That was the year that was

Reviewing 2017, I am reminded of Game of Thrones‘ Mance Rayder’s valedictory: “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come”.

On the international and the domestic front, it appeared as if we were condemned to an infernal and exasperating ‘Groundhog Day’.

Last November, we welcomed Donald Trump to the White House with bated breath and gritted teeth, and his first year as POTUS did not disappoint. From race-relations to healthcare to tax reform to The Middle East, South Asia and North Korea, we view his bizarro administration with a mix of amusement and trepidation. Rhetorical questions just keep coming. Will the Donald be impeached? Are we heading for World War 3? How will declining America make itself “great again” in a multipolar world set to be dominated by Russia Redux and resurgent China. Against the advice of his security gurus, and every apparently sane and sensible government on the globe (including China and Russia, but not King Bibi of Iz), his Trumpfulness recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Jerusalem. Sure, we all know that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel – but we are not supposed to shout it out loud in case it unleashed all manner of mayhem on the easily irritated Muslim street. Hopefully, as with many of Trump’s isolationist initiatives, like climate change, trade, and Iran, less immoderate nations will take no notice and carry on regardless. The year closes in, and so does the Mueller Commission’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election and the Trumpistas’ connivance and complicity – yes, “complicit”, online Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year, introduced to us in her husky breathlessness by the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson in a spoof perfume ad that parodies Ivanka Trump’s merchandizing.

Britain continues to lumber towards the Brexit cliff, its unfortunate and ill-starred prime minister marked down as “dead girl walking”. Negotiations for the divorce settlement stutter on, gridlocked by the humongous cost, the fate of Europeans in Britain and Brits abroad, and the matter of the Irish border, which portends a return to “the troubles” – that quintessentially Irish term for the communal bloodletting that dominated the latter half of the last century. The May Government’s hamfistedness is such that at Year End, many pundits are saying that the public have forgotten the incompetence of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and predict that against all odds, his missus could soon be measuring up for curtains in Number Ten.

Beset by devilish twins of Trump and Brexit, a European Union written-off as a dysfunctional, divided bureaucratic juggernaut, appears to have found hidden reserves of unity and purpose, playing hardball with Britain, dismissing the claims of Catalonia and Kurdistan, rebuking an isolationist America, and seeing-off resurgent extreme right-wing parties that threaten to fracture it with their nationalist and anti-immigration agendas. Yet, whilst Marine Le Pen and Gert Wilders came up short in the French and Dutch elections, and centrists Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel hold the moderate middle, atavistic, autocratic and proto-fascist parties have risen to prominence and influence in formerly unfree Eastern Europe, driven by fear of a non-existent flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa (these are headed for the more pleasant economic climes of Germany, Britain and Scandinavia), and perhaps, their historically authoritarian DNA. Already confronted with the Russian ascendency in the east, and the prospects of the Ukrainian – Donetsk conflict firing up in the near future, the EU’s next big challenge is likely to be reacquainting itself with its original raisin d’etre – the European Project that sought to put an end to a century of European wars – and addressing the potential expulsion of parvenu, opportunistic member states who fail to uphold the union’s democratic values. As a hillbilly villain in that great series Justifed declaimed, “he who is not with is not with us”.

The frail, overcrowded boats still bob dangerously on Mediterranean and Aegean waters, and the hopeful of Africa and Asia die hopelessly and helplessly. Young people, from east and west Africa flee poverty, unemployment, and civil war, to wind up in Calais or in pop-up slave markets in free but failed Libya. In the Middle East the carnage continues. Da’ish might be finished on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, with the number of civilian casualties far exceeding that of dead jihadis. But its reach has extended to the streets of Western Europe – dominating headlines and filling social media with colourful profile pictures and “I am (insert latest outrage)” slogans. Meanwhile, tens, scores, hundreds die as bombs explode in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with no such outpourings of empathy – as if it’s all too much, too many, too far away.

Bad as 2017 and years prior were for this sad segment of our planet, next year will probably not be much better. The autocrats are firmly back in the saddle from anarchic Libya and repressed Egypt to Gulf monarchs and Iranian theocrats. There will be the wars of the ISIS succession as regional rivals compete with each other for dominance. Although it’s ship of state is taking in water, Saudi Arabia will continue its quixotic and perverse adventures in the Gulf and the Levant. At play in the fields of his Lord, VP Pence declared to US troops in December that victory was nigh, the Taliban and IS continue to make advances in poor, benighted Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Africa will continue to bleed, with ongoing wars across the Sahel, from West and Central Africa through to South Sudan,  ethnic tensions in the fragile nations of the Rift Valley, and further unrest in newly ‘liberated’ Zimbabwe as its people realize that the military coup is yet another case what The Who called “meet the old boss, same as the new boss”.

This Syrian mother and her child were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.

In our Land Down Under, we endured the longest, most boring election campaign in living memory, and got more of the same: a lacklustre Tory government, and a depressingly dysfunctional and adversarial political system. Politicians of all parties, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Rome burns. All this only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with their representatives, warps their perception of the value and values of “democracy”, and drives the frustrated, disgruntled, fearful and alienated towards the political extremes – and particularly the Right where ambitious but frustrated once, present and future Tory politicians aspire to greatness as big fishes in little ponds of omniphobia.

Conservative Christian politicians imposed upon us an expensive, unnecessary and bitterly divisive plebiscite on same-sex marriage which took forever. And yet, the non-compulsory vote produced a turnout much greater than the U.K. and US elections and the Brexit referendum, and in the end, over sixty percent of registered voters said Yes. Whilst constituencies with a high proportion of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Chinese cleaved to the concept that marriage was only for man and women, the country, urban and rural, cities and states voted otherwise. The conservatives’ much-touted “silent majority” was not their “moral majority” after all. Our parliamentarians then insisted on dragging the whole sorry business out for a fortnight whilst they passed the legislation through both Houses of Parliament in an agonizingly ponderous pantomime of emotion, self-righteousness and grandstanding. The people might have spoken, but the pollies just had to have the last word. Thanks be to God they are all now off on their summer hols! And same-sex couples can marry in the eyes of God and the state from January 9th 2018.

Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we are still “going up against chaos”, to quote Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, as the last, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it continues to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn for the long, hot summer, but will return in 2018, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.

And finally, on a light note, a brief summary of what we were watching during the year. There were the latest seasons of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. The former was brilliant, and the latter left us wondering why we are still watching this tedious and messy “Lost in Zombieland”. Westworld was a delight with its fabulous locations and cinematography, a script that kept us backtracking to listen again to what was said and to keep up with its many ethical arcs and literary revenues. and a cavalcade of well cast, well-written and original characters. Westworld scored a post of its own on this blog – see below. The Hand Maid’s Tale wove a dystopian tale all the more rendered all the more harrowing by the dual reality that there are a lot of men in the world who would like to see women in servitude, and that our society has the technology to do it. To celebrate a triumphant return, our festive present to ourselves were tee-shirts proclaiming: “‘ave a merry f@#kin’ Christmas by order of the Peaky Blinders”.  And on Boxing Day, Peter Capaldi bade farewell as the twelfth and second-best Doctor Who (David Tennant bears the crown), and we said hello to the first female Doctor, with a brief but chirpy Yorkshire “Aw, brilliant!” sign-on from Jodie Whittaker.

Whilst in Sydney, we made two visits to the cinema (tow more than average) to enjoy the big-screen experience of the prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien and the long-awaited sequel to our all-time favourite film Blade Runner. Sadly, the former, Alien: Covenant, was a disappointment, incoherent and poorly written.  The latter, whilst not as original, eye-catching and exhilarating as its parent, was nevertheless a cinematic masterpiece. It bombed at the box office, just like the original, but Blade Runner 2049 will doubtless become like it a cult classic.

This then was the backdrop to In That Howling Infinite’s 2017 – an electic collection covering politics, history, music, poetry, books, and dispatches from the Shire.

An abiding interest in the Middle East was reflected in several posts about Israel and Palestine, including republishing Rocky Road to Heavens Gate, a tale of Jerusalem’s famous Damascus Gate, and Castles Made of Sand, looking at the property boom taking place in the West Bank. Seeing Through the Eyes of the Other publishes a column by indomitable ninety-four year old Israeli writer and activist Uri Avnery, a reminder that the world looks different from the other side of the wire. The Hand That Signed the Paper examines the divisive legacy of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The View From a Balcony in Jerusalem reviews journalist John Lyons’ memoir of his posting in divided Jerusalem. There is a Oh, Jerusalem, song about the Jerusalem syndrome, a pathology that inflects many of the faithful who flock to the Holy City, and also a lighter note, New Israeli Matt Adler’s affectionate tribute to Yiddish – the language that won’t go away.

Sailing to Byzantium reviews Aussie Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire, a father and son road trip through Istanbul’s Byzantine past. Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion juxtaposes Khalil Gibran’s iconic poem against a politically dysfunctional, potentially dystopian present, whilst Red lines and red herrings and Syria’s enduring torment features a cogent article by commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen.

On politics generally, we couldn’t get through the year without featuring Donald Trump. In The Ricochet of Trump’s Counterrevolution, Australian commentator Paul Kelly argues that to a certain degree, Donald Trump’s rise and rise was attributable to what he and other commentators and academics describe as a backlash in the wider electorate against identity and grievance politics. Then there is the reblog of New York author Joseph Suglia’s original comparison between Donald Trump’s White House and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But our particular favourite is Deep in the Heart of Texas, a review of an article in The New Yorker by Lawrence Wright. His piece is a cracker – a must-read for political junkies and all who are fascinated and frightened by the absurdities of recent US politics.

Our history posts reprised our old favourite, A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West, whilst we examined the nature of civil wars in A House Divided. Ottoman Redux poses a hypothetical; what if The Ottoman Empire has sided with Britain, France and Russia in World War I? In the wake of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie, Deconstructing Dunkirk looked at the myths surrounding the famous evacuation. On the seventieth anniversary of the birth of India and Pakistan, we looked at this momentous first retreat from Empire with three posts: Freedom at Midnight (1) – the birth of India and Pakistan, Freedom at Midnight (2) – the legacy of partition, and Weighing the White Man’s Burden. Rewatching the excellent sci-fi drama Westworld – one of the televisual gems of 2017 –  we were excited to discover how the plays of William Shakespeare were treasured in the Wild West. This inspired our last post for the year: The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here, the title referencing a line from The Tempest.

Happy Birthday, Indiaekkent

Our continuing forest fight saw us return to Tolkien’s Tarkeeth, focusing this time around on fires that recalled Robert Plant’s lyrics in Ramble On: In the darkest depths of Mordor. The trial in Coffs Harbour of the Tarkeeth Three and the acquittal of two of our activists were chronicled on a series of interviews recorded by Bellingen’s Radio 2bbb, whilst other interviews were presented in The Tarkeeth Tapes. On a lighter note, we revisited our tribute to the wildlife on our rural retreat in the bucolic The Country Life.

And finally to lighter fare. There was Laugh Out Loud – The Funniest Books Ever. Poetry offerings included the reblog of Liverpudlian Gerry Cordon’s selection of poetry on the theme of “undefeated despair”: In the dark times, will there also be singing?; a fiftieth anniversary tribute to Liverpool poets Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, Recalling the Mersey Poets; and musical settings to two of our poems, the aforementioned Oh, Jerusalem, and E Lucevan Le Stelle.

And there was music. Why we’ve never stopped loving the Beatles; the mystery behind The Strange Death of Sam Cooke; Otis Redding – an unfinished life, and The Shock of the Old – the Glory Days of Prog RockLegends, Bibles, Plagues presented Bob Dylan’s laureate lecture. We reprised Tales of Yankee Power – how the songs of Jackson Brown and Bruce Cockburn portrayed the consequences of US intervention in Latin America during the ‘eighties. And we took an enjoyable journey into the “Celtic Twilight” with the rousing old Jacobite song Mo Ghille Mear – a piece that was an absolute pleasure to write (and, with its accompanying videos, to watch and listen to). As a Christmas treat, we reblogged English music chronicler Thom Hickey’s lovely look at the old English carol The Holly and the Ivy, And finally, for the last post of this eventful year, we selected five christmas Songs to keep the cold winter away.

Enjoy the Choral Scholars of Dublin’s University College below. and here are Those were the years that were : read our past reviews here:  2016   2015 

In That Howling Infinite is now on FaceBook, as it its associate page HuldreFolk. Check them out.

And if you have ever wondered how this blog got its title, here is Why :In That Howling Infinite”?

See you in 2018.

 

 

A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

The great and the good, the wise and the weary, have all offered a definition of ‘history’. To Napoleon, it was “a myth that men agree to believe”. Historian Marc Bloch observed that it was “an endeavour towards better understanding”. His Nazi killers disagreed – their’s was a less nuanced, more zero-sum approach. Abba Eban, long time Israeli foreign minister, wrote that it “teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. Aldous Huxley wrote “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” And channeling Mark Twain and Karl Marx, Buffy Summers remarked, “You know what they say. Those of us who fail history are, doomed to repeat it in summer school”. But best is John Banville’s admission in The Sea that “the past beats inside me like a second heart”. Simply put, we like to see some pattern, some sense of order to it all. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. commented: “The passion for tidiness is the historian’s occupational disease”. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have ever been, and shall ever be, animated by the same passions. And thus they necessarily have the same results”. And yet, whilst seeking patterns, we cannot really use them to predict outcomes. And it is impossible to know what really happened. The past is another country and all that. All we can say for sure is that in the end, history will remember where we end up much more than how we got there. And, history takes time. All the time in the world.

As Mark Twain remarked sardonically, “history doesn’t repeat itself. A best, it sometimes rhymes”. A recent rhyme was evident when an opulent exhibition on the life and legacy of Alexander The Great of Macedon was brought from ‘old world’ St.Petersburg, the twice renamed city of Peter The Great of Russia, to ‘ new world’ Sydney, Australia. For all his ‘greatness’, young Alexander was, like Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, but with murderous psycho mixed in. In his ‘Inferno’, Dante had him standing in the river of boiling blood, along with war-mongers and murderers. Why don’t these people just stay at home! Well, what would you think? You are minding your own business down beside the rivers of Babylon, and then suddenly, there’s an army of 50,000 Greeks on the other bank intent on doing damage. Or there you are, beside the sacred Indus, just about to tuck into your chicken vindaloo, when a rampaging horde of homesick Greeks come charging over the horizon. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been massacred or enslaved by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” And there you are on the banks of the Tigris, minding your own business, and keeping out of the way of the Mukhabarat, when over the horizon in a cloud of dust and disco sweeps a column of armoured vehicles and hordes of ka-firi-n with rifles and ray-bans. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been bombed or strafed by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. Nothing much has changed, really.

Which brings us back perhaps, to what Basil Fawlty called ‘the bleeding obvious”. Beyond the scholars’ passion for patterns, and the dry dialectics of cause and effect, there is the personal dimension. Who were the actual inhabitants of ‘history’? What did they think and feel? The thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past. We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past. Simply put, people who lived ‘then’ are not at all the same as we who live ’now’.

Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote:”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”. And so we do, for one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say, in Arabic, as indeed in all tongues, times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “once upon an time”.

So, let us walk down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history”, beginning with, yes, the usual suspects: power and pride, greed, and aggrandizement, and as accessories after the fact, dolour, devastation, and death.

Time: Year Zero of the Christian era. Place: The Mediterranean littoral

Often, with overwhelming political and military power and economic wealth come arrogance, decadence, and complacency. And with lean and hungry barbarians on the borderland, the geographical interface between the desert and the sown, and soon hanging around the gates, so the seeds of decline and destruction are scattered and germinate. The Pharaohs conquered and ruled over much of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Indeed, the first historical record of a ‘formal’ set piece battle between two armies took place in 1468 BCE at Meggido, just south east of Haifa in present day Israel – some five thousand Egyptians took on and bested two thousand Canaanite soldiers of local city states. But Egypt was to fall to the ascendant and ambitious Greeks and Persians, and later, the Romans. And down went these mighty successors. Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Rome, Carthage, Byzantium, Constantinople. Grand names, but now bones, bones, dry bones. The Bard of Avon declaimed “The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve”. As Percy B Shelley intoned: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”.

It was the English historian Toynbee who suggested that “civilizations die from suicide, not murder”. They lose their “mojo”. The 14th Century Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, called it “assabiyah” – in short, they lose their élan, their sense of direction and their minds. His point was that the moribund Byzantine and Sassanian empires were broke and militarily overstretched, corrupt, venal and soft, and hence no match for the desert hardened, combat keen, tribally cohesive, spiritually zealous warriors of the one true faith.

At the dawn of the Christian era, the known world was divided up between the those Romans and Persians, who themselves had subjugated and subsumed the Greeks and Phoenician Carthaginians, and Hittites and Assyrians respectively (in the east, the Chinese and Indians boasted powerful, prosperous civilizations as old as The Pharaohs, but this is not their story). Anyhow, the Romans, who morphed into the Byzantines with the loss of the western empire (to nomadic rovers from out of the east) in the third and fourth centuries, and the Persians, were over extended and overspent, slave societies living off the land and labour of conquered peoples. Until they were challenged and defeated by another ascendant power. Those Arabs of Arabia and of the imperial marches.

For generations this lot had served as mercenaries and satraps of both empires, and fired up by the energy and unity of a new but hybrid faith, and muscled up with a martial spirit built upon generations of mercenary employment and privateering, stormed the sclerotic empires from within and without, and in the space of fifty years after the prophet’s death, built a domain that extended from Spain to Afghanistan. Modern genetic analysis has shown that the bloodline of these desert conquerors is as much a mosaic as most other overlords. Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, Persian, Egyptian, Nubian, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Arabian, Hebrew. And whoever else may have been passing through. Many races came and settled, and many too were invaded and scattered. The ruins and artefacts endure still to remind us of their passage.

And this genetic calabash was stirred some more with the Arab conquests. As they surged eastwards and westwards, slaves were sent homewards as plunder and labour. This was the modus operandi of carnivorous empires throughout history. The Babylonians did it; the Romans too. They conquered and controlled though mass death and deportation, dragging their broken subjects in tens and hundreds of thousands across the known world. So too with the Arabs, therefore, as hundreds of thousands of souls from afar afield as the Pyrenees and the Hindu Kush ended their days in Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. Blue eyed blondes and redheads, sallow skinned Turkic and Chinese. You see their heirs today in Homs and Aleppo, Gaza and Hebron. In a fascinating post-classical irony, the European empires were likewise catalysts for ethic trans-migration. The suburbs of Paris and Marseilles, Birmingham and Bradford reflect the colours, cuisines, and conflicts of once-upon-a-homeland.

It is the view of some revisionist historians that whilst Mohammad and his revelations provided the impetus for the Arab “surge”, the religion that we know as Islam was actually retrofitted to the Arab adventurers’ ethos, a kind of ex post facto justification for what was in reality an old fashioned smash and grab. They suggest, therefore, that Islam and the role of Mohammad within it as the messenger and final word were cleverly constructed one to two hundred years after his death by Arab dynasties seeking legitimacy and heavenly sanction for their own aggrandizement. But then, wasn’t it always thus? As Jarred Dimond and others have written, this pandering to invisible friends and post-mortem insurance is part of our genetic baggage. It goes back to way back, to Neanderthals, and before them, to chimpanzees, our closest relatives).

Notwithstanding this, these parvenus ushered in the flowering of Arab culture in the arts, architecture, literature, and science as caliphs encouraged intellectual inquiry, and invited polymaths from across the known world to abide in their domains. Indeed, much of the work of the Greek and Roman philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors and scientists was translated into Arabic and preserved for posterity when the Roman Empire was overrun by waves of barbarians, the beginning of what are called The Dark Ages.

One other ‘safe house’ for these tracts during these dire days was Ireland, in the monasteries of the far west, where monks would meticulously copy rare texts, often embellishing them with their own, ‘Celtic’ art work. The Book of Kells owes a stylistic debt to the monasteries of the Byzantine Levant. And whilst we digress on the subject of books, it is believed by some scholars that The Quran was not actually written in Mecca or Medina, but most likely in Baghdad, which did not exist whilst Mohammad breathed. Learned iconoclasts also purport that it was originally written in Aramaic, the language of the Levant at the time of Jesus, and that Arabic has not yet evolved as a written language. The Torah, the basis of Jewish law and custom, and of The Bible, was written in Babylon and not Jerusalem. And The New Testament? Well. that was assembled all over the shop: in cosmopolitan Athens, Rome, the desert solitudes of Syria and the Sinai. The Quran itself drew on both of these. Such is the power of foundation myths. There are always issues surrounding the literal ‘Word of God’.

Contrary to popular assumptions, these centuries were not that dark at all. The Islam tide was turned at Tours by the Frankish forces of Charles ‘the Hammer’’ Martel, named nostalgically for the Israelite rebel who defied and defeated the Seleucid Greeks in the Maccabee Revolt in the second century BCE. Charlemagne founded the French monarchy which endured until the unfortunate Louis the Last lost his head to the French revolutionaries in 1793. The Western Christian church established many fundamentals of law, politics and theology that endure to this day. There was, nevertheless, a lot of fighting, most of it between squabbling European potentates, and a major doctrinal rift in the Christian Church that saw it bifurcate, often with accompanying bloodshed, into the Catholic Church of Rome, and the Eastern Church of Constantinople. Between the Christian ‘West’ and the Muslim ‘East” however, there endured an armed peace interspersed with occasional warfare until the eleventh century. The Byzantine heirs of Constantine were reasonably content to maintain a kind of Cold War with the many fractious emirs who ruled the lands to their east, and to sustain their power and influence through canny diplomacy, alliances, mercenaries, and proxies (It is testament to the ‘byzantine’ skills of these emperors and their servants that the empire endured for a thousand years as a powerful political, economic, and military force until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453).

Things changed utterly for east-west relations towards the end of the eleventh century. The heirs to the Roman Empire in the west, the Franks and the Normans, descendants of those nomadic marauders who broke the power of Rome, fired up with religious zeal and the prospects of material gain, embarked upon a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land, the paths that Jesus trode, from the heathen Mohammedan. But do not for a moment dismiss the power of religious fervour in those far-off days. The promise of a full remission of all sins and a place in paradise was a powerful motivator. Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, conveniently colluded with another new power, out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out of the steppes of central Asia, having conquered the ancient Chinese empire, and once again, the nomads were on the move as the sons and heirs of Genghis Khan sought khanates and kingdoms of their own in the west. And when they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and collaborated with the Franks against the Saracens. History is never black and white – the crusaders also did deals with Muslim warlords if it suited their common interests. In their politics as well as their lifestyles, many ‘went native’.

It was always thus. The barbarians, usually horsemen originating from central Asia, surge in from the wild lands, devastate the settled lands, and take the cities. In Eastern as well as Western Europe, and the Middle East, they came, they saw, they conquered, and they moved in. Settled down, intermingled, and developing a taste for the good life, and gave up their roving, rampaging ways. We are their heirs and successors, us descendants of Celts and Saxons, Goths and Vikings, Vandals and Huns, as are French people, Italians, Spaniards, Turks, and Arabs.

Vaslily Grossman encapsulated all this poignantly and succinctly in An Armenian Sketchbook: “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings, and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces .Throughout the centuries and millennia, victors have spent the night in the homes of those whom they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passion of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet”.

The story of the Vandals is an epic in itself. From out of what we now call Sweden they came, ethnic kin to the Norsemen and Vikings. Scouring through the Baltic lands, and present day Poland, Germany, and France, they settled in Spain. Andalusia is Arabic for ‘Land of the Vandals’. And eventually they established a kingdom in Libya, challenging and then paying tribute to the ascendant Roman Empire.

But the Norsemen were not quite finished with the east. On a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica in Istanbul, there is some graffiti carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. One commander of this guard was Harald Hardrada, who, as King of Norway, died in Yorkshire at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the first of two kings to die during the English summer of 1066. Whilst specifically the imperial bodyguard, the Varangarians fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. How Harald came to Mickelgard, or Great City, as the Norsemen called Contantinople, is a story in itself, but the sagas say that he even travelled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword. One further Scandinavian digression: in 1110, Sigurd, the teenage King of Norway, having fought his way around the Mediterranean with a sixty ship fleet massacring infidels as he went, landed at Acre in Palestine and wintered in what the Norsemen called Jorsalaberg (See Harald Went a ‘Viking).

“If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem!” The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’. It was deemed sacred from pre-history. Those aforementioned iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. A city of the mind as much as of this earth, it haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.

Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old

Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old

The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted a hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing, and have haunted the Arab historical memory to this day. The Arabic word for foreigner, ‘faranjiye’ is derived from Frank (or maybe not – it is also said that Varangarian derived from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a placename or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank). They fell to the Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ad Din Ibn Ayyubi, and were restored to the House of Islam. But even this renowned soldier and schemer could not escape the assassin’s poison forever (it may have been just typhoid, but why spoil a good yarn?). He was supplanted by other despots, not the least, the famed one-time slave, the blonde, blue-eyed Mameluk Barbars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. And then, out of the east, came the aforementioned Mongols, and these brought the house down. They conquered, settled, assimilated, and then weakened and fell as they, in their turn, were supplanted by, yes, another nomad band, this time the Turkic Ottomans (and again, out of central Asia). That’s how assabiyeh works. Once you have it, you have to work on it. Lose it and you are done.

The Ottoman Empire inherited the Arab, Islamic patrimony and assumed the caliphate as the official ‘Deputy of God’. The Ottoman Caliphate, successor to the famed Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad, endured until its abolition in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey. It was restored in 2014 as ad Dawlet al Islamiye fi Iraq w ash Sham or Da’esh. We will get to that later, but meantime, the wars and plagues and famines that beset the Middle East brought an end to the golden age of Arab civilization, with all its ecumenical, martial, intellectual, artistic, and scientific adventurousness (the same wars, plagues, and famines scoured the western world too, but these had less far to fall). And so, time stood still for Islam and the Arab world, as the outlying, often neglected provinces of the ascendant Ottoman Empire. It is said of old, that before the advent of the Mongol lord, Hulagu, a cockerel could graze from Baghdad to Basra without alighting to earth, such was the fertility and prosperity of the Land of the Two Rivers. In the wake of the Mongol, with his mass slaughter and the destruction of the long-lasting irrigation systems, came the Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia.” The place never recovered, although the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq endured through all of this until the present, when their way of life was finally destroyed by Saddam.

Meanwhile, the focus of our story shifts westwards with the crusader armies returning home, bringing with them a taste for the luxuries of the east, and scientific and philosophical ideas and inventions lost to the west during the Dark Ages (what they didn’t take home, however, was a tolerance for folk of different colours and creeds). The Islamic world settled into the backward looking atrophy that we see today. And in time, came the rise of the great European powers. To Western Europe came the social and economic upheavals of war and plague, and the social and intellectual unravelling that was to lead to the age of discovery. Came the power of the papacy, the questioning of that power, the end of the feudal system and the rise of absolute monarchy, and the invention of the printing press and with it, the dissemination of knowledge. All this set the stage for the next act.

Enter the Spanish and Portuguese, resource poor and priest-ridden, astutely patronizing the adventurers, and hence, made wealthy and powerful on the riches that then flowed in from the New World. Enter the inquisition and the straighteners of religious conformity, the bedrock of imperial power. And enter also, the mercantile nations who challenged their claim to the Americas (sanctioned and sanctified as it was by Alexander, the Borgia Pope) and papal supremacy: England, France, and Holland. The era of world empires thus began against a backdrop of trade and religious wars that would set the stage for the very gradual evolution of what would become democratic institutions. But that was way, way down the bloody track.

The wars of religion, between Catholicism and Protestantism morphed into great powers’ wars by proxy (for there is nothing new under the sun). These endured some two hundred years, giving us the renaissance and the reformation, and many, many people perished. And amidst the scramble for colonies and resources, and the ever-widening scope of scientific and intellectual inquiry, there ensued interminable blood-letting. Folk got much too close to the fire, literally and figuratively. Many were dragged there, and many were eager pyromaniacs. The Thirty Years War wasn’t called that for nothing, and unlike The Hundred Years War between France and England before that, which enjoyed a few time-outs between bouts, this was an interminable danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery. ‘Full on’ is the term we use today. It is said that it staggered to an end in 1648 because the combatants just collapsed with exhaustion.

And in its shattered wake, came the decline of the Spanish and the Portuguese, and the ascendency of the English, the French, and the Dutch. Germany and Italy were still a profusion of principalities and oppressed satellites, Russia had yet to emerge out of an anarchic fog, and the USA had not even been thought of. Meanwhile, in the most populous parts of the planet, the Chinese and Indian empires carried on ever, in splendid isolation, narcissistic and ethnocentric, though not above trading profitably with the occident. The potentates that is – the lower orders were, and in many in many ways remain, in a state of repression and submission.

So came an era of religious and intellectual ferment and the mass movement of peoples across the known world and beyond it, to the Americas. Innovation in transport, communications, industry and warfare, and the trans-global transit of armies and of international commerce in goods and in humanity literally changed the face of the planet. Eleven million slaves crossed the Atlantic in four centuries. Over forty million migrants “went west” in less than one. The inscription on Our Lady Of The Harbour, a gift from the Old World to the New, still says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door”. And so indeed did folk travel, fleeing poverty and pogroms, powerlessness and persecution, seeking “a new home in the sun”. From the glens of the Gael, from the shtetl and the steppe, from Old Europe and Old Asia. The Great American Dreaming. Today, some 1,300 airplanes a day cross ‘the pond” (475,000 transits a year).

And the printing press and the bible in the vernacular changed the way men thought. Merchants and missionaries and military men, seekers and makers of fortunes, slavers and saviours, prophets and potentates, philosophers and pamphleteers, poets and painters. Enlightenment, revolution, and war. And in America, the creation of democratic institutions.

Royal France was a midwife to this American Revolution, and endured the ironic blowback when French armies returned home harbouring the virus of republicanism and the concepts of liberty and equality. Be careful what you wish for, for liberty wields a two-edged sword as the revolution devours its children. Mounting the scaffold, the doomed Girondin Manon Roland exclaimed “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” The redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk noted that freedom and liberty often had to crawl over broken glass.

And thence, the Nineteenth Century and the Age of Revolutions – political, industrial, and ideological, bountiful and bloody. And the rise of new empires – Russia, Germany, and the USA, competing with the old, and all extending their power and influence throughout the world, conquering and colonizing the oldest – India, China, and the Ottomans – and spanning the globe. The Americas, Africa, Asia, Australasia, no place was beyond the reach of the empire’s military and mercantile power, and no indigene was safe from the depredations of these latter-day Medes and Assyrians. Diamond again: it was all down to “guns, germs, and steel”. The ‘discovered’ world was ripe for plunder. For land, for minerals, for food. And if the natives got fractious, we had machine guns and gun boats to back us up. For this was the era of militant and muscular Christianity and gunboat diplomacy, synergized in a divine plan to render the world a holier and happier place. Rudyard Kipling said it best: “Take up the White Man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed. Go bind your sons to exile to serve your captives’ need”. A new age of Empire had arrived wherein competing white countries seeking economic and political aggrandizement, sent their boys to die far away from home. The West, it seemed, had got its mojo back!

So far away from home

So far away from home

A little known facet of that century’s history is that contemporaneous to the western expansion of ‘These United States” and the spread of British red across the globe, Imperial Russia was moving eastwards. One outstanding volume of George McDonald Fraser’s rollicking, picaresque and quite political incorrect Flashman series sees the eponymous anti-hero fleeing eastwards out of The Crimea having precipitated the disastrous Charge Of the Light Brigade (Captain Nolan was fitted up), and making his way through the vast Asian hinterland, one step ahead of the invading Czarist armies, and of sundry Muslim warlords. In the Flashman books, the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” is roving and rogering his way through the late nineteenth century, somehow managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another, including Custer’s famous “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn, and the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak during the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842.

Amidst the humour and ribaldry is a poignant reminder of those ‘lost worlds’ that succumbed to the relentless blade of progress, a theme revisited in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and Theodore Olsen’s Soldier Blue, set in the American West, and Vincent Cronin’s The Last Migration and James A Michener’s Caravans, set in Iran and Afghanistan respectively. Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyyah’ is no match for modern weaponry.,

With trade and economic wealth creation came the rise of the middle class. The urban, mercantile elite who seek political power commensurate with their economic clout thus demand a say in how they are governed. In an age of mass production and the beginnings of mass communication, we see the emergence of the masses as a political concept, and of mass society in which rulers are responsive and reactive to the needs fears, and rages of the masses and their representatives. The times of Machiavelli give way to those of Marx. And the focus of history is as much on the ruled as on the rulers.

So passed the Nineteenth Century. The Old World ruled. The New had its own preoccupations, with civil war and western expansion. The east and the south were conquered and colonized. God (European and most probably, English-speaking) was in His heaven and all was good and right in the world. The old scourges continued as they has since time immemorial: plague and famine, drought and flood, economic boom and bust, migration and invasion, war and peace, and comme d’habitude, death and destruction on a large scale. Good times and bad times as ever, with little to impede the onward march of progress. A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” The Mahatma replied: “I think it would be a very good idea”.

In came the Twentieth Century. Same old, same old, but with markets and machines much more efficient, and likewise our capacity to create and destroy. A time of totalitarian regimes and total war, social change and technological wizardry. In 1905, the Imperial Russian Navy sailed eighteen thousand miles to the Korea Strait only to be broken by the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was a new boy on the block, and once the guns of Tsushima Bay had fallen silent, signalling that the white man could indeed be beaten, and thence, the decline of the colonial empires of old as the “our new-caught, sullen peoples” threw off their chains. In the political, economic, military and demographic spheres, balances of power changed, and changed again. In the wake of two World Wars, from Old Europe to the USA and the Soviet Union, and then, in these present times, to a totally new configuration that reflects the transitory rise and fall of nations. As I write, we see a hesitant America and a struggling Europe competing with a resurgent and belligerent Russia, and the rise and rise of its fellow BRICs, Brazil, India and China – an ascendency that is not however assured in this unstable and unpredictable world of ours. And in the post-Cold War, global financial crisis world of wide-open borders and the mass movement across them of people, goods, and capital, everything has a price and can be bought and sold. Immoral mathematics: “in these shifting tides, bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs, and more besides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores – damnation takes no sides” (from E Lucevan le Stelle).

And passing strange it is that whilst we can place men on the moon and machines on Mars, we still live in a world riven by superstition. We have come through the age of enlightenment, the age of revolutions, the age of machines, the age of mass society, mass war, and of mass communications, And yet, we are so, so ignorant. We thought that the rising tide of progress and knowledge would raise all the boats. But how wrong we were. The Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, we have returned there. Helped in no small part by their more atavistic descendants who see some wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a mediaeval ethos and lifestyle.

One thing is pretty certain. We are almost closing a circle. The history of the West, for the past two millennia has been dominated by the emergence and triumph of Christianity and of Islam. As the early Muslims saw it, al Dar al Harb and al Dar al Islam, the houses of war and peace respectively. A pretty good description if the terms are used interchangeably. Much of what has passed has been refracted through the prisms of these theologies. Call it crusade or call it jihad; or call it blow back on a grand scale. The legacy of two millennia of empire is coming back up the pipes. “Take up the White Man’s burden (or any conqueror’s burden, in fact) and reap his old reward: the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard”.

For surely, “by all ye cry or whisper, by all ye leave or do, the silent, sullen peoples shall weigh your gods and you”. Weigh them all and find them wanting. In compassion and loving kindness, in reason and rationality, in patience and peacefulness. And the greatest, saddest irony of all for all who have a passion for history and for charting the unbroken story of humankind, and for those with this passion who treasure the depths of their cultural lineage through all the fugues, follies, and fault lines of our heritage, is the dawning realization and regret, that after two millennia, the religion that kicked off so much controversy and conflict, schism and schadenfreude, brilliance and bigotry, bounty and bloodshed, that was the heir to ancient faiths and the progenitor of many more, is probably now doomed in the lands wherein it was born.

It’s as if over a millennium of painful, staggering, stuttering, blood soaked, inventive, and pioneering progress has meant naught, and that we might as well have remained in the dark, literally and figuratively. “It is written in the Book of Days where the names of God a wrought, where all our dead a buried and all our wars a fought”. We range through “the battlefields and graveyards and the fields our fathers knew”. The cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, to mention but a few of those “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and the foreboding for the impending armed peace. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography. The lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. And all this against a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked and betrayed. “The revolution’s father, the hero psychopath” shows us how hopes and dreams can be “fooled by the riddle of the revolution”. “Words carried far in time and space will topple tyrants, but there’s no salvation”. (see In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul  Hemphill)

When Miranda exclaimed “what brave new world, with such people in’t!’, when the dismal Dane moaned ‘what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving, how express and admirable’, was the Bard being singularly ironic? He was writing at the dawn of the Sixteenth Century when the wars of religion were well under way, and yet, the reign of Elizabeth had brought a degree of civil calm, and King James was determined to heal the schisms, using his translation of The Bible as his balm. Reasons to be cheerful, perhaps. The Thirty Years War had yet to devastate continental Europe, and the English Civil war had still to come. Sweden had not yet ravaged Eastern Europe (yes, the Swedes had indeed attempted world dominion before ABBA). The Pilgrim Fathers were not to set sail for a decade, the Inca and Aztec were already no more, and as the Plains Indians rode the range mounted on the descendants of the conquistadors’ horses, the American West had not yet been discovered let alone ‘won’.

Some digression, that! So, back to where are we now, in the first decade of the 21st century. A world of wonders, no doubt, of technological advances in medicine, machines, and mass communications. But the new millennium began with the destruction of the Twin Towers, and war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars in these sad states continue. Conflagrations now engulf Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and turmoil threatens Egypt and Turkey. These are all the battlegrounds of old. Alexander marched this way and back (he burned Persepolis and died in Babylon, and his body, embalmed in gold, lies waiting to be discovered). In 1853 Czar Nicholas I of Russia demanded the right to protect Christian shrines in Ottoman Jerusalem, setting in train the chain of events that led to the Crimean War, and thence to the dissolution of the once grand Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the long decline and eventual demise of what the ascendant Europeans called ‘the sick man of Europe”, accompanied by Europe’s cultural and political – and in the case of France, territorial – conquest of the Muslim Middle East and South Asia bred a bitterness that endures and manifests today. In June 1914, in Sarajevo, a former outpost of that empire, a wrong turn put Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the imminently moribund Habsburg Empire in pistol range of Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. The sixth attempt on his life that morning sounded the first shot of “the war to end all wars”, which led, incidentally to the destruction of the long-declining Ottoman Empire, to the Balfour Declaration, and to the Sykes Picot Agreement that created the tortured Middle East that today is the sum of all our fears.

So, we are still paying the price as all these ghosts watch over a brave new world of asymmetrical, ideological warfare weaponized by the Lords of War who know no frontiers or ethics, and waged by rag-tag armies who likewise know neither. The sundered and sullied tribes of man are caught up in the dreams and fears of their fathers and grandfathers, all the old hatreds and habits, schemes and shibboleths, the ethnic, sectarian and partisan traps of their elders. “There rides the mercenary, here roams the robber band. In flies the emissary with claims upon our land. The lesser breed with savage speed is slaughtered where he stands, his elemental fantasy felled by a foreign hand” (from ‘Freedom Comes’).

Over to the good and the noble players of the new Great Game who wage those ‘savage wars of peace’ that are “the white man’s burden”. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes expounded gloomily, “I show in the first place that the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is none other than a war of all against all; and that in that war, all has a right to all things”. He had the English civil war on his mind, but, if he had slept for over four hundred and fifty years, and awoke today, he would cry “See! What did I tell you?” In the war of all against all, Homer’s blinded Cyclops is staggering around, endeavouring to catch the one who robbed him of his sight.

And he wages his savage wars of peace with weapons that would make the inquisition jealous. In his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein, the redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.

And meanwhile, back in the lands of the rich folks, economic recession and high unemployment, and political and social instability, financial graft and funny money dressed up in manufactured metaphors like derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, and collateralised debt obligations. And in the lands of the poorer folks, those “faraway places with strange sounding names”, as The Springfields once sang, and of those who are climbing out of the mud, a sliding scale of prosperity and poverty, venality and violence. And threatening all of us, environmental degradation and climate change, with ice caps melting, low lands flooding, pasturelands turning to dust, and oceans becoming deserts. Fires and floods, and twisters and earthquakes, famines and plagues. As Joni Mitchell sang, paraphrasing Yeats, “Surely some revelation is at hand, surely it’s the second coming and the wrath has finally taken form” (the word ‘apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek for ‘revelation’).

We are not on the ‘Morningtown Ride’ to Honalee, but are we on the road to Pichipoi? This not the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak but are we Israelites looking out over Canaan Land? We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to Paradise, but are we sliding down the road to Ragnarok? In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the poet begins his descent into Hell saying:”I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost”. Journeying down and then back up through the seven levels of Hell, he finally returns to the surface saying: “And thence we emerged to see the stars again”. We yearn, to quote Nigella Lawson, “that blissful moment when the bagpipes stop”. But in all truth, the crystal ball is shattered. All bets are off. Everyone has a game, and all is now in play. And remember what Bob said: “Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’, for the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin”’.

Epilogue
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014

Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014

Since I wrote this history, the final paragraph has effectively been mugged by reality. The heady days of February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East, had not yet transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter. Five years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.

The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality. It was followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Syria, Libya, and Yemen that have led, five years later, to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, that has extended southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.

In the game of political ifs and buts, the world reaps the whirlwind of bad decisions by our owners and rulers. If “the Coalition of the Willing” hadn’t destroyed Iraq in the Third Gulf War; if the war in Afghanistan hadn’t been subcontracted out to warlords and private security firms; if the west hadn’t propped up tyrants and kleptocrats for decades; if it hadn’t turned a blind eye to its Saudi friends financing and inspiring the Salafi Killers; if the US had destroyed the Da’esh convoys as they crossed the open desert to capture and desecrate Palmyra; if the Russians had attacked IS rather than other Syrian militias; if the coalition had made as many bombing runs as the Russians. If so many events that had come before had not happened – the fall of the Shah and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (apparently given the nod by the US), and the wars that ensued; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed it; the rise of al Qa’ida. If, if, if. But, at the end of the day, Muslims pay the price, and yet, it will have to be Muslims who sort it out. Western boots on the ground will not fix it, but, rather, as in days of yore, it will create yet another whirlwind for us all to reap.

We are in midst of what could be described as the final phase of the Wars of the Ottoman Succession. The lines drawn on maps by British and French bureaucrats in the years after The Great War have been dissolved. The polities fabricated by Messrs Sykes and Picot, and manifested in the mandates that evolved into the present states of Syria and Iraq have effectively disintegrated. The future of the other former mandates, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, is uncertain, as is that of Turkey, the country which rose out of the ashes of defeat and civil war to inherit the Ottoman Anatolian heartland. Indeed, new states could emerge from the maelstrom. A Kurdistan long denied; a partitioned Iraq; Ottoman redux: and the atavistic Islamic Caliphate.

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly.

Children of the Revolution

Children of the Revolution

© Paul Hemphill 2013, 2016. All rights reserved

The featured image: Timeless. A Syrian moment, in Foreign Policy 23rd July 2012. Paul Simon once sang “On the side of a hill in a land called somewhere”. Little changes.
The Destruction of the Temple, AD70, Francesco Hayes
So Far From Home, William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak, 13th January 1842 (1898). The phrase ‘so far from home’ is the title of young Mary Driscoll’s 1847 account of her migration from Ireland to America.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus February 2014. Al Jazeeraz 26 February 2014
Babes in the Wilderness. Syrian children in the eye of the storm. Al Jazeera, September 2011

Some References

In addition to a multitude of Wiki and Google searches, and references to and quotations from many songs and poems, including my own poetry and verse , special note is made of the following books that I have read of late that have inspired this piece:

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood (Knopf)
Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization (Sceptre)
William Dalrymple, From The Holy Mountain (Harper Perennial)
William Dalrymple, Return Of A King (Knopf)
Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation (HarperCollins)
Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation (Andre Deutsch)
Vaslily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook (NYRB Classics)
Tom Holland, In The Shadow Of The Sword (Doubleday)
Robert D Kaplan, The Revenge Of Geography (Random House)
Amin Malouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Schoken)
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, The Biography (Orion)
Simon Winchester, Atlantic (HarperCollins)

 

The hand that signed the paper

 


Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
Dylan Thomas, The Hand That Signed the Paper,

Foreign Office, November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours,

Arthur James Balfour

One wonders if, in the long, dark night of his eternal soul, Arthur James Balfour regrets the short letter he penned to Lord Walter Rothschild, of the international Rothschild financial dynasty, MP and Britain’s first Jewish peer. He remains a hero to Zionists and a villain to Arabs and their respective supporters. The brief document hat bears his name is seen the beginning of what today is widely considered the world’s most intractable conflict. On that, if on little else, Israelis and Palestinians agree.

The Sykes Picot Agreement of  May 1916 and the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, the first, divvying up the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France, the second, ostensibly laying the foundation stone for a Jewish state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, were effectively redundant by war’s end, as other agendas interposed. Yet, their misbegotten shots ricocheted through the twentieth century and on into the twenty first.

After 100 years, the two sides in the most closely studied conflict on earth are still battling over the past. Truth and reconciliation, let alone closure, are remote fantasies. Unlike slavery, apartheid, the Irish famine, and western colonialism – all, at least formally, consigned to the dust heap of history – the Arab-Jewish conflict between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan shows no signs of abating. Indeed, it remains as bitter as ever, stuck in a cul de sac of continued occupation and political deadlock.

Here, in this beautiful, ancient, tortured land, the past is not another country. History is alive, exhilarating, toxic, intensely political, and bitterly divisive – and it will be revisited with passion and anger on this resonant anniversary.

In That Howling Infinite presents here three quite different commemorative analyses of the Balfour Declaration and its legacy.

The Guardian presents an historical overview in its “Long Read” essay, Britain’s Calamatous Promise. 

Ha’aretz discusses how Balfour’s legacy is toxic for both for Israelis and Palestinians,  how it nourishes the idea that somehow the conflict between the sides was caused by external powers and can be solved by them. Palestinians  maintain the myth that the Jews are somehow a foreign transplant that must be excised whilst Israelis persist in endeavouring to convince the world of the justice of our cause, as an alternative to actually making it in to a just one. “Lord Balfour did not give Palestine to anyone. Even if he had never written Lord Rothschild a letter, there would still be two nations with claims to this land. Their only hope of ever finding a way to share it is by letting go of these bankrupt historical myths”.

In The Original No – Why Arabs Rejected Zionism and Why it Matters, Natasha Gill examines the conflict from an original dispute resolution perspective. She argues that a viable peace process does not require either party to embrace or even recognize the legitimacy of the other’s narrative. It requires that both have an informed understanding of that narrative, and accept that it cannot be wished away, but must be recognized and acknowledged in the negotiation process.

Gill concludes: “Schoolyard choruses – “they started it” and “they are worse than us” – cannot serve as an interpretive framework for a 130-year-old conflict, or form the basis of national policy”.  She is referring here to Israel, but it applies equally to the Palestinians..

A common thread of the three articles referred to above that of reversing out of the dead-end of competing  and apparently irreconcilable perspectives and narratives  – my story versus yours, my feelings versus yours, my hurt versus yours – and finding common ground to move forward. This is indeed an important aspect of conflict resolution per se.  It is also about allaying assumptions and prejudices with regard to your competitor, opponent, or enemy, your mutual fears and suspicions.

Many would argue that the ‘peace process’ has been clinically dead for three years, and moribund for nearly three decades more. With Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition government contemplating the annexation of Area C, and ageing Mahmoud Abbas’ demise imminent, physically or polically, whichever happens first, time is running out for a just and equitable settlement that all sides can live with, no matter how begrudgingly.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever

A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow
Dylan Thomas, The Hand That Signed the Paper

The following are some brief thoughts on the destructive aftermath of the Balfour Declaration.

The irony of the present Middle East is that so many many of its problems – its intractable conflicts, its porous and indefensible borders, its mosaics of coexisting, and at times competing and conflicting faiths and ethnicities, its artificially created states with shallow political and institutional roots, its unreconciled and conflicting allegiances to family clan, tribe, sect and country, its atavistic attachment to the ‘ra-is’, the big man – can be traced back to two documents initiated in the midst of a European war, the Sykes Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration .

Two documents that were driven and  shaped by the exigencies of that war and the planning for the peace that would follow it – and influenced by the diplomatic, strategic and imperial interests of European powers engaged in a long and bloody conflict, with hardly a thought for the millions of souls whose fate they were deciding, people who were in the most part, totally unaware and ignorant of the waves that were about to break over them. Hence the quotation from Dylan Thomas at the head of this post.

There is a school of thought that holds that the Balfour Declaration, like the Sykes Picot Agreement before it, was the cynical, opportunistic, duplicitous and predictably disastrous outcome of imperial skulduggery that set the Arab Middle East on a fateful course.  And yet, others hold that the die were already cast, and that HMG’s formal favour for a Jewish national home was aspirational rather than practicable, let alone realistic, designed to please the influential and wealthy Jewish diaspora – and particularly that in the USA, a late-entrant to the European war. Both, of course, has unintended consequences that led to a century of turbulence (see The Economist‘s article of the centenary of Sykes Picot).

Zionism was already on its determined way. It had grown out of the circumstances that prevailed in Europe at the time when Theodore Herzl was working on his project. Pogroms in the east, the Dreyfus case in France, and the conviction that antisemitism was indelible in the European psyche: Jews would never be fully accepted anywhere, no matter how well they assimilated. Hence the need for a Jewish national home. But he and his early Zionists were not initially exclusively focused on Palestine – there were vague visions of Jewish settlements in Kenya and Latin America. But the old, atavistic – secular Zionists would not have used the term “messianic” – yearning for Jerusalem got the better of them. It was the historical itch that couldn’t be scratched. And the Ottoman government was, as the time, quite amenable to the idea of enterprising, tax-paying settlers.

But, the notion of an actual Jewish state was quite clearly in the minds of the politically-aware and motivated Eastern Europeans, however, and this, augmented by a socialistic fervour common to  fin de siècle dissidents and refugees meant hat that there was little doubt about their intentions from the beginning. Regardless of the Balfour Declaration, the endgame was Eretz Israel – although those early pioneers hadn’t conceived a name for their ‘national home’, and indeed did not  do so until the very last minutes of the Mandate when David Ben Gurion made an executive decision.

Balfour did not actually commit to doing anything substantive. “Best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object” was as far as he went. It was the qualifier that followed that has forever branded “perfidious Albion”: “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.

The Palestinians Arabs were wise to the Zionist settlers’ long game, raising their concerns with the Ottomans and, post-Balfour, the British Mandate authorities, and rising in revolt when those concerns were ignored – only to be subdued by British arms. During the tumultuous and violent Mandate years, they were out-played, outwitted, out-gunned, never really having a chance against the well organized and determined Yishuv with its shadow government, institutions, and, most critically, military forces. And they were badly let down by the quality of their own leadership, by the political infighting, disunity, and opportunism, and a patriarchal political system that stymied the development of a coherent national consciousness and institutional framework to match that of the Jews.

The British too were outplayed and our-maneuvered, both before the Second World War and during the years leading up to 1948. As with India through the thirties and forties, lacking a cogent policy and a clear vision, Britain hamfistedly endeavoured to please everyone and ultimately satisfied no one. “Best intentions”, and “muddling through” concluded with “cut and run”, resulting in duplicity, desperation, death and destruction. The vagueness of Balfour’s promise came back to haunt them with a vengeance.

As events in Germany gave added urgency to the Zionist project, Ben Gurion and his colleagues adopted a wise if opportunist strategy of siding with the British in the war against Hitler. Arabs, like the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, in Palestine, and the Iraqi military junta led by Rashid Ali al Gaylani and Egyptian military conspirators, threw their lot in with the Third Reich, and indeed conspired against Britain. A bad move, paralleling, as it did, the Shoah. World opinion, or more precisely, the opinion of those who in those days controllled the new-born United Nations – the USA and the Soviet Union – weighed in behind the Zionists.

The Palestinian people, as most commentators have agreed, were essentially abandoned. By the British, by their Arab neighbours, by their own leaders. When all attempts by Britain to resolve the matter of Palestine by partition failed, and the Atlee government decided to abandon its mandate (in much the same hurried and chaotic manner as it had departed India the year before : see my post, Freedom at Midnight), the Arab inhabitants of the towns and villages of the area destined to become a Jewish state were disunited, unarmed and unorganized, and easy prey for the well-trained and determined Jewish military forces tasked by the Jews’ political leadership with the mission of seizing, clearing, and claiming The Land.

By the time neighbouring Arab armies entered Palestine, in numbers too small to make any difference to the military situation, Arab suburbs of the coastal cities has beeen emptied, hundreds of villages erased from the map, and over half a million people had fled to Egyptian Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and what is today the West Bank. The Palestinian state envisaged by British and the UN was strangled in its crib by King Abdullah of Jordan who seized for himself those areas not claimed by the new state of Israel, including Jerusalem, his hearts desire.

Almost seventy years have passed, and the Palestinians are abandoned still, by the world, by their Arab neighbours, and by their own leaders. Meanwhile, Zionism has moved on and has morphed into something much more sinister. Who knows how it will all play out.

Paul Hemphill, October 2017

The Hand That Signed the Paper – Dylan Thomas

Never has as a poem been so precise in description of cause and consequence of great powers’ agreements, treaties, and declarations than that published by Dylan Thomas in 1936, a year replete with its own calamities:

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor pat the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.

 

 

 

Tales of Yankee Power

When Jackson Browne released Lives in the Balance in 1986, critics reckoned that its contemporary content, the USA’s bloody meddling in Central America, limited its appeal and long-term significance. And yet, here in the early twentieth first century, with the wars of the Arab Dissolution dragging the world into its vortex, the Great Power politics and proxy wars that taxed intellectual and actual imaginations in that seemingly distant decade jump back into the frame like some dystopian jack in the box. As Mark Twain noted, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.

Lives in the Balance was certainly a record for and of its times. Months before the Iran-contra scandal broke, Browne sang “I want to know who the men in the shadows are, I want to hear somebody asking them why. They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are but they’re never the ones to fight or to die”. After the “arms for hostages” deals hit the news, increased public awareness of the US’ secret and dirty war in Nicaragua inspired him to produce a video for the title track well after the album had passed its sales peak.

Lives in the Balance

The album’s other songs sustained the assault. Soldier of Plenty condemns America’s paternalism towards its poor Latin neighbours. Lawless Avenues, with poignant Spanish lyrics by Browne and Warren Zevon’s old friend and collaborator, Jorge Calderón, takes us down the mean streets of Latino Los Angeles before sending its young anti-hero off to die in America’s wars. In the driving and ironic For America, Browne regrets his prior indifference and qualifies his conflicted patriotism: “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”. in Til I Go Down, he sings “I’m not gonna shut my eyes, I’ve already seen the lies on the faces of the men of war leading people to the killing floor”. This song aptly plays out the end credits of the harrowing academy award winning The Panama Deception  which documents the US’ invasion of that unfortunate country.

Browne was not the first mainstream singer and songwriter to address America’s long and troublesome relationship with its Latin American neighbours. In his 1983 Stealing Fire and 1984 World of Wonders, Canadian Bruce Cockburn gave us the tragically beautiful Nicaragua and Santiago Dawn and the visceral If I Had a Rocket Launcher. On The Trouble With Normal (1983), there is Tropic Moon, with its cinematic imagery, and the lyrically deceptive Waiting For The Moon. The theme is the same as Browne’s – the North’s intervention in the politics of the South – particularly when comes to financing and arming rogue militias and warlords, and pliable, vicious and corrupt dictators: “Yanqui wake up, don’t you see what you’re doing, trying to be the Pharoah of the West bringing nothing but ruin…You’re my friend but I say Yanqui go home!”

World of Wonders

In this sad world, whenever Uncle Sam (or Uncle Ivan for that matter) plays his hand, something wicked this ways comes: “Little spots on the horizon into gunboats grow – waiting for the moon to show. Might be a party, might be a war when those faceless sailors come ashore. Whatever’s coming, there’s no place else to go, waiting for the moon to show”.

Cockburn’s poetic muse trumps Browne’s agit-prop. These lines from Tropic Moon are nonpareil: “Away from the river, away from the smoke of the burning, fearful survivors, subject of government directives. One sad guitar note echoes off the wall of the jungle. Seen from the air they’re just targets with nowhere to run to”. And: “the light through the wire mesh plays on the president’s pistol like the gleam of bead of sweat in the flow of a candle”.

Very little has changed since Browne and Cockburn sang their Tales of Yankee Power. “But who are the ones that we call our friends? These governments killing their own? Or the people who finally can’t take anymore, and they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone. And there are lives in the balance; there are people under fire; there are children at the cannons; and there is blood on the wire”. And if you were one of those people, why wouldn’t you say “If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate!“  As Cockburn sings in Santiago Dawn, “military thugs with their dogs and clubs spreading through the poblacion, hunting whoever has a voice, sure that everyone will run. They come in strong but its not that long before they know its not that easy to leave. To keep a million homeless down takes more than a strong arm up your sleeve”.

From Petrograd to Palestine, the story-line endures. The eighties were also the years of Russia’s Afghan quagmire, which led, ideologically if not geographically to the Chechen pogroms; and of a decade of bloodletting in Lebanon and in what in reality was the First Gulf War, that between Iran and Iraq. The Berlin Wall fell a few years before the events that drove these records, inspiring an outpouring of optimism as the countries of Eastern Europe broke free of the Soviet thrall. But this was not the Kumbaya moment that dreamers yearn for. Ensuing decades have seen a cartography of carnage: Bali and Beslan, Gaza and Grozny, Kabul and Kigali, Manhattan and Mogadishu, Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

We witness the anatomy of the new world economy in which millions of souls are on the move and everything can be traded for value. Bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs and more besides. False prophets and bad dreams, broken promises and forlorn hopes, obscured visions and false horizons. “Many have perished, and more most surely will” – a line taken from WH Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world in transition between the wreckage of The Second World War and foreboding for the impending armed peace that was itself to endure for another forty five years.

It is sadly ironic that our present world is passing through another time of uneasy transition, between the fixed certainties of great power rivalry and the intractable and bloody asymmetrical conflicts of today.

Paul Hemphill, November 2015

Postscript

The other day, I was listening to Dire Straits’ excellent 1985 album Brothers in Arms, and was reminded that several of the songs thereon refer, albeit obliquely, to the “bush wars” of Central America, and possibly also, to the US and Soviet Union’s proxy wars in Southern Africa and Afghanistan. There is Ride Across the River, with its Latino mood, and the beautiful and haunting title track. And there is The Man’s Too Strong, a powerful indictment of the cult of “the big man” that plagues countries all over the world. How often have these tyrants “re-written history with my armies and my crooks. Invented memories. I did burn all the books”. And how often too have they been tolerated, supported and bankrolled by Uncle Sam and Comrade Ivan.

Somewhere In Syria

Author’s Note:

This post is very much a companion piece to my recent post, Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas, another tale of Yankee power, and its subject matter echoes that of A Brief History of the Rise and the Fall of the Westand my poem  E Lucevan le Stelle.

Its story does not relate to Bob Dylan’s cryptic and nihilistic Señor (Tales of Yankee Power), from Street Legal (1978), played here by bluegrass wiz Tim O’Brien. As for the meaning of the Bobster’s song, well, that’s pretty hard to fathom. A cowboy fever dream, perhaps; one of those strange illusions you channel in the early morning between sleeping and waking, more about mood than meaning. Perhaps it deserves a post of its own one find day.

Listen to Lives in the Balance in full be clicking on the blue text. Amid the its hard-hitting political commentary sits In the Shape of a Heart, considered to be one of Browne’s finest love songs. Yet this too might be regarded as controversial with regard to what it may or may not imply about the doomed relationship it describes. But like “the ruby she wore on the chain around her neck”, it is a finely cut gem.

 

Recalling The Mersey Poets


for we had love and each other and the moon for company
when I spent summer with Monica and Monica spent summer with me

June this year saw the fiftieth anniversary the publication of Roger McGough’s wistful verse-memoir “Summer With Monika”, and in October, we celebrate the publication in 1967 of that great anthology The Mersey Sound which showcased the poetry of Liverpudlians McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henry.

Named for the musical revolution that originated in the northern English port city of Liverpool, it became one of the best-selling poetry anthologies of all time, exerting an influence on British poetry well beyond the decade. I bought the slim volume as soon as it came out, and back in the day, guitar in hand, I would set many of its poems to music as it nurtured my nascent song-writing and poetry skills. I recall now Patten’s “Somewhere Between Heaven and Woolworths’, and “Delicate John’ and the tunes I set to them. I still sing McGough’s Great War country-and-western-noir ‘Square Dance’: “Swing your partners dos-y-doed, all around the shells explode”

The poems had an immediacy, a relevance to those breakout times when a young man’s hopes and fears seemed to centre of the availability or otherwise (mostly not) of casual sex with gorgeous dolly birds, the American quagmire in Vietnam, and the imminent threat of a nuclear Armageddon. They spoke in a familiar vernacular, everyday English that we understood and related to about ordinary events and workaday artifacts that acquired a totemic significance upon the printed page. Toasters, teapots and fish ‘n chips. Kardomah cafes and Star of India restaurants. Bus-conductors, postmen, and milk bottles on the doorstep. Schoolyards and superheroes. Miniskirts and monarchy. The northern English weather.

And all this against the soundtrack of some of the greatest popular music that ever was spilling out of radios and record players in the suburban bedrooms and inner city bedsits of teenagers across the land. There wasn’t a great lyrical leap from the songs of the Beatles with their particular Liverpudlian spirit of place to the words, worries and wonderings of our very own British ‘Beat Poets’.

I have visited those days often in these pages. In A Window on a Gone World I wrote:

“This was indeed a decade of change and ferment. Values changed, morals changed, habits changed, clothes changed, music changed (the best music ever). The way people looked at the world and thought about it. We often look back and remark that a supernova of creativity burst over the western world during those years, the likes of which was not seen before and has never been seen again. And nowhere more so than in decadent, decaying, depressing, old England, trapped in tradition, class, and prejudice”.

I browsed through the whole book the other day, and in a way, it was like a reunion party, a meeting and greeting of old friends, a pleasant, nostalgic journey to a gone time. As that well-worn saying goes, the past is indeed another country – we certainly did things different then. The places and the people, the perceptions and perspectives, the preoccupations and the passions. As I read, I’d recognize words, phrases, images, ideas that osmosised into my own verse, particularly poetry I penned in the late sixties and early seventies, and which are gathered up in my Tabula Rasa collection.

It was my habit in those days to scribble little notes in the margins. And there they were now, for me to ponder fifty years on, and to wonder how the world looked when I wore a young man’s skin, and thought with the mind of a raw, inquiring, idealistic youth who had yet to break loose of the ties that bound, of family, school, and town. But the adventure had obviously begun – if only in the imagination, as I read and rehearsed, pondered and prepared for the great escape. An upper sixth, adolescent eclecticism well-illustrated by the picture below of my additions to Adrian Henri’s stream of consciousness nomenklatura:

Like Adrian Henri’s name-dropping, my neatly-written notes list a host of folk living and dead, mostly white and mostly male. Actors, authors and autocrats. Poets, painters, and philosophers. Popstars, policians and television personalities. Most are, even today, remembered and commemorated. Some are long forgotten. There are few on my list that I failed to recognize after  all these years. But praise be to Google! I soon rediscovered that Sean Lemass was Taoiseach of Ireland in 1967; that Frank Mitchell was a notorious ax-murderer killed that year on the orders of the infamous Kray twins; that Manny Shinwell was an MP and trade unionist, and Jack Dash, a communist trade union leader. Bartle Frere was governor of Cape Colony at the time of the Zulu wars, and Dudley Stamp, a celebrated geographer of the British landscape, both included, I believe, because I was doing A Levels in History and Geography at the time, and their names struck a chord of sorts. In the light of my later life DownUnder, one name was particularly prescient: Harold Holt’s short tenure as prime minister of Australia ended in 1967 with a ill-fated swim off the coast of Melbourne. There are now Harold Holt swimming clubs and annual swimathons all over the country.

I will conclude this personal retrospective with a some quotations, poems and recordings:

Brian Patten:

She walks across the room and opens the skylight
thinking, perhaps a bird will drop in
for and teach her to sing

The children who grow old
to who squabble and grow thin
who lick their lips at disaster .
and quietly whisper of sin

Adrian Henri:

I remember
walking in empty squares in winter rain
kissing in darkened hallways
walking in empty suburban streets
saying goodnight in deserted alleyways
in the midnight hour

The Independent recently published an affectionate tribute to Roger McGough on the occasion of this fiftieth anniversary. It includes Roger’s revisiting of one of his iconic poems:

Not for me a youngman’s death
Not a car crash, whiplash
One more for the road, kind of death.
Not a gun in hand, in a far off land
IED hidden in the sand death

Not a slow-fade, razor blade
bloodbath in the bath, death.
Jump under a train, Kurt Cobain
bullet in the brain, death

Not a horse-riding, paragliding
mountain climbing fall, death.
Motorcycle into an old stone wall
you know the kind of death, death

My nights are rarely unruly.
My days of all-night parties
are over, well and truly.
No mistresses no red sports cars
no shady deals no gangland bars
no drugs no fags no rock ‘n roll
Time alone has taken its toll

Let me die an old man’s death
Not a domestic brawl, blood in the hall
knife in the chest, death.
Not a drunken binge, dirty syringe
‘What a waste of a life’ death.

And here is one of my favourites from the Summer of Love:

Summer With Monika

They say the sun shone now and again
but it was generally cloudy
with far too much rain

they say babies were born
married couples made love,
often with each other
and people died
sometimes violently.

they say it was an average ordinary moderate
run-of-the-mill common or garden summer
but it wasn’t

for I locked a yellow door
and I threw away the key.
and I spent summer with Monica
and she spent summer with me

unlike everybody else we made friends with the weather
most days the sun called and sprawled all over the place
or the wind blew in as breezily as ever
and ran his fingers through our hair
but usually it was the moon that kept us company

some days we thought about the seaside
and built sand castles on the blankets
and paddled in the pillows
or swam in the sink and played with shoals of dishes

other days we went for long walks around the table
and picnicked on the banks of the settee
or just sunbathed lazily in front of the fire
until the shilling set on the horizon.

we danced a lot that summer
bossanovaed by the bookcase
or maddisoned instead,
hulligullied by the oven
or twisted round the bed

at first we kept birds in a transistor box
to sing for us but sadly they died
we being to embrace in each other to feed them.
but it didn’t really matter because
we made love songs with our bodies
I became the words
and she put me to music

they say it was just like any other summer
but it wasn’t
for we had love and each other
and the moon for company
when I spent summer with Monica
and Monica spent summer with me.

Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody

     Sé mo laoch, mo Ghile Mear,
    ‘Sé mo Chaesar, Ghile Mear,
    Suan ná séan ní bhfuaireas féin
    Ó chuaigh i gcéin mo Ghile Mear

The song begins as the camera focuses on the face of the singer. A soft and confident tenor, he gently leans into a long-gone poet’s Gaelic verse. The camera pulls back to reveal a phalanx of young people behind him. They are dressed plainly. The lads in dark suits and open-neck, white shirts, and most sport five o’clock shadows. The lassies in dark dresses, blouses and pants. They join the soloist, quietly at first, but rising soon in unison. A bodhran kicks in, sharp and deliberate. The young folk stand still, yet their heads nod almost imperceptibly to the bodhran’s driving beat, and the song lifts off and soars. The camera pans across the choir, focusing on their faces, and particularly, their eyes – almost all of them clear and blue. The joy in the eyes, their smiles, and their voices is there for all to see and hear. Their voices rise, and then gradually fall, as if to glide to a gentle landing. The choir hums softly as the singer gently repeats the last line. Ó chuaigh i gcéin mo Ghile Mear – “since my darling went away”,  And it is done.

Mo Ghile Mear is a paradoxical, quixotic song that is at once romantic and political. If you have but a drop of Celtic blood in your veins or a rebel heart in your breast, you will fall under its spell.

Variously translated as “my gallant hero”, “my gallant star”, and “my dashing darling”, Mo Ghile Mear is a Jacobite love song that is as much about politics as about romance. Inspired as it was was by the Jacobite Rising against Protestant England’s rule in 1745, romance and politics do indeed unite in heroic, insurrectionary failure.

it was written in Gaelic by poet Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill after the battle of Culloden which dashed for two and a half centuries the Scots’ dreams of independence. Composed in the convention of Aisling (Gaelic for “dream” or “vision”) poetry, it is a lament by the Gaelic goddess Éire for Bonnie Prince Charlie, Charles Stuart, the “Young Pretender” to the Protestant Hanoverian English throne that once belonged to the Roman Catholic Stuart clan, and who after the bloody failure of the ’45, fled into exile in France. And that’s where he remained, although his last resting place is in the crypt of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome – an ironic ending for this could’ve been champion of Catholic hopes.

Bonny Prince Charlie had many romantic and rousing songs written about him. But in reality he wasn’t the dashing, gallant leader that the songs portrayed and that the Scots and their Celtic Irish allies yearned for – most certainly not the Caesar of this song. He was an indecisive and vacillating leader, who thought himself much cleverer and popular than he actually was, and when the going got rough, he got going – and left the the Scots and Irish who supported him with blood and treasure to the tender mercies of the Sassenach foe.

And yet, the songs live on to this day, most notably in The Skye Boat Song, Will Ye No Come Back Again. The old and well-recorded favourite Óró sé do bheatha ‘bhaile has also been associated with the Jacobite cause as Séarlas Óg (“Young Charles” in Gaelic). The poet Padraig Pearse, leader of the doomed intifada we know as the Easter Rising of 1916, added new verses, and so the song entered the rebel canon.

Mo Ghile Mear differs from more conventional Aisling poems in which the poet is asleep or otherwise minding his own business when he experiences a dream or vision of a fair maid. In this cerebral wet dream, the poet personifies Éire – Ireland, the country itself – as a woman who once was a fair maiden but is now a widow. Her husband, the “Gallant” whatever is not dead but, but he is far away. As a consequence the land is failing and nature itself is in decline.

Popular since the 18th century, song has come to international attention in our own drear times – largely due to a host of recordings, and accompanying You Tube interest.

Iconic chanteuse Mary Black presents the song as a gentle, sad air. Sting famously recorded it with the renowned Celtic ensemble The Chieftains, and they give an understated and fair account of themselves, although the reinvented English lyrics turn “Our Hero” into a dashing cavalier”, swords and harps and all, far removed from original dream song. It is an easy song to overcook,  but Sting managed to resist the temptation. Not so that be-kilted posse Celtic Thunder who ramp up the Celtic bombast, reinventing the English lyrics as a curiously anachronistic, latter-day “rebel song” – “Hail the Hero”, the Battle Hymn of the Irish Republic, with a massive Irish flag waving o’er them all. What would The Minstrel Boy have thought about this?

Then there is the overreach of the much-loved and very popular, kitsch-laden, outings of Celtic Woman, invariably staged to maximum visual effect and capacity audiences at fantastically photogenic Irish castles. These handsome, well-dressed colleens do not crimp on the gowns, choirs, drums and bagpipes. Their Gaelic rewrite, transforms our “dashing darling” into a lovelorn mariner, replete with waves and tides, sails and sunsets. The ladies’ latest outing, with a relatively new lineup, sustains the razzmatazz with the eponymous “gallant star” resurrected as a martial beacon for “freedom’s sons”. It would seem that maritime motif of the girls’ original rendering was superfluous on an album that included My Heart Will Go On, from that damp, tear-jerking,   blockbuster, “Titanic”. Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes the pipes are calling!

That such liberties are taken with the lyrics is no big thing, however. Old Seán Clárach would probably agree that his original Aisling poem would be a wee bit archaic in this day and age, and that the undefeated despair, hope and longing of Éire’s dream were no longer relevant in a free, democratic and relatively prosperous (that is, post GFC) Ireland. He would no doubt have updated his verse, just as Padraig Pearse did with his song in 1916, substituting a 16th Century Irish pirate, the “great sea warrior” Gráinne Mhaol for the foreign born Charlie (so the ladies of Celtic Woman were not that far off-track with their nautical rewrite after all). But this mythologizing of Ireland’s heroes too often comes across as self-reverentially corny.

Cynics might blame the atmospheric, anthemic stadium rock of Bono and U2 for this commercialization of Irish music. Others blame Enya’s symphonic, new age outings once she put  behind her the Connemara mist and moodiness of her Clannad siblings. But I reckon that hitherto timeless, soulful and folksy Irish music has been like this since the Riverdance crew first stamped their collective hard shoes during the intermission of the Eurovision Song Contest and stole the show. But most Irish folk blame Michael Flatley, as the authoritative Waterford Whisperer made clear.

Meanwhile, in my opinion, the most sensitive, beautiful and indeed, rousing rendition of Mo Ghile Mear is the one described at the head of this post. No naff English lyrics are required. The original words of the Gaelic poem resonate powerfully through the hall.

It is sung by the Choral Scholars of University College, Dublin, an amateur, mostly acapella bunch of Irish students. These young folk formally audition for a scholarship with the ensemble. There is little glamour or artifice, no fireworks or vocal gymnastics. Plainly dressed, they look like folk you would pass on the streets of Dublin or Galway. Mark Waters, the portly lead singer would never get a gig in an Irish boy band, but wouldn’t look out of place in a church choir. The drama is achieved by inflection, modulation and tone, the lighting and way the choir is physically arranged in an eerily martial wedge, their only movement being that almost imperceptible nod of their heads in time with the lone bodran’s beat as the song builds momentum.

Listen, and listen again. It is a gem.

For more on Irish history and Irish songs if rebellion, see; The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir, and: , Irish Rebel Music, and A Selection of songs of ’98.

And here are the Choral Students again:

 

TheChoral Scholars of University College, Dublin

Here is  Brendan Graham’s achingly beautiful song Orphan Girl with the  Choral Scholars featuring  Abby Molloy. Sung from the perspective of one of Ireland’s famine orphans, on the eve of her inspection, which would decide whether she could travel to Australia, to escape the workhouse which had become her life.

 

And here are the recordings I referred to above. Enjoy.:

 

 

In the dark times will there also be singing?

“In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Berthold Brecht

This selection of poetry compiled by Gerry Cordon of Liverpool around the theme of “undefeated despair” reminds me of Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the old Baptist hymn:

” My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, thought far off hymn
That hails the new creation
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?”

Also by Gerry Cordon, a commemoration of the centenary of the death of war poet Wilfred Owen : Dulce et ducorum est.

Here is the wondrous Éabha McMahon of Celtic Woman:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9hth14hokI

 

That's How The Light Gets In

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath…

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Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion

I was inspired to write this post on viewing the video below, a harrowing picture gallery of the Bosnian War, the bloodiest but not the last of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. I was reminded  of the iconic Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s poem, Pity the Nation,  a sardonic and incisive take on the politics of his time and his homeland. It is chilling in its prescience with regard to contemporary politics in the Middle East and indeed, much, much closer to home on in our liberal democracies where les mots de jour, and indeed, des temps are ‘populism’ and ‘post-truth’,  where allegations of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news are ubiquitous and duplicitous, and where, in a milieu of fear, anger and loathing, intolerance and ignorance appear to be on the rise.

Today, in America, 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are best-sellers, and doubtless, as resignation and surrender sink in, Fahrenheit 451 and Catch 22 will catch on with intellectually and numerically inclined. The one is the temperature at which paper burns (“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading”), the other, the mother of all vicious circles. The 22 was meant to be 18, but Joseph Heller was gazzumped by Leon Uris’ holocaust melodrama Mila 18  (which I do happen to like).

I was also reminded of a book of the same name. In Pity the Nation, his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein (inspired by Gibran’s poem, and by the fact the he has been a resident of Lebanon for going on half a century), the redoubtable British  journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.

And that, is in essence, the underlying message of Gibran’s poem, published posthumously after his death in 1931.

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.

Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.

Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years
and whose strongmen are yet in the cradle.

Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.

Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)

ارحم على الامة
ارحم على الأمة المليئة بالمعتقدات والخالية من الدين.
ارحم على الأمة التي تلبس ثوبا لا يحاك.
وتأكل خبزا لا تحصد.
أشفق على الأمة التي تعتبر المتنمر بطلاً ،
ويعتبر منتصرها رائعا.
ارحم أمة تحتقر الشغف في أحلامها
لكنه يخضع لها عندما تستيقظ.
ارحم على الأمة التي لا ترفع صوتها
إلا عندما تمشي في جنازة ،
وتفتخر فقط بين أطلالها ،
ولن تنقذ نفسها عندما توضع رقبتها
بين السيف والكتلة.
ارحم على الأمة التي فيها رجل الدولة وهو ثعلب ،
والفيلسوف مشعوذ
فنه من الترقيع والتقليد
ارحم على الأمة التي تستقبل حاكمها الجديد بصوت عالٍ ،
ويقول وداعا له بسخرية ،
فقط للترحيب بآخر من خلال الاحتفال الصاخب مرة أخرى
ارحم على أمة حكماؤها أغبياء السنين ،
وأولئك الذين لا يزال رجالهم الأقوياء في المهد.
ارحموا الأمة منقسمة ،
وكل قطعة تعتبر نفسها أمة.

خليل جبران

The following song, E Lucevan Le Stelle, encapsulates all this:

“And time, ’tis said reveals its dead, and we will speak what was unsaid. How he was wrong, and I was led – his song I sing who gives me bread. It wasn’t me! I kept my head – I had my kin and kind to serve. It wasn’t me – I kept the faith. It wasn’t me who lost his nerve”.

It charts the cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, and other “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world in pain. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography, lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. “Bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs and more betides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores: damnation takes no sides”.

Related posts In That Howling Infinite:

A House Divided – the nature of civil war
Pity the Nation
A brief history of the rise and fall of the west
Bombs and Babies
Solitudinem faciunt pacemappellant

Postscript

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, American poet, painter, liberal activist, and co-founder of the legendary City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, wrote the following poem in 2007 as a tribute to Gibran, and as a sad testament to the aphorism “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

“Pity the nation whose people are sheep and whose shepherds mislead them.

Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced, and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as heroand aims to rule the world with force and by torture.

Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own and no other culture but its own.

Pity the nation whose breath is money and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.

Pity the nation – oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode and their freedoms to be washed away.

My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.

Legends, Bibles, Plagues – Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture

In Invisible Republic,  his masterful telling of the story behind “The Basement Tapes”, Greil Marcus, quotes Bob Dylan: “Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death”.

And this is precisely the theme of Dylan’s belated Nobel Lecture, a presentation that is in its style, scope and subject matter, a a laid-back, folksey spoken edition of the long-awaited and probably never to be written “Chronicles – Volume 2”.

Constructed around his précis of three of the many books that have influenced his writing over more than half a century – Moby-Dick, All Quiet of the Western Front, and The Odyssey – he recalls how he had mined the literary canon for myth and meaning, often uncertain and uncaring about how one ended and the other began. As he concludes:

“If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means”.

The full text of Bob’s lecture follows this recording:

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture

When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.

If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about eighteen and he was twenty-two. From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother. I even thought I resembled him. Buddy played the music that I loved – the music I grew up on: country western, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand. And Buddy wrote songs – songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great – sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.

He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.

I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down. And somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Leadbelly record with the song “Cottonfields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.

It was on a label I’d never heard of with a booklet inside with advertisements for other artists on the label: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the New Lost City Ramblers, Jean Ritchie, string bands. I’d never heard of any of them. But I reckoned if they were on this label with Leadbelly, they had to be good, so I needed to hear them. I wanted to know all about it and play that kind of music. I still had a feeling for the music I’d grown up with, but for right now, I forgot about it. Didn’t even think about it. For the time being, it was long gone.

I hadn’t left home yet, but I couldn’t wait to. I wanted to learn this music and meet the people who played it. Eventually, I did leave, and I did learn to play those songs. They were different than the radio songs that I’d been listening to all along. They were more vibrant and truthful to life. With radio songs, a performer might get a hit with a roll of the dice or a fall of the cards, but that didn’t matter in the folk world. Everything was a hit. All you had to do was be well versed and be able to play the melody. Some of these songs were easy, some not. I had a natural feeling for the ancient ballads and country blues, but everything else I had to learn from scratch. I was playing for small crowds, sometimes no more than four or five people in a room or on a street corner. You had to have a wide repertoire, and you had to know what to play and when. Some songs were intimate, some you had to shout to be heard.

By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

I had all the vernacular all down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.

But I had something else as well. I had principals and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.

Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.

President Barack Obama presents rock legend Bob Dylan with a Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, during a ceremony at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Moby-Dick is a fascinating book, a book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic dialogue. The book makes demands on you. The plot is straightforward. The mysterious Captain Ahab – captain of a ship called the Pequod – an egomaniac with a peg leg pursuing his nemesis, the great white whale Moby Dick who took his leg. And he pursues him all the way from the Atlantic around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. He pursues the whale around both sides of the earth. It’s an abstract goal, nothing concrete or definite. He calls Moby the emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil. Ahab’s got a wife and child back in Nantucket that he reminisces about now and again. You can anticipate what will happen.

The ship’s crew is made up of men of different races, and any one of them who sights the whale will be given the reward of a gold coin. A lot of Zodiac symbols, religious allegory, stereotypes. Ahab encounters other whaling vessels, presses the captains for details about Moby. Have they seen him? There’s a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab’s doom. Says Moby is the incarnate of a Shaker god, and that any dealings with him will lead to disaster. He says that to Captain Ahab. Another ship’s captain – Captain Boomer – he lost an arm to Moby. But he tolerates that, and he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.

This book tells how different men react in different ways to the same experience. A lot of Old Testament, biblical allegory: Gabriel, Rachel, Jeroboam, Bildah, Elijah. Pagan names as well: Tashtego, Flask, Daggoo, Fleece, Starbuck, Stubb, Martha’s Vineyard. The Pagans are idol worshippers. Some worship little wax figures, some wooden figures. Some worship fire. The Pequod is the name of an Indian tribe.

Moby Dick is a seafaring tale. One of the men, the narrator, says, “Call me Ishmael.” Somebody asks him where he’s from, and he says, “It’s not down on any map. True places never are.” Stubb gives no significance to anything, says everything is predestined. Ishmael’s been on a sailing ship his entire life. Calls the sailing ships his Harvard and Yale. He keeps his distance from people.

A typhoon hits the Pequod. Captain Ahab thinks it’s a good omen. Starbuck thinks it’s a bad omen, considers killing Ahab. As soon as the storm ends, a crewmember falls from the ship’s mast and drowns, foreshadowing what’s to come. A Quaker pacifist priest, who is actually a bloodthirsty businessman, tells Flask, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness.”

Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale. Lots of facts in this book, geographical knowledge, whale oil – good for coronation of royalty – noble families in the whaling industry. Whale oil is used to anoint the kings. History of the whale, phrenology, classical philosophy, pseudo-scientific theories, justification for discrimination – everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational. Highbrow, lowbrow, chasing illusion, chasing death, the great white whale, white as polar bear, white as a white man, the emperor, the nemesis, the embodiment of evil. The demented captain who actually lost his leg years ago trying to attack Moby with a knife.

We see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. Crewmen walk around on deck listening for mermaids, and sharks and vultures follow the ship. Reading skulls and faces like you read a book. Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.

Tashtego says that he died and was reborn. His extra days are a gift. He wasn’t saved by Christ, though, he says he was saved by a fellow man and a non-Christian at that. He parodies the resurrection.

When Starbuck tells Ahab that he should let bygones be bygones, the angry captain snaps back, “Speak not to me of blasphemy, man, I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Ahab, too, is a poet of eloquence. He says, “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails whereon my soul is grooved to run.” Or these lines, “All visible objects are but pasteboard masks.” Quotable poetic phrases that can’t be beat.

Finally, Ahab spots Moby, and the harpoons come out. Boats are lowered. Ahab’s harpoon has been baptized in blood. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat and destroys it. Next day, he sights Moby again. Boats are lowered again. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat again. On the third day, another boat goes in. More religious allegory. He has risen. Moby attacks one more time, ramming the Pequod and sinking it. Ahab gets tangled up in the harpoon lines and is thrown out of his boat into a watery grave.

Ishmael survives. He’s in the sea floating on a coffin. And that’s about it. That’s the whole story. That theme and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs.

Moby-Dick

All Quiet on the Western Front was another book that did. All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.

Day after day, the hornets bite you and worms lap your blood. You’re a cornered animal. You don’t fit anywhere. The falling rain is monotonous. There’s endless assaults, poison gas, nerve gas, morphine, burning streams of gasoline, scavenging and scabbing for food, influenza, typhus, dysentery. Life is breaking down all around you, and the shells are whistling. This is the lower region of hell. Mud, barbed wire, rat-filled trenches, rats eating the intestines of dead men, trenches filled with filth and excrement. Someone shouts, “Hey, you there. Stand and fight.”

Who knows how long this mess will go on? Warfare has no limits. You’re being annihilated, and that leg of yours is bleeding too much. You killed a man yesterday, and you spoke to his corpse. You told him after this is over, you’ll spend the rest of your life looking after his family. Who’s profiting here? The leaders and the generals gain fame, and many others profit financially. But you’re doing the dirty work. One of your comrades says, “Wait a minute, where are you going?” And you say, “Leave me alone, I’ll be back in a minute.” Then you walk out into the woods of death hunting for a piece of sausage. You can’t see how anybody in civilian life has any kind of purpose at all. All their worries, all their desires – you can’t comprehend it.

More machine guns rattle, more parts of bodies hanging from wires, more pieces of arms and legs and skulls where butterflies perch on teeth, more hideous wounds, pus coming out of every pore, lung wounds, wounds too big for the body, gas-blowing cadavers, and dead bodies making retching noises. Death is everywhere. Nothing else is possible. Someone will kill you and use your dead body for target practice. Boots, too. They’re your prized possession. But soon they’ll be on somebody else’s feet.

There’s Froggies coming through the trees. Merciless bastards. Your shells are running out. “It’s not fair to come at us again so soon,” you say. One of your companions is laying in the dirt, and you want to take him to the field hospital. Someone else says, “You might save yourself a trip.” “What do you mean?” “Turn him over, you’ll see what I mean.”

You wait to hear the news. You don’t understand why the war isn’t over. The army is so strapped for replacement troops that they’re drafting young boys who are of little military use, but they’re draftin’ ‘em anyway because they’re running out of men. Sickness and humiliation have broken your heart. You were betrayed by your parents, your schoolmasters, your ministers, and even your own government.

The general with the slowly smoked cigar betrayed you too – turned you into a thug and a murderer. If you could, you’d put a bullet in his face. The commander as well. You fantasize that if you had the money, you’d put up a reward for any man who would take his life by any means necessary. And if he should lose his life by doing that, then let the money go to his heirs. The colonel, too, with his caviar and his coffee – he’s another one. Spends all his time in the officers’ brothel. You’d like to see him stoned dead too. More Tommies and Johnnies with their whack fo’ me daddy-o and their whiskey in the jars. You kill twenty of ‘em and twenty more will spring up in their place. It just stinks in your nostrils.

You’ve come to despise that older generation that sent you out into this madness, into this torture chamber. All around you, your comrades are dying. Dying from abdominal wounds, double amputations, shattered hipbones, and you think, “I’m only twenty years old, but I’m capable of killing anybody. Even my father if he came at me.”

Yesterday, you tried to save a wounded messenger dog, and somebody shouted, “Don’t be a fool.” One Froggy is laying gurgling at your feet. You stuck him with a dagger in his stomach, but the man still lives. You know you should finish the job, but you can’t. You’re on the real iron cross, and a Roman soldier’s putting a sponge of vinegar to your lips.

Months pass by. You go home on leave. You can’t communicate with your father. He said, “You’d be a coward if you don’t enlist.” Your mother, too, on your way back out the door, she says, “You be careful of those French girls now.” More madness. You fight for a week or a month, and you gain ten yards. And then the next month it gets taken back.

All that culture from a thousand years ago, that philosophy, that wisdom – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates – what happened to it? It should have prevented this. Your thoughts turn homeward. And once again you’re a schoolboy walking through the tall poplar trees. It’s a pleasant memory. More bombs dropping on you from blimps. You got to get it together now. You can’t even look at anybody for fear of some miscalculable thing that might happen. The common grave. There are no other possibilities.

Then you notice the cherry blossoms, and you see that nature is unaffected by all this. Poplar trees, the red butterflies, the fragile beauty of flowers, the sun – you see how nature is indifferent to it all. All the violence and suffering of all mankind. Nature doesn’t even notice it.

You’re so alone. Then a piece of shrapnel hits the side of your head and you’re dead. You’ve been ruled out, crossed out. You’ve been exterminated. I put this book down and closed it up. I never wanted to read another war novel again, and I never did.

Charlie Poole from North Carolina had a song that connected to all this. It’s called “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me,” and the lyrics go like this:

I saw a sign in a window walking up town one day.
Join the army, see the world is what it had to say.
You’ll see exciting places with a jolly crew,
You’ll meet interesting people, and learn to kill them too.
Oh you ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talking to me.
I may be crazy and all that, but I got good sense you see.
You ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talkin’ to me.
Killin’ with a gun don’t sound like fun.
You ain’t talkin’ to me.

Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson

The Odyssey is a great book whose themes have worked its way into the ballads of a lot of songwriters: “Homeward Bound, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Home on the Range,” and my songs as well.

The Odyssey is a strange, adventurous tale of a grown man trying to get home after fighting in a war. He’s on that long journey home, and it’s filled with traps and pitfalls. He’s cursed to wander. He’s always getting carried out to sea, always having close calls. Huge chunks of boulders rock his boat. He angers people he shouldn’t. There’s troublemakers in his crew. Treachery. His men are turned into pigs and then are turned back into younger, more handsome men. He’s always trying to rescue somebody. He’s a travelin’ man, but he’s making a lot of stops.

He’s stranded on a desert island. He finds deserted caves, and he hides in them. He meets giants that say, “I’ll eat you last.” And he escapes from giants. He’s trying to get back home, but he’s tossed and turned by the winds. Restless winds, chilly winds, unfriendly winds. He travels far, and then he gets blown back.

He’s always being warned of things to come. Touching things he’s told not to. There’s two roads to take, and they’re both bad. Both hazardous. On one you could drown and on the other you could starve. He goes into the narrow straits with foaming whirlpools that swallow him. Meets six-headed monsters with sharp fangs. Thunderbolts strike at him. Overhanging branches that he makes a leap to reach for to save himself from a raging river. Goddesses and gods protect him, but some others want to kill him. He changes identities. He’s exhausted. He falls asleep, and he’s woken up by the sound of laughter. He tells his story to strangers. He’s been gone twenty years. He was carried off somewhere and left there. Drugs have been dropped into his wine. It’s been a hard road to travel.

In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that’s still not all of it.

When he gets back home, things aren’t any better. Scoundrels have moved in and are taking advantage of his wife’s hospitality. And there’s too many of ‘em. And though he’s greater than them all and the best at everything – best carpenter, best hunter, best expert on animals, best seaman – his courage won’t save him, but his trickery will.

All these stragglers will have to pay for desecrating his palace. He’ll disguise himself as a filthy beggar, and a lowly servant kicks him down the steps with arrogance and stupidity. The servant’s arrogance revolts him, but he controls his anger. He’s one against a hundred, but they’ll all fall, even the strongest. He was nobody. And when it’s all said and done, when he’s home at last, he sits with his wife, and he tells her the stories.

____________________

So what does it all mean? Myself and a lot of other songwriters have been influenced by these very same themes. And they can mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means. When Melville put all his old testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about it either – what it all means.

John Donne as well, the poet-priest who lived in the time of Shakespeare, wrote these words, “The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests.” I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.

When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld – Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory – tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. “I just died, that’s all.” There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is – a king in the land of the dead – that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.

That’s what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”

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