District and Native Commissioner, known to the natives as “Bulala”, killer. A psychopath is on the loose, appointed and sanctioned by Kitchener himself, and he finds willing henchmen in recently promoted and opportunist Lieutenants Morant and Handcock.

Half way through the 500 page book, FitzSimons changes pace. What had up to now been a largely historical narrative interspersed with colourful and entertaining vignettes, becomes a tale of dark deeds in a sunny land.

As Fitz tells it, encouraged by the sinister Taylor, who believes the only good Boer is a dead one, an increasingly delusional and unhinged Morant and the psychotic Handcock embark on a murder spree. As Moran would admit to the court, “we got them and we shot them under Rule 303”, referencing the Lee Enfield, the standard-issue British Army rifle.

Based on transcripts of their subsequent trial and letters and memoirs of fellow carbineers, Fitz reconstructs the events that conclude with Morant’s downfall and death. Reluctant members of firing squads and outright refuseniks put together a dossier and petition detailing the cold-blooded murder of surrendered Boers, children, an unfortunate priest, and also, a carbineer who’d threatened to blow the whistle.

Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and third from left with the 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles during the Boer War, circa 1900. .

The book becomes a page-turner as the petition is dispatched up the chain of command, the prospects of a cover-up being high. But no. There are indeed men of integrity in higher command who will see justice done – not the least because they wish to see the dangerous Taylor removed. The more pragmatic view the alleged crimes as impediments to bringing the Boer leaders to the negotiating table.

But the outcome is far from certain. As court martial proceedings conclude and sentences are handed down, including an acquittal for the nefarious Taylor, and a recommendation for clemency by the court after it sentences Moran and Handcock to death for multiple murders – they were in a war zone and under serve strain and provocation after all – Kitchener refused. How could he enter the peace talks that would soon come if the killers were let off the hook?

He dies almost two years to the date of his landing in South Africa with the second Contingent

The war winds down 

By war’s end, Britain’s claims to moral supremacy, already questioned by its waging a war of aggression against two small states, was irreparably damaged. Public opinion which had in the beginning embraced jingoism and righteous anger, once informed of the true nature of the war by returning journalists and also soldiers’ letters, and fired up by clergymen and humanitarians, began to question the purpose and the morality of the war. In Australia, the new narrative was championed by none other than Banjo who had early on developed an admiration for the Boer fighters, likening them to the resilient and resourceful folk of the Australian bush.

Many consider the Boer War as marking the beginning of the questioning of the British Empire’s level of power and prosperity; this is due to the war’s surprisingly long duration and the unforeseen, discouraging losses suffered by the British fighting the Boer citizen soldiers; and repugnance with regard to the ruthless treatment of non-combatants. Many parts of occupied Boer republics with their burned farmsteads and plundered lands resembled more a desert than a once prosperous agrarian economy.

Not that the Boers were exemplars of moral rectitude by our enlightened twenty-first Century standards. Their’s was a conservative and indeed fundamentalist society that regarded the indigenous people as inferior and destined to serve their needs. The British regarded the Boers attitude towards the kaffirs as unacceptable – and yet they too regarded the indigenous Africans as their inferiors – but their’s was a righteous though none the less prejudiced and patronizing “white man’s burden” mentality that characterized Victorian Britons’ view of Empire.

By the end of 1901, the British are physically and morally exhausted. Attrition has turned to atrophy. Kitchener craved an end to the conflict. “I wish I could find some way of finishing this war”, he writes to the Secretary of State for War. Especially now that it is is believed that ordered the execution of Boer prisoners “found in khaki” – wearing items of British uniform.

And so it comes to pass that two months after Morant and Handcock are laid in their un-shared un-hallowed grave, the Boer leadership, wanted to end the devastation and human misery, and the British unable to go forward of back, agree to terms, including ceding Boer sovereignty to Britain, an amnesty for all combatants, the return of the far-flung  transportees, and the emptying of the camps.

At the end of the day, after twenty months of conflict, some twenty two thousand British forces soldiers perished, whilst five thousand were sick and wounded.  Six thousand Boers were killed and twenty four thousand captured whilst twenty one thousand bittereinders surrendered. There were over forty six thousand civilian fatalities, and of 115,000 people incarcerated in concentration camps, twenty seven thousand women and children died, and twenty thousand Africans. Thirty thousand Boer homesteads had been destroyed and tens of thousand of those of Africans, and forty towns had been razed.

By 1910, the Dominion on South Africa had been established with English  and Afrikaans as its co-equal languages. The next stage of South Africa’s eventful history had begun.

Butchered To Make A Dutchman’s Holiday

-In prison cell I sadly sit,
A d__d crest-fallen chappie!
And own to you I feel a bit- A little bit – unhappy!
It really ain’t the place nor time To reel off rhyming diction –
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme Whilst waiting cru-ci-fixion!
No matter what ‘end’ they decide – Quick-lime or ‘b’iling ile,’ sir?
We’ll do our best when crucified To finish off in style, sir!
But we bequeath a parting tip For sound advice of such men,
Who come across in transport ship To polish off the Dutchmen!
If you encounter any Boers You really must not loot ’em!
And if you wish to leave these shores, For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!!
And if you’d earn a D.S.O., Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go Is: ‘ASK THE BOER TO DINNER!’
Let’s toss a bumper down our throat, – Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: ‘The trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.’
At its end the manuscript is described –
The Last Rhyme and Testament of Tony Lumpkin

Postscript – Australia’s 19th century wars

Between 1845 and 1872 just over 2,500 Australian volunteers saw service in New Zealand during the wars between the Maori and Pakeha (white colonists) over the ownership of Maori lands. Though Australian born, troops all served in British regiments. The majority of these volunteers came from the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

In the early 1880s the British-backed Egyptian regime in the Sudan came under threat from local supporters of Muhammed Ahmed, also known as the Mahdi. In 1883 the Egyptian government was sent south to crush the revolt but instead of destroying the Mahdi’s forces, the Egyptians were soundly defeated. On March 29, 1885 a New South Wales contingent, an infantry battalion and an artillery battery, totalling 758 men. arrived in Sudan, It spent three months there  with no major engagements or battle casualties. there were three wounded soldiers and seven deaths from fever or dysentery.

In 1900, a contingent of mainly naval reservists was sent to China to restore order after the Boxer Rebellion. It didn’t take part in fighting and there were no battle casualties. The few fatalities were from disease.  The first Australian contingents, mostly naval reservists from New South Wales and Victoria, sailed in August 1900. Australian personnel sent to northern China were not engaged in combat. Six Australian’s died of sickness and injury and none were killed as a result of enemy action.


Read more about Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite: Down Under ; and British history in Foggy Ruins of Time

Many Australians past and present view Harry Morant as harshly dealt with, a  folkloric antihero  sacrificed on the alter of empire, as the following article by Fitz himself explains. But first, a word from an Australian country music icon.

They still sanctify the monster Breaker Morant – and insult the true heroes

Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald,  September 14, 2021 

Edward Woodward as Breaker Morant

 The idea that Breaker Morant should be given a posthumous pardon is a persistent one, as is the idea that he should have his name added to the Boer War Memorial in Adelaide – the latter idea getting a new lease of life in a strong article published in The Advertiser in Adelaide on Saturday.

For the legend is a beauty: Breaker Morant was a Man From Snowy River in Australian uniform: a brilliant horseman, soldier and bush poet who was cruelly put up against the wall by those Pommy bastards, merely for following their orders.

Yes. So strong and seductive that the article in the ’Tiser records that 70 per cent of their respondents are in favour of Morant’s name being added to the Boer War Memorial. In terms of iconic status, it is of the ilk of the Anzac legend that Education Minister Alan Tudge is insistent must not be questioned in any way in the national history curriculum. As Tudge said last week, the Anzac legend is “not going to be a contested idea on my watch”.

But, based on the book I wrote on Morant, with the help of strong researchers who were able to dig fine detail, let’s contest the Morant legend and look at just one episode of his war career, this one while commanding the roving unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers, in the latter part of the Boer War. The first thing to note is that rather than being Australian, Morant was English and had joined the war effort from Australia after being here for a couple of decades – while the Bushveldt Carbineers was a wholly British unit.

On September 7, 1901, Morant hears of three unarmed, non-combatant Boers heading their way and wanting to surrender. Morant goes out to meet them in the company of one lieutenant and two other troopers. And there they are, up yonder: Boer farmer Roelf van Staden and his two sons, the youngest of whom, Chris, is 12 and desperately ill.

Morant takes immediate action, using a procedure he has previously developed to get through such matters most efficiently. He tells his men that when they get to the clearing up ahead, they must wait till he says “Lay down your arms”, and as soon as they relax, shoot ’em. Arriving at the clearing, Morant barks: “Dismount.” His men do so, and quickly bring up their rifles. The Boers look at them, horrified. “Lay down your arms!” Morant commands.

As planned, the father and his sons relax just a little . . . only for the Troopers to shoot them dead.

How do we know Morant committed these and other atrocities in which a dozen non-combatants were gunned down? There are many reasons, but they include 14 brave Australian soldiers and a Kiwi soldier risking their lives – for the first two soldiers in the Bushveldt Carbineers to publicly dissent had finished with a bullet in their heads – writing a letter to their commanding colonel, asking for Morant to be court-martialled. He was, during which Morant famously boasted of the atrocity of lining up eight unarmed Boer prisoners and shooting them by the side of a road. “We got them, and we shot them, under Rule .303!”

Of course, Morant was a practised hand at shooting prisoners by this time, having ordered a firing squad to execute a lone, injured prisoner, Floris Visser, to the disgust of men and officers alike. At least Visser was given the farce of a “drum head” court-martial, a kangaroo court improvised by Morant to justify murder as revenge for his friend Captain Percy Hunt.

Quoted in the Advertiser on Saturday, the Melbourne lawyer James Unkles said: “Injustices in times of war are inexcusable and it takes vigilance to right wrongs, to honour those unfairly treated and to demonstrate respect for the rule of law. How we respond to this case remains a test of our values and is vitally important.”

Was he speaking in sympathy with the dead Boers? He was not. He was pushing the case for Morant’s posthumous pardon, and for his name to be added to the Boer War Memorial in Adelaide, just as he was a prime agitator behind the Australian Parliament in 2009 voting in favour of petitions being presented to Queen Elizabeth II to review and posthumously overturn Morant’s convictions. Three years later, on the 110th anniversary of the execution of Morant and co-accused Peter Handcock, the Liberal member for Mitchell, Alex Hawke, rose in the House to make a claim for Morant and company’s pardon.

“It is timely for the Australian government to do everything it can to assist the modern-day descendants of these men to access a judicial review of this case. It is the case that the executions were conducted with extreme haste and without appeal.”

(A point of order, Mr Speaker, if I may. An appeal is something they had in civilian courts, but did not exist with courts-martial.)

”I think it is important,” Alex Hawke continued, “that we seek British government’s assistance in releasing all of the available records in relation to this case so that the modern -day descendants can know what happened and rightly, if necessary, receive a judicial review and pardon. It is an episode that appeals greatly to every Australian because of the doctrine of fairness which says that no-one should be treated differently because of their birth, rank or status. We do know that these men were treated differently because of their birth, rank and status. We certainly need legends in Australian history.”

We do. And we have plenty of bona fide ones, without the need to gloss over the record of a war criminal. But still it goes on!

In February 2018, the Australian Parliament passed a motion expressing “Sincere regret that Lieutenants Morant, [et al] were denied procedural fairness contrary to law and acknowledges that this had cruel and unjust consequences; and . . . sympathy to the descendants of these men as they were not tried and sentenced in accordance with the law of 1902.”
Any mention of sympathy and sincere regrets for the defenceless Boers, including children, that Morant had gunned down? None at all. Justice for them? No mention. Just an obsessive focus on aspects of the court-martial where t’s weren’t crossed and i’s weren’t dotted. And equal insistence, despite a lack of any evidence at all, that Morant did what he did under British orders.

Bottom line?

Some historical legends, like that of Morant, are so seductive they live on because people want to believe them. And it’s so powerful you even have serious people pushing the tragic absurdity of an Australian Parliament petitioning the Queen and the British Parliament to posthumously pardon an Englishman fighting for a British unit who committed the worst war atrocities of the Boer War!

But how much more inspirational is the truth? Morant was not the Man From Snowy River put up against the wall by those Pommy bastards. He was a vicious Pommy bastard put up against the wall by the men from Snowy River and others who risked their lives to bring him to justice to stop the atrocities.

There are heroes in this story. They are those troopers who risked their lives to turn Morant in. Imagine their thoughts at his name being next to theirs on the Adelaide Boer War Memorial.

There are victims. They are unarmed Boers ruthlessly gunned down on Morant’s orders.

How monstrously unjust to both heroes and victims to simply go with the legend, unexamined, uncontested.

Of course history must be always examined, contested, reviewed, told from diverse sides. Anything less is indoctrination.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

That was that was year that was – It’s like déjà vu all over again

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”

She’s a Rainbow
Paradise Park Fernmount

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 Tiger in 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.

In a year when the treatment of women dominated the Australian news, and Grace Tame and Brittany Hughes became household names, we look at the status of women and girls in less fortunate parts of the world. Facing the Music – no dance parties in Palestine tells the story of a young Palestinian DJ and her confrontation with social conservatism and religious orthodoxy. In Educate a girl and you educate a community – exclude her and you impoverish it, we discus how countries who exclude women from political, social and economic life are the worse for it.

Schoolchildren in Gaza

 

Inevitably, a decade on, we revisit the events in Egypt in January and February of 2011: Sawt al Huriya (The Voice of Freedom) – remembering the Arab Spring. Tangled 2 – Libya’s bloody circus rolls on examines the torturous dynamics of one of the many conflicts that emerged from the Arab Spring, whilst the humiliating and chaotic end of America’s “endless war” in Afghanistan in Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow – coda in Kabul. One of the many consequences of the unravelling of the Middle East was the wave of refugees that sept into Europe. Ghayath al Madhoun – the agony of an exiled poet looks as the life and work of a Syrian-Palestinian poet now living in Sweden, whilst Exit West – a hejira of hope reviews a work magical realism that charts the refugees’ journey.

As always, this blog has a strong history focus. I spent a lot of time conversing with our friend and forest neighbours, acclaimed photographer Tim Page about his adventures in Indochina during the Vietnam War. I’d edited his unpublished autobiography, and written a forward to open it. It ended up in Tim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam journey. This was accompanied by a story told by Ken Burns in his excellent documentary The Vietnam War about a young man who went to war and did not return: The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy. Part memoir, part memory lane, i recall the story of my own youthful travels in Song of the Road – my hitchhiking days

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.

The Crusades

 

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.

And finally to poetry and song. In  Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land – a poet’s memorial to a forgotten crime, we looked at “the great Australian silence – what historian Henry Reynolds called “this whispering in the bottom of our hearts” in the context of a famous poem by Judith Wright and the almost forgotten secrets of our own hinterland here on the “holiday coast”. On a brighter note, we revisit the history and legacy of Banjo  Paterson’s iconic poem Waltzing Matilda with Banjo’s not to jolly swagman – Australia’s could’ve been anthem.

In Rhiannon the Revelator – in the dark times, will there be singing?, we present an uplifting song of defiance from American folk and roots diva Rhiannon Giddens. And finally, I was delighted to discover an amazing song by Bob Dylan that I’d never heard before even though it was some four decades old: Cross the Green Mountain – Bob Dylan’s Americana.

Goodbye the old year – welcome the next!

Dark Girl In The Ring
Kingston, Jamaica 1983

Read  reviews of previous years: 2020; 2019201820172016; 2015

 

Banjo’s Not So Jolly Swagman – Australia’s could’ve been anthem

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 Deadwood wrap-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 a national 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 HuldreFolk used 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.

I’m sad our once-jolly nation goes Waltzing Matilda no more

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.

Illustration: Robin Cowcher.
I thought my daughter would enjoy this fact, but as I told her, I could see her zoning out. “You do know the song I’m talking about, don’t you?“, I asked. “Well”, she ventured, “I think it’s the thing they used to sing at important events, before Australia had an official anthem?”

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 Home as 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.

Also in In That Howling Infinite:  Down Under – Australian History and Politics.

Postscript (1)

In December 2020, the BBC reported:

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?

Postscript (2)

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.
Read the full piece HERE

Waltzing Matilda

AB “Banjo” Paterson

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”
“I am, you are, we are Australian”
Songwriters: Bruce Woodley and Dobe Newton

 

Cross the Green Mountain – Bob Dylan’s Americana

Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.
WB Yeats, The Second Coming

Recently, I’ve been enjoying very much the Definitely Dylan podcasts 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.

In the his NYRB essay, Sean Wilentz writes:

“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.

Also in In That Howling InfiniteLegends, bibles, plagues – Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture; Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana; Still tangled up in Boband Tales of Yankee Power

Bob Dylan, Historian

Sean Wilentz, New York Review of Books, June 19, 2021

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)

‘Cross the Green Mountain by Bob Dylan – A Lyrical Examination

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.

 

Ghayath al Madhoun – the agony of an exiled poet

Never in modern times – since the Second World War – have there been so many refugees. There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are fleeing from persecution or conflict. Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – including six million Syrians. Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield -. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. five million are Syrians. These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. [See below, The World Refugee Crisis in Brief]

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
Somali poet Warsan Shire, Home

A million spaces in the earth to fill, here’s a generation waiting still – we’ve got year after year to kill, but there’s no going home. Steve Knightley, Exile

Historical and social memory, and indeed, remembrance and commemoration, and their opposites, forgetfulness and letting go, are intrinsic to our human story. Often our interpretation of history, and our historical narrative, is a version of what we want rather than what actually existed. And hence, the enduring, enthralling, captivating, and almost existential power of invention, if not quite myth, in the telling of our national stories. It is of particular potency amongst people who have for one reason or another left their native land and reside in another.

It is to varying degrees applicable to all migrants – myself included as a migrant to Australia in the Seventies, and my parents, as working class Irish immigrants to England in the late Nineteen Forties – but it is most poignant and melancholy with respect to exiles and refugees.

“We cannot imagine, us in our safe, comfortable, connected anglophone worlds the pain of exile. We cannot begin to imagine. No amount of empathy and Saint Paul’s exhortation to walk a mile on the shoes of The Other. For thousands, tens of thousands, hundred of thousands, millions even, there is no going home. For there is no home.  “Crying for home”, as Van Morrison so lyrically sung it, the idea of homecoming is a chimera, a forlorn hope. Van the Man could, can, and will forever be able to go home, just as I, an immigrant and the son of immigrants can go home. I can return to my father’s town, my mother’s town, my home town, and London Town”.  From In That Howling Infinite‘s No Going Home

I live in a our country town in northern New South Wales, and work as a community volunteer with Yazidis – mostly Iraqi Kurds but also Syrian. These were the ethnic and religious minority that suffered egregiously at the hands of Islamic State ( and indeed have suffered throughout history at the hands of Muslims who regarded their ancient religion and its rever bee for the mystical Melek Taus, The Peacock Angel, as akin to devil-worship. It is salutary to listen to their stories and to understand how they cleave to their history, faith and culture, and also, hold onto their pain as they adapt to living in Australia. I am conscious of their terrible homesickness, and the pain that they feel because for them, there is no going home – home for many of them no longer exists. I have Bosnian friends from once cosmopolitan Sarajevo who endured the Serbian siege and still have family in Sarajevo and Belgrade. They visit their relatives often but their Bosnia, their Sarajevo, their childhood and youth, indeed, are gone forever.

For the exile, the refugee, the involuntary migrant, their’s is a yearning, a longing, an absence of belonging – an existential homelessness and rootlessness, that is almost like a phantom limb. It is a bereavement, a loss, a spiritual and cultural death that could qualifies for descriptors drawn from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief: (Shock and disbelief), denial, anger, bargaining, depression, (testing) and acceptance.

One way the refugee can assuage his or her anguish is through writing. Chicago librarian and writer Leslie Williams notes: “The literature of exile encompasses bitter, impassioned indictments of unjust, inhumane regimes, but also includes wrenching melancholy for lost homes, lost families, and a lost sense of belonging. The pervasive feeling of rootlessness, of never being quite at home echoes across centuries of exile writing” (read here her The Literature of Exile).

It is from this perspective that we look at the poetry of Syrian Palestinian poet Ghayath al Madhoun. His work is the fruit of two exiles. His father fled Palestine for Syria  in 1967 after the Six Day War, known to Palestinians as al Naksa, ‘the setback’. and the occupation of the West Bank, and marrying a Syrian from Dara’a in southern Syria. He settled in the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus. Occupied by rebel militias and ultimately Syrian and Russian forces during Syria’s civil war, Yarmouk was devastated and Madhoun fled to Europe, washing up in Stockholm, Sweden, where he now lives and writes.

Yarmouk camp,.Refugees wait for UNRWA food-deliveries February 2014

Of his life as a Palestinian in Syria, he wrote:

How beautiful life would’ve been
if I had an ID card in my pocket.
I’d travel with it to my mother in Daraa
without explaining to the policeman from Idlib
the difference between the Palestinians of 48 and the Palestinians of 67 —
or I’d just lose it as my friends do.

In Sweden, he was a stranger in a strange land – “like an olive tree at the north pole,” he once said. However, the irony is that while he was struggling alone with the northern ice, he became, after the Syrian exodus, a host in the house of exile. In I Can’t Attend, he writes:

In the North, close to God’s boundary wall, enjoying a developed culture, the magic of technology, the latest achievements of human civilization, and under the influence of the drug that grants safety, health insurance, social security and freedom of expression, I lie in the summer sun as if I am a white man and think of the South, contriving excuses to justify my absence.

In an excellent overview of modern Syrian poets, Waeed Wahesh writes that for Madhoun, exile Is a personal war;

“Ghayath al Madhoun’s poetry is full of paradoxes, news, and scientific and historical information. It’s crowded with names. It’s a poetry with appetite for saying. It wants to argue, but it doesn’t want to do that immediately. It conjures more the tools of modern art, especially installation art. A poetic narration comes out of a cluster of vocabulary and miscellaneous meanings. This narration combines magic and real, eastern and western, question and answer.

al Mahjar – or émigré – poets carried on their shoulders a renaissance burden, and their poetry was characterized by nostalgia, but they didn’t present examples of the environments and the struggles they went through at these exiles. This is what we find in the writings of the author of “Each Time the City Expanded, my Room Became Narrower.” His poetry faces, especially in his two latest books, questions entangled with the idea of European centralism. We who followed him to the north can see the reality of this struggle. The stereotypes faced on this journey can be summarized as follows: Islamophobia; anti-Arabism; hostility toward Palestinians by Israel’s supporters; the hostility of citizens – who may not have animosity toward Islam or Arabs – toward immigrants; and the resentment of previous generations of immigrants regarding the new ones, based on fear of losing their privileges. Furthermore, if a person survived all of this, then there is the impassable bump: the hatred toward the eastern men. Being an eastern man in the west means you despise women and seek to assemble wives like slaves.

On the edge of these sharp blades, the poet stands in confrontation, and converts this conflict into poet material, inquiring about the Palestinian’s rights and condemning the Mediterranean Sea, which has turned into a “predatory animal.”

Despite all the political background, al Madhoun doesn’t write political poetry. He writes about a life he knows. It’s true that its trait is violence, terrorism, oppression and asylum, but it’s true also that he searches for a horizon of possible life”.

Madhoun’s entry in Wikipedia is unusually lyrical”:

“The central themes in al Madhoun’s poetry, which has been translated into numerous languages, are war and destruction, death and fight, exile and homesickness. The speaker is a witness to violence and demise and, as the only survivor, lends his voice to the dead … The protagonists of the poems are the victims of the Syrian civil war, the injured, people fleeing and seeking asylum, and those who remain in the war zone. The complex, prosaic poems are nourished by the rich imagery of Arabic poetry as well as the traditions of European poetry. “Cruelty, brutalization, and love are just as universal in al Madhoun’s texts as the language of poetry. They impressively demonstrate that the Palestinian refugee from Syria is much closer to us than many would like to believe” (Deutschlandfunk). »His poems are carried by graphic vividness, absurdity, and great stylistic sensitivity”.The FAZ wrote: “He is the great poet of a great catastrophe”.

We present I Can’t Attend in full below, in English and also in the original Arabic. We also republish two other poems by this excellent poet.

In the poem, we meet the exiled poet as a stranger in a strange land, enjoying all the benefits of an advanced, heterogeneous Scandinavian country but constantly thinking of his homeland and endeavouring to justify to himself why he cannot return. The exile can never shake off a pervasive feeling of rootlessness, of never being quite at home.

The obvious reason for his exile is the Syrian civil war, now in its tenth year, which has shattered his country and scattered its people across the globe – and which has killed many of his friends. He now has a a northern girlfriend who he suggests has caused him to forget, though but for a while, for the memory of his life in Damascus and his family there.. He gives us a pathetic excuse – who will feed his fish when he is away.

He is terribly homesick and suffers from grief and depression, and also, survivor’s guilt. He has this deep longing, a wrenching melancholy for his lost home, his distant family, his sense of identity and belonging. He feels guilty about his exile,  It is as if the line between what was, what is and what shall be is blurred, as if he has become a non-person, a living ghost indeed. He fears that he will lose his connection with home, that he will loosen and loose the threads that bind him to his home – his memories.

But the war is forever in his thoughts, Its imagery shapes his prose poem, and he feels the immense loneliness, dislocation and uncertainty that is part of being a stranger, a dark-skinned Arab stranger at that, in a Nordic Land. There is, after all no place like home, and but home is far, far away. He juxtaposes the two societies:“Slow rhythms, slow grief, slow death”. There is a paradox at the heart of a western society, a society that protects you from being killed by others but is unable to protect you from yourself.

The poem concludes with a litany of excuses as to why he is in Sweden and not in Damascus. These become more and more fanciful, more and more mystical, magical realism indeed. He no longer speaks his own language. His old self is disappeared. It is as if he has died inside.

See also in In That Howling Infinite on the theme of exile and loss: Songs for a wounded city – Beirut, Fairuz and Nizar Qabbani, Visualizing the Palestinian Return – the art of Ismail Shammout, and, in Arabic, تصور عودة الفلسطينيين – فن إسماعيل شموط

For Damascus

I Can’t Attend

In the North, close to God’s boundary wall, enjoying a developed culture, the magic of technology, the latest achievements of human civilization, and under the influence of the drug that grants safety, health insurance, social security and freedom of expression, I lie in the summer sun as if I am a white man and think of the South, contriving excuses to justify my absence. Emigrants, travellers, refugees go by me, genuine inhabitants, bogus inhabitants, tax-dodgers, alcoholics, the newly rich and racists, all of them crossing in front of me as I sit in the North thinking of the South, composing spurious stories in order to cover up my absence and explain how I can’t attend.

Yes, I can’t attend, for the road between my poem and Damascus is cut off for postmodern reasons: these include the fact that my friends are ascending to God at a rapidly increasing rate, faster than my computer processor, while other reasons relate to a woman I met in the North who made me forget the taste of my mother’s milk, and some are connected to the fishes in the fish tank, who won’t find anyone to feed them in my absence.

I can’t attend, for the distance between my reality and my memory confirms that Einstein was right and the energy produced by my longing equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.

I can’t attend but I can be absent, yes, I can be absent with great skill. I’ve become an expert in recent times and I’ve acquired a diary where I make a note of the times I have to be absent and I have memories that haven’t happened yet.

I can be absent as if I have never existed, as if I am nothing, as if air has never entered my lungs, as if I’ve never had enemies before, as if I’m concentrated memory loss, a coma transmitted like a contagious disease.

I can’t attend as I’m currently busy with the cold war I fight daily with isolation, with indiscriminate shelling by darkness, with systematic depression, with the attacks of loneliness that target the kitchen, the checkpoints that stand between me and summer, the bureaucracy caused by the separation of the legislative and executive powers, the routine procedures of the tax department. You’ve talked to me at length about the war, now let me tell you a little about the peace that I enjoy here in the North. Let me tell you about gradations of skin colour, what it means when people don’t know how to pronounce your name, about black hair, about the democracy that always favours the rich, the health insurance that doesn’t cover your teeth because they aren’t part of the body. Let me talk to you about the tasteless vegetables, the flowers with no smell, the racism masked by a smile. Let me tell you about the fast food, fast trains, fast relationships, slow rhythms, slow grief, slow death.

Will you believe me if I say to you that my shoes are tired, that inside me is a wolf I can’t restrain once he’s smelt blood? Will you believe me if you see on my body the marks of the bullets that have hit my friends there, while I’m sitting here in front of a computer screen? Do you believe in coincidence? My absence is a coincidence planned with extreme care, a well-considered random act. I’ve discovered by coincidence that it’s no coincidence that coincidences happen, and in fact the coincidence is when they don’t happen. The point is, will you believe me if I swear to you by music? I swear by music that a European residence permit prevents us from being shot but makes it more likely that we’ll kill ourselves.

Fine, I’ll tell you the truth. I’ll tell you why I can’t attend. It happened on a summer’s evening when I met a sad woman on my way home. In her hand she carried a forest and in her bag a bottle of wine. I kissed her and she became eleven months pregnant…

That’s not what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. Damascus caught me in bed with another woman. I tried to put things right, to say what happened was a spur of the moment thing, nothing more, and it wouldn’t happen again. I swore by everything, by the moon, fireworks, women’s fingers, but it was all over, so I fled to the North.

That’s not what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. When I was a child I didn’t know anything about the market economy. Now, after I’ve become a citizen of a first world country, I don’t know anything about the market economy.

This isn’t what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. When I was intending to come, my suitcase collided with an item of breaking news and my language was smashed to bits, the passersby grabbed hold of the pieces and I no longer had a language…

That isn’t what is stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth, I’m dead, yes, I died several years ago.

That isn’t what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth…

Translation: Catherine Cobham

I Can’t Attend

لا أستطيعُ الحضور.

غياث المدهون

في الشمالِ، بالقربِ من سياجِ الله، مستمتعاً بالتطورِ الحضاري وسحرِ التكنولوجيا، وبآخرِ ما توصلتْ إليهِ البشريةُ من أساليبِ التمدن، وتحتَ التأثيرِ المخدرِ الذي يمنحهُ الأمانُ والتأمينُ الصحيُّ والضمانُ الاجتماعي وحريةُ التعبير، أتمدَّدُ تحتَ شمس الصيفِ كأنَّني رجلٌ أبيض، وأفكرُ بالجنوب، مختلقاً أعذاراً تبررُ غيابي، يمرُّ بجانبي مهاجرونَ ورحالةٌ ولاجؤون، يمرُّ سكانٌ أصليونَ ومزيفونَ ومتهربونَ من الضرائب، كحوليونَ وأغنياءُ جددٍ وعنصريون، كلُّهم يعبرون أمامي وأنا جالسٌ في الشمالِ أفكرُ بالجنوب، وأؤلفُ قصصاً مزيفةً كي أُغطي على غيابي، وكيفَ أنَّني لا أستطيعُ الحضور.

نعم، لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فالطريقُ بين قصيدتي ودمشق مقطوعةٌ لأسباب ما بعد حداثية، منها أنَّ أصدقائي يصعدون إلى الله بتسارعٍ مُضطردٍ أعلى من سرعةِ مُعالجِ كمبيوتري، وبعضُها يخصُّ امرأةً قابلتها في الشمالِ فأنستني حليبَ أمي، وبعضها متعلقٌ بحوضِ السمكِ الذي لنْ يجدَ منْ يطعِمَهُ في غيابي.

 لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فالمسافةُ بين واقعي وذاكرتي تؤكِّدُ أنَّ أينشتاين على حقّ، وأنَّ الطاقةَ المنبثقةَ من اشتياقي تساوي حاصلَ ضربِ الكتلةِ في مربَّعِ سرعةِ الضوء.

 لا أستطيعُ الحضور، لكنَّني قادرٌ على الغياب، نعم، أستطيعُ الغيابَ بمهارةٍ عالية، وقد أصبحتُ محترفاً في الآونة الأخيرة، وصارَ لي أجندةٌ أرتِّبُ فيها مواعيدَ غيابي، وصارَ لي ذكرياتٌ لم تقعْ بعد.

أستطيعُ الغياب، كما لو أنَّني لم أكنْ، كما لو أنَّني عَدَم، كما لو أنَّ الهواءَ لم يدخلْ رئتي من قبل ولم يكُ لي أعداء، كما لو أنَّني فقدانُ ذاكرةٍ مُرَكَّز، كما لو أنَّني غيبوبةٌ تنتقلُ بالعدوى.

لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فأنا الآنَ مشغولٌ بالحربِ الباردة التي أخوضها يومياً مع العزلة، بالقصفِ العشوائيِّ للعتْم، بالاكتئابِ الممنهجِ وغاراتِ الوحدةِ التي تستهدفُ المطبخ، بحواجزِ التفتيشِ التي تقفُ بيني وبين الصيف، بالبيروقراطية بسببِ فَصْلِ السلطاتِ التشريعيةِ والتنفيذية، بالروتينِ في دائرةِ الضريبة، لقد حدَّثْتَنِي طويلاً عن الحرب، دعني أحدِّثك قليلاً عن السلامِ الذي أنعمُ به هنا في الشمال، دعني أحدِّثك عن تدرجاتِ لونِ البشرة، عن معنى ألَّا يعرفَ الناسُ أنْ يلفظوا اسمك، عن الشَّعر الأسود، عن الديمقراطيةِ التي تقفُ دائماً في صالحِ الأغنياء، عن التأمين الصحِّي الذي لا يشمل الأسنان لأنَّها ليست جزءاً من الجسد، دعني أحدِّثكَ عن الخضار التي لا طعمَ لها، عن الورودِ التي لا رائحةَ لها، عن العنصريةِ المغلفةِ بابتسامة، دعني أخبركَ عن الوجباتِ السريعةِ والقطاراتِ السريعةِ والعلاقاتِ السريعة، عن الإيقاعِ البطيءِ والحزنِ البطيءِ والموتِ البطيء.

هل ستُصدقني إنْ قُلتُ لكَ إنَّ حذائي متعبٌ، وإنَّ في داخلي ذئباً لا أستطيعُ كبحَهُ بعد أن اشتمَّ رائحة الدم، هل تصدقني إنْ رأيتَ على جسدي آثارَ الرصاصاتِ التي أصابتْ أصدقائي هناكَ بينما أنا جالسٌ هنا خلفَ شاشةِ الكمبيوتر، أتؤمنُ بالمصادفة، إنَّ غيابي مصادفةٌ مخططٌ لها بعنايةٍ بالغة، خبط عشواء مدروسة، ولقد اكتشفتُ مصادفةً أنْ ليس مصادفةً أنْ تحدثَ المصادفة، إنما المصادفةُ ألَّا تحدث. المهم، هل ستصدقني إنْ حلفتُ لكَ بالموسيقى، أقسمُ بالموسيقى أنَّ تصريحَ الإقامةِ في أوروبا قد يباعد ما بيننا وبين الموتِ بالرصاص، لكنَّه يقاربُ ما بيننا وبين الانتحار.

حسناً، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، سأخبركَ لمَ لا أستطيعُ الحضور، حدثَ ذلك في إحدى أمسياتِ الصيف، حين صادفتُ في الطريق إلى البيت امرأةً حزينة، كانتْ تحملُ في يدها غابة، وفي حقيبتها زجاجةَ نبيذ، قبَّلتُها فأصبحتْ حاملاً في الشهر الحادي عشر…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، لقد أمسكتني دمشقُ مع امرأةٍ أُخرى في الفراش، حاولتُ أنْ أُصلحَ الموقف، وأنَّ ما جرى نزوةَ ليس إلا، وأنَّها لن تتكرر، أقسمتُ بكلِّ شيء، بالقمر، بالألعابِ النارية، بأصابعِ النساء، لكنَّ كلَّ شيءٍ كانَ قد انتهى، فهربتُ إلى الشمال…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، حين كنتُ طفلاً، لم أكنْ أعرفُ أي شيءٍ عن اقتصاد السوق، الآن وبعدَ أنْ أصبحتُ مواطناً في إحدى دول العالمِ الأول فإنَّني لا أعرفُ أي شيءٍ عن اقتصادِ السوق…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، حينَ كنتُ أهمُّ بالمجيء، اصطدمتْ حقيبتي بخبرٍ عاجلٍ فانكسرتْ لغتي إلى قطعٍ وتناهبها المارة، ولم يعدْ لديَّ لغة…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، أنا ميِّت، نعم، لقد توفيتُ منذ عدةِ سنوات…

How I became…

Her grief fell from the balcony and broke into pieces, so she needed a new grief. When I went with her to the market the prices were unreal, so I advised her to buy a used grief. We found one in excellent condition although it was a bit big. As the vendor told us, it belonged to a young poet who had killed himself the previous summer. She liked this grief so we decided to take it. We argued with the vendor over the price and he said he’d give us an angst dating from the sixties as a free gift if we bought the grief. We agreed, and I was happy with this unexpected angst. She sensed this and said ‘It’s yours’. I took it and put it in my bag and we went off. In the evening I remembered it and took it out of the bag and examined it closely. It was high quality and in excellent condition despite half a century of use. The vendor must have been unaware of its value otherwise he wouldn’t have given it to us in exchange for buying a young poet’s low quality grief. The thing that pleased me most about it was that it was existentialist angst, meticulously crafted and containing details of extraordinary subtlety and beauty. It must have belonged to an intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge or a former prisoner. I began to use it and insomnia became my constant companion. I became an enthusiastic supporter of peace negotiations and stopped visiting relatives. There were increasing numbers of memoirs in my bookshelves and I no longer voiced my opinion, except on rare occasions. Human beings became more precious to me than nations and I began to feel a general ennui, but what I noticed most was that I had become a poet.   

… كيف أصب.حتُ

سقطَ حُزنُها من الشرفةِ وانكسر، أصبحتْ تحتاجُ إلى حزنٍ جديد، حين رافقتُها إلى السوق، كانتْ أسعارُ الأحزان خياليةً فنصحتُهَا أنْ تشتريَ حُزناً مستعملاً، وجدنا حزناً في حالةٍ جيدة، غيرَ أنَّهُ واسعٌ قليلاً، كانَ كما أخبرَنَا البائعُ لشاعرٍ شابٍ انتحرَ في الصيفِ الماضي، أعجبَها الحزنُ وقرَّرنا أخذه، اختلفنا مع البائعِ على السعرِ، فقال إنَّه سيعطينا قلقاً يعودُ إلى الستينياتِ كهديةٍ مجانيةٍ إن اشترينا الحزن، وافقنا وكنتُ فرحاً بهذا القلقِ الذي لم يكنْ في الحسبان، أحسَّتْ بفرحتي فقالت هو لك، أخذتُ القلقَ في حقيبتي ومضينا، مساءً تذكرتُ القلق، أخرجتُهُ من الحقيبةِ وقلَّبتُهُ، لقد كانَ بجودةٍ عاليةٍ وبحالةٍ جيدةٍ رغم نصفِ قرنٍ من الاستعمال، لا بدَّ أنَّ البائعَ يجهلُ قيمتَهُ وإلَّا ما كان ليعطينَاهُ مقابلَ شراء حزنٍ رديءٍ لشاعرٍ شاب، أكثرُ ما أفرحني به هو أنَّهُ قلقٌ وجودي، مشغولٌ بحرفيةٍ عاليةٍ وفيه تفاصيلُ غايةٌ في الدقةِ والجمال، لا بدَّ أنَّهُ يعودُ لمثقفٍ موسوعيٍ أو سجينٍ سابق، بدأتُ باستعمالهِ فأصبحَ الأرقُ رفيقَ أيَّامي، وصِرتُ من مؤيدي مباحثاتِ السلام، توقفتُ عن زيارةِ الأقاربِ وازدادتْ كتبُ المذكراتِ في مكتبتي ولم أعدْ أُبدي رأياً إلا ما ندر، صارَ الإنسانُ عندي أغلى من الوطنِ وبدأتُ أشعرُ بمللٍ عام، أمَّا أكثر ما لفتَ انتباهي هو أنني أصبحتُ شاعراً.

Massacre

Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt. They were poets and have become Reporters With Borders; they were already tired and now they’re even more tired. ‘They cross the bridge at daybreak fleet of foot’ and die with no phone coverage. I see them through night vision goggles and follow the heat of their bodies in the darkness; there they are, fleeing from it even as they run towards it, surrendering to this huge massage. Massacre is their true mother, while genocide is no more than a classical poem written by intellectual pensioned-off generals. Genocide isn’t appropriate for my friends, as it’s an organised collective action and organised collective actions remind them of the Left that let them down.

Massacre wakes up early, bathes my friends in cold water and blood, washes their underclothes and makes them bread and tea, then teaches them a little about the hunt. Massacre is more compassionate to my friends than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Massacre opened the door to them when other doors were closed, and called them by their names when news reports were looking for numbers. Massacre is the only one to grant them asylum regardless of their backgrounds; their economic circumstances don’t bother Massacre, nor does Massacre care whether they are intellectuals or poets, Massacre looks at things from a neutral angle; Massacre has the same dead features as them, the same names as their widowed wives, passes like them through the countryside and the suburbs and appears suddenly like them in breaking news. Massacre resembles my friends, but always arrives before them in faraway villages and children’s schools.

Massacre is a dead metaphor that comes out of the television and eats my friends without a single pinch of salt.

Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham

المجزرة

المجزرة مجازٌ ميتٌ يأكل أصدقائي، يأكلهم بلا ملحٍ، كانوا شعراءَ، وأصبحوا مراسلين مع حدود، كانوا متعبين وأصبحوا متعبين جداً، “يعبرون الجسر في الصبح خفافاً “، ويموتون خارج التغطية، إنني أراهم بالمناظير الليلية، وأتتبعُ حرارة أجسادهم في الظلام، ها هم يهربون منها إليها، مستسلمين لهذا المساج الهائل، المجزرة أمهم الحقيقية، أما الإبادة الجماعية فهي مجردُ قصيدةٍ كلاسيكيةٍ يكتبها جنرالاتٌ مثقفون أحيلوا إلى التقاعد، الإبادة الجماعية لا تليق بأصدقائي، فهي عملٌ جماعي منظم، والأعمال الجماعية المنظمة تذكرهم باليسار الذي خذلهم.

المجزرةُ تصحو باكراً، تحمّمُ أصدقائي بالماء البارد والدم، تغسلُ ملابسهم الداخلية وتعدُ لهم الخبز والشاي، ثم تعلمهم قليلاً من الصيد، المجزرة أحنُّ على أصدقائي من الإعلان العالمي لحقوق الانسان، فتحتْ لهم الباب حين غُلِّقتْ الأبواب، ونادتهم بأسمائهم حين كانت نشراتُ الأخبار تبحث عن عدد الضحايا، المجزرة هي الوحيدةُ التي منحتهم اللجوء بغض النظر عن خلفياتهم، لم يهمها وضعهم الاقتصادي، لم يهمها إنْ كانوا مثقفين أو شعراء، إنها تنظر إلى الأشياء من زاوية محايدة، لها نفس ملامحهم الميتة، وأسماءُ زوجاتهم الأرامل، تمرُّ مثلهم على الأرياف والضواحي، وتظهرُ فجأة مثلهم في الأخبار العاجلة، المجزرة تشبه أصدقائي، لكنها دائماً تسبقهم إلى القرى النائية ومدارس الأطفال.

المجزرة مجازٌ ميتٌ يخرجُ من التلفزيون، ويأكل أصدقائي دون رشة ملح واحدة.


The World Refugee Crisis in Brief

The Melancholy Mathematics

Like death and taxes, the poor and racism, refugees have always been with us.  But never in modern times – since the Second World War – have they been so many!

There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – that have been forcibly displaced from their homes – fleeing from persecution or conflict.

This doesn’t count economic migrants who have hit the roads of sub Saharan Africa and Central America fleeing drought and crop failure, economic recession and unemployment, poverty, gangs and cartels, seeking a better life for themselves and the families in Europe or the USA.

Three quarters of a million ‘economic migrants’ are on the move in Central America, whilst the UN estimates that at least four million people have left Venezuela because of its political and economic crisis in what has been described as the biggest refuge crisis ever seen in the Americas. There are refugee camps on the Colombian border. Most are in Columbia but others have entered Brazil and Peru.  But these are not by legal definition refugees – see below, The Refugees’ Journey .

Of those sixty nine million people over 11 million or 16% are Syrians. The numbers keep growing Thirty one people at being displaced every minute of the day. In 2018 alone, 16.2 million people were newly displaced.

Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – this includes six million Syrians and off our radars, some two million souls who once lived in the contested regions of eastern Ukraine.

Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. Some 57% of them come from three countries: Syria, 6.3 million, Afghanistan 2.6 million and South Sudan 2.4 million. The top hosting counties are Turkey 3.5 million, Lebanon, 1 million, Pakistan 1.4 million, Uganda 1.4 million and Iran 1 million.

Jordan shelters over three quarters of a million Syrians; during the Iraq wars, this relatively poor country sheltered a similar number of Iraqis, and still hosts tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who’ve fled persecution at home.

These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. The Lebanese government estimates that there are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country.

Much of the focus these days is on the Middle East – Syria and its neighbours, on Libya and the frail boats crossing the Mediterranean, on the war in Yemen which has killed over thirteen thousand and displaced over two million.

But situation in Africa is as dire.

More than 2 million Somalis are currently displaced by a conflict that has lasted over two decades. An estimated 1.5 million people are internally displaced in Somalia and nearly 900,000 are refugees in the near region, including some 308,700 in Kenya, 255,600 in Yemen and 246,700 in Ethiopia.

By August 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo hosted more than 536,000 refugees from Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. And yet, there are over 4.5 million Congolese people displaced inside their own country and over 826,000 in neighbouring countries, including Namibia, Angola and Kenya.

Should the present situation in Sudan deteriorate into civil war, another tide of humanity will hit the road.

And closer to home, there are millions of refugees in Asia.

As of March 2019, there are over 100, 000 refugees in 9 refugee camps in Thailand (as of March 2019), mainly ethnic Karen and Shan. Refugees in Thailand have been fleeing ethnic conflict and crossing Myanmar’s eastern border jungles for the safety of Thailand for nearly 30 years.

There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis, and since August 2017, an estimated 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, had crossed the border into Bangladesh.

The top-level numbers are stupendous. The detail is scary.

Some 52% of the world’s refugees and displaced are children. And many are unaccompanied. Every hour, around 20 children run for their lives without their parents to protect them.

Children are the most vulnerable to disease and malnutrition and also to exploitation and lose years of schooling. Millions are elderly and are also face health problems.

And the problems facing young people and adults are all enormous. International aid is limited and host countries often unsympathetic. Work opportunities are few, some countries even forbidding refugees to take work, whilst unscrupulous employers exploit the desperate. Migrants are often encouraged, sometimes forcibly, to return to their countries of origin regardless of whether or not it is safe for them to return. There are reports that many have returned to Syria into the unwelcoming hands of the security services.

Refugees have lived in camps and towns in Pakistan and Thailand, Namibia and Kenyan for decades. Most refugee children were not born in their parents’ homelands.

And the camps are by no means safe havens. There may be no shelter or only basic shelter in tents; no privacy; a lack of clean water; meagre food; limited medical care; and the threat of injury, disease and epidemics. They may be poor physical security and armed attacks, and abuse by the authorities and officials. There may be organized crime, shakedowns and extortion, corruption and bribery.

Families may have become separated, exposing women and children without the protection of male family members to more fear and violence. Women are subsequently vulnerable to harsh conditions, including potential sexual and physical and abuse, poor healthcare, and unequal access to food and water. They may be coping with the loss of the head of the family and with the changing roles and responsibilities that come from being the sole parent. They may not know if their male family members will return to them safely and they must deal with the stress and anxiety, the grief and loss arising from their recent experiences. They might be fearful of the future, which in a camp is unknown and unpredictable.

From In That Howling Infinite’No Going Home

Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land – a poet’s memorial to a forgotten crime

… they were standin’ on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun
Solid Rock, Goanna 1982

The Great Australian Silence

Archaeologist WEH Stanner wrote in 1968 of “the great Australian silence – it was almost as if there was a “cult of forgetfulness”. And indeed, white historical memory is like a sieve. Give it a good shake and only the big chunks are left. For a long time in Australia, the story of our frontier wars was not one of those. But in recent decades, an ever-widening crack has let the light in.

The first hairline fissures appeared in the early years of settlement as a small number of humanitarians voiced their concerns, although not with enough impetus to cool our pioneer fervour. Henry Reynolds, acclaimed historian of the frontier wars, quotes one such: ‘How is it our minds are not satisfied? What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?’

I touched upon this paradox in a review I wrote of historian Peter Cochrane’s novel The Making of Martin Sparrow: – Martin Sparrow’s Blues:

“The country into which most characters venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country” … 

… Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding …

… “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “I don’t reckon we’re the Christians … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

… They knew in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. 

At Bellingen’s  Readers and Writers Festival in July 2019, we attended a powerful “conversation” between Reynolds and indigenous activist and academic Marcia Langton. Reynolds reminded us that these wars raged for decades from Tasmania in our far south  to Queensland’s far north. It was a story of vicious raids and reprisals.

In August 2019, in a piece called The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness, I wrote:

“Australia at the time of first settlement, and particularly on the frontier, was a brutal, violent place. It was colonized by soldiers and convicts, most of them young men chock-full of testosterone and aggression, bitterness and prejudice, greed and ambition. The conflict, which in Queensland, endured  into the last decades of the 19th Century, was a war of conquest and extrajudicial killings – or more bluntly, murders. The subdued territories were patrolled  by the native police – effectively paramilitary forces. The wars were waged by an outgunned people on the one hand, and, on the other, what were effectively robber bands raised and provisioned by the local magnates and squatters intent on seizing, holding and expanding their often enormous landholdings. There were to be no ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties. And no recognition of indigenous rights. None were ever on offer – not that that would’ve made a difference”.

We have come a long way in a short time; but we’re not there yet. There exists still a darkness at the heart of our democracy that we struggle to come to terms with; and in these divisive days, it doesn’t take much to reignite our “history wars” as we negotiate competing narratives and debate the “black armband” and “white blindfold” versions of our national story.

‘A sorry place’

We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest which lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers in Bellingen Shire the mid north coast of New South Wales. Traversing the ridge just north of us is the east-west Fernmount Range Trail. In the days gone by, it was an ancient highway called the Yildaan Dreaming Track and Trade Route  which linked the plains beyond the Dorrigo massif to what is now the seaside town of Urunga, known then to the Gumbaynggirr people as a “place of plenty”. The first people would descend the spurs on the north and south flanks of the range for fishing and ceremonies on the riverside. The Tarkeeth Forest contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.

We have been told that the Gumbaynggirr regarded Bellingen and its environs as a “sorry place”, one of discrimination, expulsion and worse. But Bellingen Shire is just one of many places that have a dark history of which most  residents are unaware.

Three historic massacre sites committed against Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung people of the Coffs Clarence region have been recorded on the Aboriginal massacres map, created by University of Newcastle researchers. have been listed near Bellingen, modern day Coutts Crossing and near Seelands and Ramornie. [See below]

The scenic Waterfall Way linking Armidale to the coast is a drive we never get tired of as it winds along riverside meadowlands and climbs through world heritage rainforests to the Dorrigo Plateau with its windswept escarpments, clear creeks, and just off the beaten track, magnificent waterfalls, landmarks like Cathedral Rock, and stunning views. But, in the words of activist and academic and Ambēyang man Callum Clayton-Dixon, this highway conceals signposts to a bloody past. [We republish his article below]

One of these signposts points the way to north of Point Lookout on the New England Tableland, where, jutting out from the plateau and dropping in sheer cliffs into the thick rainforest below, is a place once known as Darkie Point.

Judith Wright was the first white Australian poet to publicly name and explore the experiences of its Indigenous people. Through her poetry, and especially in her later histories, Wright sought to confront the violence in Australian settler history and to re-imagine it through the eyes of the first Australians. Her words breathed sorrow and compassion into the early encounters between settlers and Indigenous people, evoking the tragedy of the Australian frontier. Her love of the New England highlands was bound to a creeping uneasiness about its past. As Billy Griffiths wrote in in his story of archaeologist Isabel McBryde, she lived in “haunted country.” In an early poem, Bora Ring(1946), she mourned the passing of a dynamic world:

The hunter is gone; the spear
is splintered underground; the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still.

She lived on New England  tablelands and camped at Point Lookout with her father, as he had with his mother. “She remembered being mesmerized by the splendour of the cliffs, the mystery of the thickly forested valley and the “the great blue sweep of the view from the Point to the sea.” But she saw a darkness here, too. To the north of Point Lookout, jutting out from the plateau and dropping in sheer cliffs into the thick rainforest below, is a place once known as Darkie Point. It is just north of Ebor and the scenic Waterfall Way linking Armidale to the Coast via Dorrigo and Bellingen.

Wright’s father told her the story of how it got its name: how, “long ago,” a group of Aboriginal people were driven over those cliffs by white settlers as reprisal for spearing cattle. Their sickening plunge was re-imagined in one of Wright’s early poems, “Nigger’s Leap, New England”, published in her first collection The Moving Image (1946). The story was later revealed to be an “abstracted and ahistoricised” account of a documented event. It was, in fact, August 1852, that scores of Aboriginal people were chased to the edge of a cliff, shot and pushed over. Some in this day and age may be offended by the use of what is now a forbidden word – but Wright chose it specifically for its shock effect, commemorating as it does what was then a forgotten crime. “Did we not know”, she asks, “their blood channelled our rivers, and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?”

In her short story, On Reading Nigger’s Leap, Teacher and writer Anne Vince asks her class – and  us, her readers – to imagine what Wright did describe in words words:

‘Local aborigines were driven over the falls. Stockmen from neighbouring stations rounded them up like cattle and beat them to the cliff’s edge. Mothers leapt, leaving their babies clinging to shrub roots. Some tried to hide their children in the burnt out husks of the giant gums that used to grow around here. After a while the riders would release their dogs…There is such a silence my words falter before tumbling forward. I have to breathe deeply to continue, to remember … How do we know this? Hard evidence. Skeletal remains at the bottom of the cliffs – and, yes – they are human remains. And, of course, oral history… Judith Wright had heard these stories.’  [We republish Vince’s story below]

© Paul Hemphill 2021 All rights reserved

Nigger’s Leap, New England

The eastward spurs tip backward from the sun.
Nights runs an obscure tide round cape and bay
and beats with boats of cloud up from the sea
against this sheer and limelit granite head.
Swallow the spine of range; be dark. O lonely air.
Make a cold quilt  across the bone and skull
that screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff
and then were silent, waiting for the flies.

Here is the symbol, and climbing dark
a time for synthesis. Night buoys no warning
over the rocks that wait our keels; no bells
sound for the mariners. Now must we measure
our days by nights, our tropics by their poles,
love by its end and all our speech by silence.
See in the gulfs, how small the light of home.

Did we not know their blood channelled our rivers,
and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?
O all men are one man at last. We should have known
the night that tidied up the cliffs and hid them
had the same question on its tongue for us.
And there they lie that were ourselves writ strange.

Never from earth again the coolamon
or thin black children dancing like the shadows
of saplings in the wind. Night lips the harsh
scarp of the tableland and cools its granite.
Night floods us suddenly as history
that has sunk many islands in its good time.

‘On Reading “Nigger’s Leap” by Judith Wright’ by Anne Vince

Judith Wright knifes the scab off an old, unhealed wound.

In the classroom I explain that this poem is set in their own backyard – at the local falls – where three generations ago white men, squatters and landowners alike, regularly went ‘hunting’ and it wasn’t for kangaroos.

A snarl sweeps across the pig-shooter’s son.  ‘Supposedly,’ he interjects.

I’m stunned. Not because it’s the first time I’ve heard four consecutive syllables from this boy – it’s the ferocity of the denial. There’s a history here, a hint of blood knowledge.

Under this remark I can hear the lazy slam of a fly screen door, the indignant scrape of a chair rasped over cracked, worn lino.

‘Yeah…’ drawls another student. Then another. The heat in the room builds. Even the incessant flies hesitate. ‘Well…?’

A sea of sun-scorched faces, eyes ready to pass judgment, stare.

To gather my thoughts, I glance outside. Massive cumulus clouds the colour of dark bruises roil and tumble over each other, mocking the scrubby horizon, piling higher and higher in the expectant sky.

I have to be careful. These are children well versed in suspicion. I know anything I say will make it back to shoddy verandahs and the town’s single, stainy-tiled bar.

I want to tell them their disbelief makes them complicit but that would mean slipping a fingernail under that lino, scraping at the decades of dirty reasoning and the trampled effort of surviving in a place like this.

The class waits – a collective held breath willing the relief of a reply.

I look at their hands. Some of them are men’s hands, thick-knuckled from weekend labour or cutting horses in low rent rodeos. Most of these students are already helping shoulder the burden of overgrazed, drought-stricken farms, riddled with dieback. They are tough kids from decent families who believe they’ve been given the whole country for their own.

‘No,’ I finally say. ‘Local aborigines were driven over the falls. Stockmen from neighbouring stations rounded them up like cattle and beat them to the cliff’s edge. Mothers leapt, leaving their babies clinging to shrub roots. Some tried to hide their children in the burnt out husks of the giant gums that used to grow around here. After a while the riders would release their dogs…’

There is such a silence my words falter before tumbling forward. I have to breathe deeply to continue, to remember.

‘How do we know this? Hard evidence. Skeletal remains at the bottom of the cliffs – and, yes – they are human remains. And, of course, oral history… Judith Wright had heard these stories.’ This is what I tell them.

I don’t tell them that swimming one afternoon in the dark pools of the falls, just as the sun slanted shadows through saplings at the water’s edge, I met those shrill, anguished spirits. I don’t tell them of the high-pitched keening and tortured wailing that filled my ears each time I dived, or of the roaring bush silence that greeted me when I emerged, clean-skinned and gutted. I don’t tell them how I choked, sick with sudden comprehension as I lay on the hard granite, resisting the pull of those blood channelled ghosts to join their sway and wander in the waters far under.

Now, Slessor they will understand. White man’s words. White man’s war.

They are excused by the bell.

To me it is the sound of alarm

Myall Creek, New England

At Myall Creek Station near Inverell, in 1838, twelve armed and mounted stockmen rounded up 28 unarmed Wirrayaraay people – largely women and children – and, without provocation, hacked them to death. This story, the Myall Creek massacre, is relatively well known because of John Plunkett’s heroic prosecution of the stockmen – several were hanged for murder – but numerous other, similar incidents in the area are less well known. These include the follow-up murder of thirty or so remaining Wirrayaraay men and killings of sometimes hundreds of people at sites such as Slaughterhouse Creek, Waterloo Creek and Terrible Creek.

Few locals know that Dangar Falls in Dorrego,  Dangarsleigh, and Armidale’s Dangar Street were all named in honour of Henry Dangar, a squatter known for his role in the attempted cover up of the atrocity, and for trying to pervert to course of justice in the subsequent trial.

We recently republished extracts for William Lines’ Taming of the Great South Land regarding the eradication koala and other wildlife in the earthy twentieth century. Here is what he had to say about Myall Creek and other massacres.

The Myall Creek Massacre

Most squatters abhorred the Aborigines. They resented their “wandering propensities”, their independence, their pride and their unwillingness to accept the hierarchical authority Europeans equated with enlightenment. For 50 years Aborigines the civilisation Europeans

had sought to impose on Australia, Their inclination towards independence of action and refusal to accept the values of the invaders invaders greatly exasperated the British. Their disdain for European habits marked them as barbarians and supplied the Europeans with an antithesis – civilisation versus barbarism – highly useful as a rationalisation for aggression. To counter aboriginal resistance, the squatters appealed to the government to clear the land. When the colonial authorities equivocated,  the squatters adopted at their own solutions.

At mile Creek, 650 km north of Sydney, shortly before sundown one day in June 1838, a group of mounted stockmen with muskets, swords and pistols, rounded up 30 or 40 aboriginals encamped at a sheep station. The Horseman roped the men, women and most of the children together and force them to march 4 kilometres into the bush. The untied children, crying, followed their mothers, who carried those too young to walk. One of the stockmen snatched up an untied boy of about seven ( a favourite of his), placed in behind a tree and told him to remain there until later. The child, however, ran back, crying “no, I will go with my mammy”. He was then fastened with rope to the adults.

A few days later the station manager became curious as to the whereabouts of the Aborigines previously camped in the area. The hovering at Eagles, hawks and other birds of prey, directed him to a spot where he discovered the mangled and half burnt remains at least 28 people. For the most part, heads was separated from bodies, and fire marks appeared on the disjointed limbs. Charcoal and burnt logs indicated an attempt to efface all evidence. The manager, however, recognise 10 to 12 small heads he took to those of children, and a large body which he believed belonged to “Daddy”, an Aborigine know for his remarkably large frame.

When the government laid murder charges against the men responsible, squatters and the press screamed in outage at the absurdity of indicting civilised man for the deaths of creatures on the lowest rung of creation. A few of those associated with squatting have not killed aboriginals and they continued to declare their right to clear the land of an inferior race. One squatter boasted that he “would shoot a Blackfellow whenever he met him as he would a mad dog. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Once juror explained:

“I look to the blacks as a set of monkeys and I think the earlier they are exterminated, the better. I know well [the accused] are guilty of murder, but I, for one, would never consent to see a white man suffer for shooting black one”.

The government eventually obtained a conviction at a second trial. Before their execution , the seven condemned men acknowledged their guilt but stated in their defence “that in destroying the Aborigines, they were not aware that they had violated the law, or that it would take cognizance of their having done so, as it had been so frequently done in the colonies before”.

The Myall Creek massacre became notorious, , Not because of the murder of the aboriginals but because of the conviction and punishment to the murderous. It was only the second and the last time in Australian history that Europeans were executed for the murder of aborigines. Henceforward squatters acted with impunity; the Myall C Creek trial only encouraged them to be more secretive and thorough. One recommended that, where the firearms failed or became too obvious, poison in the form of strychnine or arsenic mixed with flour be given to the aborigines.

Squatters believed that the £10 license fee and entitled them to the exclusive one of their use of the runs – a right which justified the violent expulsion of the original residents. In February 1840 the Whyte  brothers took up their Kooning-wootong run in the Western District. A month later they hunted down an aboriginal group suspected of stealing 127 sheep and killed between 20 and 30 of them. Although the Whytes admitted to the killings, the government failed to prosecute, and a month later the brothers pursued and killed members of another group of aborigines. In 1841 a party of seven settlers shot dead 51 aborigines on the banks of the Glenelg River near the South Australia-Victoria border, for abducting 50 sheep. Long after, according to a local squatter, the bones of the men and sheep lay mingled together bleaching in the sun at the Fighting Hills.

Taming The Great South Land – a history of the conquest of nature in Australia, William J Lines (Allen and Unwin 1991) p78-79

What to do with  signposts to New England’s bloody past?

View at Medium.com

By Callum Clayton-Dixon: The names of various creeks, streets, parks, and pastoral properties across the Tableland hark back to New England’s violent colonial origins. In this unprecedented time of truth-telling, is taking down these symbols of past injustices enough?

Majors Creek, near the village of Ebor, named for squatter Major Edward Parke.

Travelling along Waterfall Way, not far from the village of Ebor, you’ll drive across Major’s Creek, and nearby there’s a signpost for Major’s Point Road which takes you towards Major’s Point bluff. These places were named after Major Edward Parke, who took up Guy Fawkes Station in the mid-1840s. Ebor itself has a Major Street, and a Parke Street. Parke, an ex-military man, acquired a reputation for his brutal treatment of local Aboriginal people. A profile of the New England district published by the Singleton Argus in 1883 referred to how Parke “established such a reign of terror…that for twenty-five years no Aboriginal would approach his run, although through it ran their favourite and most prolific fishing streams”.

“The name of the gentleman in question is held in awe by the darkeys till the present day, and to mention it is sufficient to induce any stray Aboriginal to make back tracks to the nearest shelter.” — Singleton Argus, 12/12/1883, p2

The Darkie Point Massacre illustrated by Narmi Collins-Widders

Just east of Major’s Point is Darkie Point. According to the well-known pastoralist P.A. Wright of Wallamumbi Station, this particular bluff was the site of a massacre —in August 1852, a large group of Aboriginal people were chased to the edge, shot and pushed over. An article about the history of the Dorrigo Plateau printed in the Dungog Chronicle in 1932 talked of Edward Parke’s involvement in this atrocity: “A great number of them were shot by Major Parke and other residents of the district who had joined the chase”. It’s likely that Michael Clogher of Bostobrick Station, a former convict and constable with the New England Border Police, was involved in the Darkie Point massacre as well. That same month, Clogher led a posse of settlers “in pursuit of the natives” on the Aberfoyle run, and “followed them to Paddy’s Land, where they shot down as many as they could”. Joshua Scholes’ account of this incident appeared in a 1923 issue of the Uralla Times; Scholes was a long-time resident of the Tableland “with a wealth of knowledge of the early days”. I suspect Clogher’s Creek at Nymboida is named after Michael Clogher, who was also notorious for terrorizing Aboriginal people; he would ride into camps brandishing his cavalry sword, and apparently didn’t hesitate to use his pistol or carbine.

“The name [Terrible Vale] was derived from one of the men working on the place in the early days and known as ‘Terrible Billy’, being a terror to the blacks.” —Uralla Times, 03/05/1923, p2

Terrible Vale, south of Uralla, took its name from William ‘Terrible Billy’ Stephenson, the head stockman during the mid-1830s. Elizabeth Gardner’s history of the Station documents a story “passed down through some people who worked on the station…that a large number of Aborigines were killed near the creek on Terrible Vale”, and it was Terrible Billy who shot a great many Aboriginal people there. Then there’s Macdonald Park in Armidale, which is named after the district’s first Crown Lands Commissioner George James Macdonald. Commissioner Macdonald commanded the New England Border Police, and over the course of two days of skirmishing on the Beardie Plains in March 1840, his troopers shot dead nine Aboriginal warriors and wounded a tenth. In reporting this to his superiors, Macdonald justified the slaughter, claiming that it had been “absolutely necessary…to check the boldness and daring of their attacks”.

Dangar Falls, Dangarsleigh, and Armidale’s Dangar Street were all named in honour of Henry Dangar, a squatter known for his role in the attempted cover up of the infamous 1838 Myall Creek Massacre, and for trying to pervert to course of justice in the subsequent trial. On the Macdonald River run — named after Henry Macdonald, Station manager there in the mid-1830s — colonists poisoned local Aboriginal people by giving them milk containing arsenic. This is, in all likelihood, why a waterway on the outskirts of Bendemeer is called Poison Swamp Creek.

Most New Englanders would be completely oblivious of the horrific history to which these signpost names point. Why? Wilful ignorance in some cases. Complete denial in others. Most have no idea because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn about it. But the thick fog of the great conspiracy of silence is lifting as the push for truth-telling advances. Bolstered by the global Black Lives Matter movement, calls for the removal of statues and place names honouring those who contributed to the violent colonization of Aboriginal lands and lives are gaining momentum. However, there are a whole raft of questions and issues that arise from this crucial conversation.

What, if anything, should replace these symbols of past injustices? Plaques acknowledging the atrocities committed by the likes of Major Parke? Memorials recognizing the pain and suffering endured by Aboriginal people at the hands of the New England colonial project? Or monuments to the warriors who laid down their lives to protect kin and country? After all, the massacres, the poisonings, and the campaigns of terror were often carried out in response to our ancestors’ fierce resistance to the invasion. Their courage and sacrifice must also be remembered.

And what shall replace names like ‘Macdonald Park’ and ‘Dangar Falls’? One of the most common suggestions has been to use words from the local Aboriginal language (Anēwan) for this purpose, thus paying respect to the traditional owners, and contributing to the revival of our ancestral tongue. But symbolic acts alone aren’t enough, nowhere near in fact. Symbolism has to be, in my view, accompanied by commitments to real change, tangible change.

The savagery of Parke, Clogher, Terrible Billy, and their ilk was foundational to the development of New England as a thriving pastoral district. So were government agents like Commissioner Macdonald, overseeing ruthless police repression, and administering the carving up of the Tableland into hundreds of stations. We have to go beyond statues and signposts to conversations about redress for the protracted dispossession and decimation of Aboriginal communities. Substantial reforms to the education system are, of course, a given. Let’s talk about the return of stolen lands. Let’s talk about reparations. And it’s vital that these conversations (and the actions they give rise to) take place locally, as well as at the state and national level. Truth and justice, from the ground up — a shattering of the colonial status quo, not a tinkering.

Callum Clayton-Dixon is an Ambēyang Aboriginal man whose people come from the southern end of the New England Tableland in New South Wales. He is the author of Surviving New England: A History of Aboriginal Resistance & Resilience through the First Forty Years of the Colonial Apocalypse (2019), and a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney, working to develop a dictionary and grammar of his ancestral language.

The Colonial Frontier Massacres Map

The Coffs Coast Advocate reported  in November 2019, how stage one of the project has recorded 172 incidents across Eastern Australia between 1788 and 1872.  About 97% of people killed in these massacres were Aboriginal men, women and children Massacres became more violent, systematic and calculated over time. The average number of Indigenous deaths increased over time, before declining in the 1900s, but massacres continued up to 1928.  At least 65 massacres of Indigenous people were in retaliation for the killing or theft of livestock, or theft of property

Darkie Point, Bellinger River, near Ebor  

Ten people were killed at Darkie Point on the Bellingen River in May, 1841 with settlers and stockmen using firearms and muskets to attack a local Baanbay Aboriginal tribe in an act of reprisal. The narrative by the Colonial Frontier Massacres research team reads.  “Following the brutal murder of three shepherds on Eldershaw’s outstation in the north eastern part of New England and the taking of 2000 sheep by Bundjalung, Eldershaw organised a ‘pursuing party’ of ten men (including Eldershaw, three neighbours and six stockmen) … ‘Well mounted and accoutred’ and set off with ten days provisions for the south branch of the Clarence. According to Eldershaw they shot the entire group – ‘a great number’ in daylight.’

Orara River, near Seelands and Ramornie

More than 20 people were killed on the Orara River, near Sealands between April 1, 1841 and April 30, 1841. The attackers included colonisers, a government official and settlers and stockmen. “In response to stock theft, from Ramornie station, CLC Oakes of Clarence PD swore in stockmen as special constables to surround a Bundjalung (Ngarabal? speakers) camp at night and at daybreak charged and killed indiscriminately Aboriginal men, women and children.” A man named Lynch was later charged with the stock theft.

Kangaroo Creek, near today’s Coutts Crossing

An estimated 23 Gumabynggnir people were killed on November 29, 1847. “In February 1848, Crown Lands Commissioner, Oliver Fry, was told by a stockman and an Aboriginal man at Grafton that squatter Thomas Coutts had poisoned 23 Aboriginal people by offering them flour laced with arsenic at his station at Kangaroo Creek.” Fry set off for Kangaroo Creek Station to investigate. He found human remains, but they were too decomposed for analysis. Coutts was arrested and taken to Sydney where he was bailed for 1,000 pounds, but was discharged in May for lack of evidence.