The Bonfire of the Insanities 2- the EU’s Biomass Dilemma

The Biomass Greenwash revisited

I believe in Santa, fairies, leprechauns and unicorns; I believe that politicians don’t lie, that the Pope is infallible, and that capitalism provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number

But I don’t buy the biofuel greenwash!

As Abe Lincoln, said, you can fool some of the people some of the time, and most of the people most of the time. And yet, never underestimate the capacity and willingness of some people to swallow bullshit for decades. Probably became they NEED to believe that something is being done about climate change and carbon emissions, and the boosters of biomass promise clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power. As some wits might ask, what’s the point of having a big brain if we insist on not using it?

In an earlier article, The Bonfire of the Insanities – the Biomass Greenwash, we described how the European Union’s desperation to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels kicked off a demand for wood pellets for burning to generate electricity that in turn created an industry. Promising clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power, it came for what it called forest waste, and then it came for the forest itself.

We revealed how a deliberate accounting error determined biomass burning to be carbon neutral, whilst a mechanism to prevent counting carbon twice became a rule that carbon wasn’t counted at all. Indeed, it was declared that the burning of biomass was “instant carbon sequestration” whilst emissions exuding from the new-age power stations were actually “biogenic carbon” – green power!

Since the widespread distribution of North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance’s hard hitting film  BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?the true scale of the biofuel greenwash is being given the publicity it needs. The true colours of rebadged, born-again power plants like Drax near Selby, Yorkshire, the world’s biggest and hungriest, and our own Redbank in the Hunter Valley (more on that later), are now there for all the world to see. And they are not green.

A backlash against this greenwash is growing apace in Europe and the USA. But not in Australia, it would appear. Government and industry are enchanted by the lure of biomass with its carbon credit rewards and the prospect of creating a dependent, profitable domestic supply chain.

“We, the people” have yet to cotton on to the biofuel industry’s corporate jiggerypokery and semantic sleight of hand. In Australia and elsewhere, the general public, forest industry nostalgists, conservative politicians, and, even, many environmentalists believe that we are saving forests from destruction by using plantations for jobs and construction timber, when in fact the former are few, supplanted by hi-tech mechanization, and latter is destined for pulp mills and power plants.

While we in northern New South Wales might be alarmed about re-tooled plants like Drax and those in Ireland’s Midlands, something wicked this way comes. There is little community awareness of what is looming, and state and federal politicians chose to keep quiet about it.

Our State government has started implementing its plan for 70-80% of renewable electricity in our region to be generated by burning trees. As we’ve seen in our own Tarkeeth State Forest, biomass extraction is a shockingly destructive practice, and it is one which is destroying environments and communities all over the world.

Biomass extraction in Tarkeeth Forest, Bellingen Shire

In this grave new world, whole log “residues” can be chipped and transported to power stations or transported and then chipped in the power station, as at Vales Point on NSW’s Central Coast and Cape Byron in the north. Native forest biomass burnt with or without coal or something else, props up emission intensive enterprises with its “carbon neutral, renewable energy, subsidy attracting” hypnotism. Or else, the forest biomass is exported, as pellets, woodchip or whole trees.

It is a new industry for our own Bellingen Shire which is now supplying biomass to Cape Byron Power’s co-generation plant at Broadwater south of Byron Bay, the north coast tourist mecca and real estate hot zone.

The plan for our region is for 70-80% of renewable energy to be generated from forest biomass. By the middle of the year the former coal-fired Redbank Power Station at Singleton in the Hunter Valley, will be rebooted and burning 100% biomass, most of it to be sourced from forests up the 400km away. Redbank will be one of the largest wood burning electricity generators in the world. At 151 megawats, it five times bigger than either Broadwater or Condong,

Paul Hemphill © 2021

See also in In That Howling Infinite, The Bonfire of the Insanities – the biofuel greenwash; The Return of the Forest Wars and If You Go Down to the Woods Today 

In a brief statement and a powerful interview on Bellingen Community Radio 2BBB, Bellingen academic Dr Tim Cadman makes the global  and local case against  burning trees for electricity. and here, you can watch his short FaceBook video about the Tarkeeth biomass and Broadwater power station here: ttps://fb.watch/v/3Is1JLwio/.  Follow the truck from forest to furnace

Tim Cadman: the truth about Biomass ‘Green Power’

My name is Tim Cadman, I am a Research Fellow in the Law Futures Centre at Griffith University,  specializing in environmental policy, governance, sustainability, natural resource management including  forestry, and climate change. I am a ‘pracademic’ and spend a lot of my time working in developing countries in practical on-the-ground action-based research, including Papua New Guinea and the Brazilian Amazon.

I have been following, and attending the international climate change negotiations since 2001, when I exposed how forestry companies were clearing ancient rainforest on behalf of energy companies to create plantations for ‘carbon credits.’ Sadly, over twenty years later, this same problem is still besetting meaningful action on climate change.

I want to address so-called bio-energy, or biomass energy, and how it has become central to the destruction of forests in developed countries such as the US, UK, Australia and Europe, all in the name of ‘green’ power.

In the early days of the international climate negotiations an unintentional ‘loophole’ was created in discussions around what was termed ‘land use, land-use change and forestry’ (LULUCF). In the debate around how to count emissions from land use for agriculture, policymakers made a decision that all crops were the same, and as they were planted, harvested, and grew back, these emissions did not need to be counted. This included forestry, and this decision made its way into the Kyoto Protocol, and carbon ‘offsets’.

It doesn’t make sense for forests, which are not crops, are full of biodiversity, regulate climate, filter water, and provide a range of what are called ecosystem services that a field of carrots do not. This same problem, now admitted as such by many policy makers, has been repeated in the new Paris Agreement.

The consequence is that forests have now become a major source of electricity in Europe, the UK, and elsewhere.

As much forest as is grown across the UK every year is now burnt in just one power station, Drax, and is imported from the forests of the South east of the US, and the inland ancient temperate rainforests of Canada.

This same problem is being repeated here. In the mid north coast of NSW, under the guise of making use of what are called forest ‘residues’, large areas of forests are being cleared and converted to hardwood plantations. As with wood-chipping for pulp and paper, which originally was designed to make use of branches, such activities become a driver of deforestation, and the processing of ‘waste’ becomes the tail that wags the dog.

To make matters worse, there are now two converted sugar mills in the region that are  burning this wood for so-called ‘green’ energy and feeding it into the national grid. In short, our renewable energy is  contaminated.

And finally, to things even more dire, burning forests for power is worse than coal. The wood is wet, it is transported often up to two hundred kilometres in huge trucks, the source forest is burnt as part of forestry management. Capturing these emissions is just not possible.

This is the danger facing the forests of NSW. Forests are worth so much more, and in this period of unprecedented climate change, we need forests standing tall, not sent up the chimney.

Dr Tim Cadman © 2021

Tim Cadman BA (Hons) MA (Cantab), PhD (Tasmania), Grad. Cert. Theol. (Charles Sturt) Senior Research Fellow, Earth Systems Governance Project. Research Fellow, Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law. Griffith University

The road to hell is paved with flawed intentions

We republish below the full text of an article that appeared in The Financial Times on 1st July. As the debate ramps up here in New South Wales, it is a timely and informative wake-up call for environmentalists and governments alike.

Like BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?, it reveals how dirty fuel and dodgy mathematics, a generous subsidies system and stringent climate targets incentivises the use of biomass without adequate safeguards. It will require “large-scale logging  of the forests we need to store carbon”, says Almuth Ernsting, from the campaign group Biofuelwatch. And yet, current EU rules permit the use of whole trees for energy production.

Biomass fuels include pellets, organic waste and crops grown for energy. They produce around half of the world’s renewable energy, and 60 per cent of the EU’s, and are treated as carbon neutral if certain sustainability conditions are met. Across Europe and Asia, the two main markets for pellets, governments hand out billions in subsidies to the industry each year. And as the world races to decarbonise, the use of wood-based biomass is expected to increase. In a report this year about the pathway to net zero, the International Energy Agency said solid bioenergy could produce around 14 per cent of global energy in 2050, compared with just 5 per cent last year.

With a review of the bloc’s climate legislation imminent, ministers from countries including Finland, Estonia and Sweden asked for “all forms” of bioenergy currently labelled as renewable to also qualify as sustainable investments, “keeping in mind” the EU’s decarbonisation commitments. It was a none too subtle reminder that if the status of biomass is changed it may be almost impossible for the EU to meet its target for renewables to provide a third of all energy usage across the region by 2030. The politics of all this is perverse, says a former White House climate adviser.

According to a leaked commission document, Brussels plans to prevent some forms of wood-burning energy from counting towards the bloc’s green energy goals. Campaigners say the changes must go much further, by excluding forest biomass from the renewables list altogether. “We should not be subsidising people to cut down trees and burn them,” says Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at conservation group BirdLife International. “The notion that you can save emissions by burning carbon fundamentally doesn’t work.”

Chopping down trees, shipping them around the world on carbon-intensive vessels and burning the wood for energy “doesn’t comport with the idea of clean energy”, says Sasha Stashwick, from the Natural Resources Defence Council, a US-based non-profit organisation.

Pellets can actually emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels when burnt, since wood is less dense. But the industry argues that those emissions are offset by the carbon absorbed by trees as they regrow. If the wood is being sourced from sustainably managed forests — where the volume of carbon stored in the trees is “stable or increasing” — the biomass is carbon neutral, the industry says. However, landscape assessments ignore the fact that trees would have grown more and absorbed extra carbon had they not been harvested, say some scientists and campaigners.

A reduction in the amount of carbon being absorbed “is effectively the same as a tonne more of emissions”, says Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a climate campaign group.

The industry is keen to impress that it does not cut down trees that would otherwise remain standing. Instead, pellets are made largely from wood residues — such as offcuts from trees harvested for other purposes — that would normally go to waste or end up rotting.“The forest is never harvested for biomass,” since it is more profitable to use the wood for furniture or other products, says Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general of trade association Bioenergy Europe.

Non-profit environmental organisations dispute this, and point to photos of trucks piled high with tree trunks en route to pellet mills. Belinda Joyner, a resident of Garysburg, North Carolina, who has spoken out against the nearby Enviva mill, says the trucks driving through town carry “whole trees”, adding: “I’ve never seen a truck with little logs.”

Enviva says concerns about whole trees are “one of the most common misperceptions . . . An untrained or uneducated eye often mistakes low-value wood for high-value lumber.” Large logs might be diseased or deformed, and unable to be used for other purposes, the company adds.

Oh yeah!

The EU’s Biomass Dilemma – can burning trees ever be green?

Camilla Hodgson, Financial Times ,1 July 2021

In May, a billboard appeared outside the EU parliament in Brussels playing a video that showed sparse, deforested woodland, spliced together with footage of the bloc’s top climate official, and the words “the EU burns forests as fuel”.

The protest formed part of a campaign by green groups to force Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president for the EU’s green deal, to strip forest biomass — combustible pellets burnt for energy — from the list of energy sources classified in Europe as renewable. The argument goes beyond definitions. Weeks earlier, nervous about the growing pressure on policymakers to change the rules, ministers from 10 European countries wrote to Timmermans to stress the “crucial role” played by bioenergy fuels, such as pellets, in helping member states meet the EU’s climate goals.

With a review of the bloc’s climate legislation imminent, ministers from countries including Finland, Estonia and Sweden asked for “all forms” of bioenergy currently labelled as renewable to also qualify as sustainable investments, “keeping in mind” the EU’s decarbonisation commitments.

It was a none too subtle reminder that if the status of biomass is changed it may be almost impossible for the EU to meet its target for renewables to provide a third of all energy usage across the region by 2030.

The fact that biomass pellets are produced from carbon-absorbing trees makes them controversial Biomass fuels include pellets, organic waste and crops grown for energy. They produce around half of the world’s renewable energy, and 60 per cent of the EU’s, and are treated as carbon neutral if certain sustainability conditions are met. Across Europe and Asia, the two main markets for pellets, governments hand out billions in subsidies to the industry each year.

But what producers use to make pellets — carbon-absorbing trees, which governments and companies are turning to as part of the solution to runaway climate change — makes them highly controversial.

EU policymakers are now debating changes to the treatment of wood-burning energy as part of a wide-ranging package of measures to cut emissions, due to be published on July 14 — revisions that could wreak havoc with the bloc’s renewable energy target and commitment to more than halve emissions by 2030.

“Without relying heavily on wood biomass,” many member states “will find it very difficult to meet their future commitments, be it emissions reductions or renewable energy commitments,” says Jorgen Henningsen, former EU commission director responsible for climate change.

Climate Capital

Any changes could also call into question the legitimacy of EU countries having used the fuel to cut emissions up to now, and narrow the options for further decarbonising the power industry and other sectors.

“The politics of it is so perverse,” says Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser. The idea that national targets might determine the future for biomass, rather than its true environmental impact, is “absurd”.

According to a leaked commission document, Brussels plans to prevent some forms of wood-burning energy from counting towards the bloc’s green energy goals. Campaigners say the changes must go much further, by excluding forest biomass from the renewables list altogether. “We should not be subsidising people to cut down trees and burn them,” says Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at conservation group BirdLife International. “The notion that you can save emissions by burning carbon fundamentally doesn’t work.”

A heavily subsidised sector

The multibillion-dollar market for pellets — the modern iteration of a centuries-old fuel — took off in 2009, after the EU classified biomass, at the time little used, as a renewable energy source alongside solar and wind. That incentivised countries with clean energy targets to adopt the fuel, and made the industry eligible for subsidies. In 2018 — the most recent year for which figures are available — EU countries handed out €10.3bn in support for the biomass sector.

Growth over the past decade “has been tremendous”, says Thomas Meth, executive vice-president of sales and marketing at Enviva, a major US-based pellet producer. The EU’s 2009 move was “certainly one of the catalysts”.

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Much of the millions of tonnes of pellets used globally is made and exported from expansive forests across the US south-east. The US, Vietnam and Canada were the largest exporters of wood pellets by volume in 2019, according to UN data.

And as the world races to decarbonise, the use of wood-based biomass is expected to increase. In a report this year about the pathway to net zero, the International Energy Agency said solid bioenergy could produce around 14 per cent of global energy in 2050, compared with just 5 per cent last year.

UK power company Drax,a major user and supplier of pellets, says the market will be driven by “increasingly ambitious global decarbonisation targets”.

The industry insists swelling demand for these small, cylindrical chips can be met sustainably, and that responsibly produced biomass is carbon neutral since the emissions generated by burning pellets are sucked up by regrowing trees.

Green groups challenge the neutrality argument, and warn that increasing production puts natural forests in jeopardy. Using more biomass will require “large-scale logging . . . of the forests we need to store carbon”, says Almuth Ernsting, from the campaign group Biofuelwatch.

Drax power station in Yorkshire. The industry insists responsibly produced biomass is carbon neutral, as emissions from burning pellets are sucked up by regrowing trees © Alamy ‘We need the right biomass’

The debate in the EU is coming to a head over possible changes to the bloc’s renewable energy framework — one of many pieces of legislation being updated to align with the region’s ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.

“We are expecting an almighty fight,” says BirdLife’s Brunner. “There’s a very powerful bloc of European governments completely enslaved to the agricultural and forest lobby.”

A person familiar with the discussions in Brussels, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the biomass question is “one of the most politically sensitive files” in the climate package. It has divided agencies, with the commission’s environment department wanting tougher biomass rules and the energy department pushing back.

But if European lawmakers strip “bio-based energy” from the renewables framework, “Europe will not meet any of its goals”, says Enviva’s Meth. Drastic changes are not “realistic”, he adds.

Timmermans himself has said that without biomass the EU will be unable to achieve its clean energy goals. “We need biomass in the mix, but we need the right biomass . . . I hate the images ofwhole forests being cut down to be put in an incinerator,” he told the Euractiv website in May.

Current EU rules permit the use of whole trees for energy production, though say this should be “minimised”. Critics say the rules are too lax, and that the combination of subsidies and climate targets incentivises the use of biomass without sufficient safeguards.

Under UN guidance, emissions from biomass are reported by countries in the land, rather than the energy, sector. As a result, importing nations can enjoy lower domestic emissions and rely on pellet-producing countries to count the carbon.

Although the rules should deter producing countries from over harvesting, counting land sector emissions accurately is notoriously difficult — a view disputed by some in the industry. “The level of accuracy and transparency with which different countries measure and report land use emissions varies,” says Claire Fyson, policy analyst at Climate Analytics, a non-profit organisation. The risk is of “importing biomass that hasn’t been sustainably produced, or whose emissions from harvesting haven’t been accurately measured”, she adds.
Incentives for ‘burning wood’

The backdrop to the political jostling is a longstanding argument between scientists, campaigners and the industry about whether biomass is carbon neutral.

In February, more than 500 scientists wrote to the European Commission and European Council presidents, urging them “not to undermine both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning trees”. They added: “Governments must end subsidies and other incentives that today exist for the burning of wood.”

Chopping down trees, shipping them around the world on carbon-intensive vessels and burning the wood for energy “doesn’t comport with the idea of clean energy”, says Sasha Stashwick, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US-based non-profit organisation.

Wood pellet plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina. © The Washington Post via Getty Images

Pellets can actually emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels when burnt, since wood is less dense. But the industry argues that those emissions are offset by the carbon absorbed by trees as they regrow. If the wood is being sourced from sustainably managed forests — where the volume of carbon stored in the trees is “stable or increasing” — the biomass is carbon neutral, the industry says.

The complex calculation of whether carbon measures are “stable or increasing” is done at a “landscape” level — vast areas surrounding pellet mills that can span millions of hectares. Enviva and Drax say assessments of the US forests they source from are done roughly every five years using the country’s Forest Service data, in addition to other monitoring.

However, landscape assessments ignore the fact that trees would have grown more and absorbed extra carbon had they not been harvested, say some scientists and campaigners. A reduction in the amount of carbon being absorbed “is effectively the same as a tonne more of emissions”, says Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a climate campaign group.

Broad landscape assessments can also obscure the effects on forests of pellet production as opposed to other uses of the wood such as making furniture or paper, says Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. If forests are managed so that “they have no net growth, that’s negative for climate change”, he adds. Preventing additional growth is “so obviously wrong. Why does [the industry’s argument] take people in?”

The industry is keen to impress that it does not cut down trees that would otherwise remain standing. Instead, pellets are made largely from wood residues — such as offcuts from trees harvested for other purposes — that would normally go to waste or end up rotting.

“The forest is never harvested for biomass,” since it is more profitable to use the wood for furniture  or other products, says Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general of trade association Bioenergy Europe.

Non-profit organisations dispute this, and point to photos of trucks piled high with tree trunks en route to pellet mills. Belinda Joyner, a resident of Garysburg, North Carolina, who has spoken out against the nearby Enviva mill, says the trucks driving through town carry “whole trees”, adding: “I’ve never seen a truck with little logs.”

Enviva says concerns about whole trees are “one of the most common misperceptions . . . An untrained or uneducated eye often mistakes low-value wood for high-value lumber.” Large logs might be diseased or deformed, and unable to be used for other purposes, the company adds.

Net zero emission plans around the world map out an increasing use of biomass as countries race to dump fossil fuel energy. The IEA’s latest decarbonisation report estimates that the amount of land dedicated to bioenergy production could rise from 330m hectares in 2020 to 410m in 2050 — an increase roughly equivalent to the size of Turkey — if bioenergy use jumps as expected Stressing the need to proceed carefully, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre warned this year that most EU countries’ energy and climate plans did not “include an adequate assessment of the potential impacts of expanding forest bioenergy”. Only one out of the 24 woody biomass scenarios it modelled was likely to pose no risk to biodiversity and deliver short-term climate benefits, it concluded.

How the fuel is used may also change. Some strategies for reaching net zero talk about coupling biomass with nascent carbon capture and storage technology, which advocates say will generate “negative emissions”, in effect removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Critics say the technology is unproven at scale, and that negative emissions are only achievable if the biomass fuel is definitely carbon neutral. Without guarantees that it is, “we should certainly not be going full steam ahead” with the technology, says Phil MacDonald, chief operating officer at think-tank Ember Climate. “In theory, it can work,” he adds. But “you have to get things precisely correct along a complex supply chain.”

In its 2020 emissions inventory, the EU said the “very strong increase in the use of biomass for energy” had reduced carbon pollution across the region, though did not say by how much. will pay? Europe’s bold plan on emissions risks political blowback A lobbyist familiar with the discussions in Brussels, speaking on condition of anonymity, says changes beyond those outlined in the leaked document are likely, and that efforts are under way to limit which types of forest biomass are eligible for subsidies. “The challenge” for lawmakers is partly how drastic changes will be seen, he adds: the EU may have to “stand up in public and [say] what we have been doing . . . hasn’t worked”.

Martin Pigeon, from environmental campaign group Fern, says the  commission is “really split internally”, and there is “a serious fight going on” between the energy and environment departments. “Timmermans and [commission president Ursula] von der Leyen seem to be trying to broker a compromise,” he adds. But the risk is that the commission continues to “tinker at the edges of current sustainability criteria . . . without [producing] anything of substance”. In the US, green groups are hoping the Biden administration steers clear of biomass as it works towards its new goal of halving emissions by 2030.

The controversy in the EU over how biomass has been classified and used — including the subsidy system that incentivises its use — should be a “cautionary tale”, says Laura Haight, US policy director at the PFPI. “It’s essential that we define our policies carefully so that we don’t have the outcome that [they have] had.

Broadwater power station NSW

Cross the Green Mountain – Bob Dylan’s Americana

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

Recently, I’ve been enjoying very much the Definitely Dylan podcasts produced and narrated by broadcaster Laura Tenschert, a board member at the Institute of Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma (and yes, you’ve read it right – the Bobster is now a legitimate focus for the academy). With an enchanting Celtic lilt, she brings a fresh, and indeed very original perspective in her exploration of Dylan’s work. Listen, do!

This week, the New York Review of Books published an essay by one of Laura’s Institute colleagues, addressing Bob Dylan’s lyrical narratives of American history. Across the six decades of his career, Bob Dylan has mined America’s past for images, characters, and events that speak to the nation’s turbulent present. And Sean Wilenz discusses in some detail the chronological development of Dylan’s historical songs from With God on Our Side, to Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, to Blind Willie McTell, to Tempest, and the to the history overload of his latest album of original songs Rough and Rowdy Ways, and most specifically in Murder Most Foul. But what caught my  attention, was Cross the Green Mountain.

Now, I’ve been tangled up in Bob Dylan for near on sixty years. Neither a fanatic nor a completist, I bob (yes, I know – bad pun!) out and back in. And sometimes I miss stuff. I missed Blind Willie McTelI, and it is now one of my Dylan favourites. I missed Love and Theft, but caught up with great pleasure – Mississippi is a gem! And I deliberately ignored his take on The Great American Songbook. Diana Krall does it better and she’s also a hot pianist and gorgeous.

And I missed Cross the Green Mountain, which he wrote for the soundtrack of Ted Turner’s American Civil War film Gods and Generals. Though based on a successful book, the film sank without trace. Ted was a Civil War aficionado – he joined the serried ranks of Civil War recreationalists in the epic, hours-long Gettysburg – in the forlorn hope that was Pickett’s Charge, the denouement of that harrowing two day battle. Bob’s song ended up in one of his many Bootleg releases.  Here is a truncated version featuring footage from Turner’s film. You can listen to the the complete song together wit Sean’s essay, below.

It is a remarkable song, drawing on a multitude of theological, literary, and historical sources. Sonic ally, it seems to me to reflect the mood and ambiance of the 1997 album Time Out Of Mind, and specifically It’s Not Dark Yet, and also, 2001’s Love and Theft. A blog called Waxing Lyrical describes it thus.

Cross the Green Mountain is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.

In the his NYRB essay, Sean Wilentz writes:

“Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song”.

And he concludes his review of Bob Dylan as a historian thus:

“It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.”

Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there

It’s a gloomy conclusion. For many, however, the glass is half full rather than half empty. As Paul Simon sang In American Tune, “we come in the age’s most uncertain hour and sing an American tune”. But he also added: “you can’t be forever blessed”.

The United States of America is more than North and South, Red and Blue. There are probably more than two Americas: North, South, Black, White, East and West Coast, and the Mid West; the heirs of the Mid 19th Century Know Nothings, nativists and immigrants, and indigenous, and more. It is the country of Trump and his carpetbaggers and of the tele-evangelists, the bitter and twisted, revanchist and retro America, the dangerously blinkered and overconfident America driven by its creation myths of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. But it is also, the America of Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Quad compadres. It is Walt Whitman’s America and the America of Herman Melville and John Steinbeck. It is the America of Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. It is Leonard Bernstein’s America, Paul Simon’s America, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s America.

As Leonard Cohen said, America is “the cradle of the best and the worst”.

But outsiders do indeed look at America today and shake their heads in wonder.

I have prayed for America
I was made for America
It’s in my blood and in my bones
By the dawn’s early light
By all I know is right
We’re going to reap what we have sown
Jackson Brown, from Lives in The Balance

Both the NYRB and Waxing Lyrical articles are republished in fill below.

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

Bob Dylan, Historian

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

This essay is adapted from a keynote lecture delivered at a conference to honor Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday, “Dylan @ 80,” convened by the Bob Dylan Institute at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 24, 2021.

Bob Dylan performing at a SNCC voter registration drive, Mississippi, 1963

Two American presidents, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, bite the dust on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s latest record (his thirty-ninth studio album, released last year), and a third, Harry S. Truman, pops up on the next-to-last track, on Mystery Street off Mallory Square in Key West, where Truman had his winter White House. Elsewhere on the album, we cross the Rubicon with Julius Caesar; and on the beautiful song “Mother of Muses,” three Union senior officers from the Civil War as well as two great commanders from World War II (one American, one Soviet), clear the way for Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. This is not the same phenomenon as the appearance of Ma Rainey and Beethoven, emblems as much as people, in “Tombstone Blues” on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan brings a different kind of history to bear on this album, though hardly for the first time in his writing. Mystery Street doesn’t actually exist—it’s the one spot in the Key West song that’s imagined—but it is at the center of everything in that liminal paradise, just on Dylan’s horizon line. Once you get to the Mystery, it seems, you’ll find History dwelling there.

This in itself is highly unusual, as few songwriters if any have exhibited Dylan’s historical knowledge, let alone his historical consciousness. In Dylan’s case, though, history is only one branch of knowledge and creativity that absorbs him: whether it’s a Juvenal satire or a picture at an exhibition or a recording of Robert Johnson, Dylan responds by breaking things down, trying to understand how they work and what makes them different from everything else. As the critic Greil Marcus recently noted, it’s helpful to think of Dylan as a scholar, as well as craftsman. Do so and we might better understand how his art works.

But what difference does history—and more specifically, American history—make to Dylan’s work? Dylan has long populated his songs with historical characters, as well as characters from the territory where history shades into legend, and his work is never too far from the larger American mythos emanating from its rough and rowdy past, with its gamblers, prophets, false prophets, and outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Lenny Bruce. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Dylan writes, convincingly, of reading deeply in history books once he’d reached Greenwich Village, and of how figures such as the antislavery and civil rights congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who had “a clubfoot like Byron,” made a deep and lasting impression on him.

Dylan has also often seemed to depart from the mental clatter of the present, by living according to a time-warped calendar, in which the Galveston flood or the great Mississippi flood or the sinking of the Titanic have only just happened. Long ago, he has said, he discovered in folk songs a parallel universe of old-fashioned virtues and actions; and in time, that universe became real, so that if someone asked what was happening, the answer was (to take another assassination) that President Garfield had been shot down and there was nothing anybody could do, just as Bascom Lamar Lunsford sang it. “All of this was current, played out and in the open,” Dylan writes, of his Village days. “This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.” It’s hard to listen to the last two decades of Dylan’s compositions especially and not hear him living in some version of that time warp and pulling his listeners into it, too.

How does he go about it? Well, for one thing, he studies. For a historian, it was fascinating, even thrilling to read, in Dylan’s memoir, of the young rising artist’s visiting the New York Public Library and researching in American newspapers from the Civil War era on microfilm to help calm his mind. Of course, it may never have happened: although I can attest to the book’s spiritual accuracy about the Village in the early Sixties, the author of Chronicles also fabricates, which tells you something about Dylan and his relationship with history. (Indeed, I’m not entirely certain whether he really first encountered Thaddeus Stevens in the early Sixties, when most historians portrayed Stevens as a deformed, vindictive radical, or if he only discovered him later.)

Still, Dylan builds his fantasies from facts, and it was exciting to read of his carefully studying primary historical sources, as assuredly he does. Such was the routine until the Internet made microfilm largely obsolete—and the thought of an ambitious Bob Dylan’s seeking inspiration by threading one of those strips of film into one of those plastic or metal reels on one of those archaic machines, then turning a knob or pressing a lever, trying to keep everything in focus, just as we once did, felt like a kind of validation of his work and, I suppose, of mine. That Dylan remains fascinated with documents from the nineteenth century was affirmed recently by the historian Douglas Brinkley, reporting on Dylan’s research into the details of the gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.

What Dylan takes from the past obviously isn’t the same as what the average historian does; the differences and the similarities are equally important. Dylan is no stickler for the kind of factual accuracy that the historian’s craft demands but that the songwriter’s safely ignores. When someone asked E. L. Doctorow if Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit ever met, as they do in his novel Ragtime, Doctorow replied, “They have now.” That’s the spirit Dylan works into his songs.

“A songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.” Yet to discover and express that kind of truth requires knowing as much as you can about what actually happened, as much as any historian might hope to. This is surely the reason, I imagine, why Dylan pressed Brinkley for all that he knows about what happened at Sand Creek (which turns out to have been be much less than Dylan had already learned from his studies.).

A trained historian commonly dives into sources with a particular topic or line of narrative in mind and can block out the rest. Dylan, though, can get disoriented and nearly overwhelmed by the unexpected. “The issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern,” he writes in Chronicles of the 1850s. “There were news items about reform movements, antigambling leagues, rising crime, child labor, temperance, slave-wage factories, loyalty oaths and religious revivals. You get the feeling the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everyone will perish.”

Once over his bewilderment, though, Dylan soon surpasses most historians in quickly building a syncretic sense of the whole. For example, Civil War–era America, as he says he discovered it a century later, was an unrealistic, grandiose, immensely suffering land, riven by clashing comprehensions of time itself. Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, the Declaration of Independence, checks and balances, everything Americans supposedly prided themselves on—indeed, reason itself—could carry you only so far. “After a while,” he continues, “you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.” Shine a light on that America, he writes, and “you could see the full complexity of human nature,” in a place that did not at all resemble the America of the Sixties, “but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot.” A reasonable man tracking unreason, Dylan offers a summary metaphor, more pithy and powerful than any historian would ordinarily use: “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected.” As important is where Dylan later claimed that perception took him: “The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”

That shows how seriously Dylan takes history. And looking back at some of his major efforts at historical perception, from his early songwriting through Rough and Rowdy Ways, it’s plain that his use of history has matured and become more sophisticated and nuanced over the decades.

A mural by Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2020 Brian Peterson/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Dylan debuted his first obviously historical song, “With God on Our Side,” written when he was twenty-one years old, at Town Hall in April 1963. Although it became something of a favorite over the next couple of years, most famously as performed with Joan Baez, it fell out of his repertoire in 1965, and has remained largely untouched ever since. A sanctimonious lecture about American sanctimony—a counternarrative to what he portrays as the false one the history books tell us—the song is in keeping with an easy iconoclasm, asserting that the American history you’ve been fed is a pack of lies designed to glorify war and conquest. That easy iconoclasm is very much with us amid today’s social and political turmoil, but many of the feelings, as well as observations, inside that song are long out-of-date, stuck inside the high cold war, ban-the-bomb period of American antiwar protest, when every day felt as if human existence was on the brink of superpower thermonuclear annihilation. (In 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was falling, the Neville Brothers recorded an updated version of the song that substituted a new verse about Vietnam for the original one about World War II and the Holocaust. It didn’t catch on.)

As a songwriter’s history lesson, “With God on Our Side” is barely coherent. It has a point to make about the US military’s slaughter of the Indians, and maybe another about the futility of World War I. About the Spanish–American War, though, all it can is say is that the war had its day, whatever that means. It doesn’t know what to make of the Civil War, by which, a historian might point out, the US Army and Navy, with upward of 200,000 Black recruits, nearly half of them formerly enslaved, killing and dying to the strains of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” effectively brought about slavery’s abolition—something the emancipated reasonably regarded as a godly outcome. The song’s most graphic, unsettling line concerns not American war crimes but Nazi Germany’s eradication of the Jews. The song’s final betrayal, of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, though assuredly timeless, invokes absolute evil in ways that reduce American history into foreshortened fable.

What can be said on behalf of the song is that it expresses an outrage, utterly innocent of tragedy, which encapsulates the first two critical lessons anyone needs to learn about American history alongside its achievements and promise: first, that the deadly gap between reality and the nation’s proud, sometimes messianic professions has, at its worst, been real and too often wide; and second, that America the beautiful also has some twisted roots planted in dark and bloody ground. “With God on Our Side” is a preachy song that Dylan had to outgrow, but without its historical foundation, there would have been much less for him to grow on.

“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” written less than two years later and released on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, is no less a protest song than “With God on Our Side,” but the similarities end there. One of the first efforts in Dylan’s shift from folk to rock, it is seemingly a song about what used to be called the discovery of America, and it is as rollickingly uplifting and zany as its predecessor was sententious and leaden. The recorded version opens with a carefully edited false start, but the musicians regroup for a six-and-a-half-minute roller-coaster ride, more joyful than scary, a display of clackety exuberance that brushes the guardrails yet stays on course. Dylan has written of how much, in his early New York years, he came to admire the frenzied comic work of the downtown artist Red Grooms, and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” sounds like a Red Grooms composition put to music. That Dylan has thought to perform it publicly only six more times since that recording session fifty-odd years ago might signal that, unusually for him, he’s decided he likes the recorded version well enough that there’s little to be gained from revisiting it.

Unlike “With God on Our Side,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” puts us in a real, if also fantasized, historical place—“I think I’ll call it America,” Captain Ahab/A-rab announces early on from his ship as the place comes into view. The song gives us a couple of actual historical names and events—but, as in a dream, the names slip: A-rab’s ship starts out as the Mayflower then morphs into the Pequod; and at the end, when A-rab and the crew prepare to shove off back to sea, they spot the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailing their way, to discover an America that’s already been discovered. And so, as the names slip, time does, too.

The song’s protagonist, one of A-rab’s men, was already familiar to Dylan listeners from an earlier song, the Chaplinesque figure, assumed to be a traveling salesman, forever getting in and out of jams in “Motorpsycho Nitemare” (of which “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is a rewrite, with the identical melody). But this time, the maybe salesman is a hipster sailor traveling across a historical landscape where it’s sometimes 1620, sometimes 1851, sometimes 1492, but always 1965 as well—and could just as easily be America today, which is really the point. From the start, when A-rab, momentarily transformed into Peter Minuit on Manhattan, sets about writing deeds, building a fort, and buying the place with wampum, America’s history collapses into stories of sharp dealers and confidence men, with a handsome ambiguous male waitress dressed in a powder-blue cape, and an undertaker who’s only interested if you’re dead, and people demanding not “Ban the Bomb” but “Ban the Bums” along what Peter Stuyvesant knew as the Bouwerie—an America that always has been and always will be: a newfound land that is frantic, exasperating, jumbled, and irrational beyond the point of absurdity.

Eighteen years later, in 1983, Dylan wrote what some have considered a historical masterpiece.“Blind Willie McTell” is as allusive as “With God on Our Side” is didactic, and as spare and exact as “115th Dream” is rambunctiously ramshackle. It’s another traveling song, but this time, the road is time, starting in a condemned Southland soaked with martyrs’ blood, moving back to the closing-down of a nighttime country tent show, then further back to slavery days and the Civil War, then up to the present via a chain gang and rebel yells, ending with the traveler on the road, his mind on the recurring, punctuating presence of Blind Willie McTell, the Georgia songwriter and bluesman who made his name recording in the 1920s and 1930s. The song offers a lesson about human greed and corruption, envisaged inside Southern history, born of slavery’s whips, the Middle Passage, and Sherman’s March to the Sea, yet with a trace of redemption, or, at any rate, of enduring beauty, and heard as sung and played in a blind black man’s blues.

I’ve sometimes seen “Blind Willie McTell” described as an updated protest song, intended to chart the continuing tragedy and suffering of Blacks in the American new world, and that’s there to be heard in the version recorded nearly forty years ago. But Dylan famously had doubts about the song in 1983 because he didn’t think it was finished, which is why it didn’t appear on Infidels, and, although it’s now esteemed, even beloved among Dylan’s songs, he’s struggling with it still. In contrast to “With God on Our Side” and “115th Dream,” he’s performed it frequently in concert (more than two hundred times since 1997), but over the years, the song has changed and continues to. None of Dylan’s work is fixed, but some songs are less fixed than others, and “Blind Willie McTell” is one of those—though even so, as with every song he alters, the original version never disappears. It is a matter of multiplication, not substitution.

Dylan’s current version of “Blind Willie McTell” eliminates the verse about burning plantations and slavery’s ships; and the chain gang and the rebel yells are gone, too. The song now confines itself historically more or less to McTell’s own time, or maybe as far back as the 1880s; and the verse that is now one of the two remaining historical verses, involving a woman and a fine young handsome man, notes that “Some of them died in the battle/Some of them survived as well,” leaving both “them” and the battle they fought to the listener’s imagination.

I can’t say why Bob Dylan has struggled with the song or why the struggle has led him here, but just as history seriously rendered has ironies and ambiguities as well as certainties, so a master of ambiguity has made this historical song more ambiguous, the suffering less specific, less singular, and less explicit, yet leaving nothing easy about it; while the “power and greed and corruptible seed” that the singer sees everywhere taint us all.

Ironies, more than ambiguities, mark what was, until recently, Dylan’s most ambitious and dedicated work of history: “’Cross the Green Mountain,” written nearly twenty years after “Blind Willie McTell” as part of a film soundtrack, one bright spot in an otherwise abysmal Ted Turner movie about the Civil War. In a mournful arrangement notable for Larry Campbell’s keening fiddle, and written in the style Dylan showcased two years earlier on Love and Theft (released, as luck had it, on September 11, 2001), it is a song of war that the precocious author of “With God on Our Side” could scarcely have imagined writing, yet with a curious possible connection to that older song.

Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song.

Two striking verses, both reworkings of relatively obscure Civil War poems, spring cruel ironic traps, with a touch of Ambrose Bierce’s spirit, as well as Whitman’s. The first, containing a line lifted from an Ohio-born Confederate poet, relates the moment of the death of “our Captain,” “killed outright he was by his own men.” The second, a condensed rewrite of one of Whitman’s lesser-known poems, relates a mother’s initial shock at receiving a letter that her son has been severely wounded, shock relieved by the letter’s assurance that he has survived and is recovering in a hospital bed—“but,” the narrator encroaches, “he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.”

The living God’s presence pervades “’Cross the Green Mountain,” as something real and not an instrument for warmongering propaganda. But as the song’s cruel ironies dramatize, God’s ways are as inscrutable as His purposes. In that inscrutability, there is an important restatement of “With God on Our Side,” with a twist and a much deeper resonance. There is no godly side in “’Cross the Green Mountain”—Dylan certainly chooses no sides, either in the poetry borrowed or the stories related. And while we know that both Northerners and Southerners prayed to the same God and proclaimed He was on their side, in the song, at least, the Almighty picks neither.

Instead, Dylan writes of “an avenging God,” to whom all must yield—but whom or what, exactly, is God avenging? Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, began at one point to indict blasphemous Southern justifications of slavery—slavery, which he called the fundamental cause of the war—but he stopped short, lest he turn pharisaical, remarking, “Let us judge not that we be not judged.” Lincoln ventured, rather, that God had inflicted terrible carnage on both the North and the South, as both sides had shared in “the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” Dylan, who has certainly read Lincoln’s address, is chiefly interested in other aspects of the war, but his invocation of God the Avenger, smiting “the land of the rich and the free,” squares with Lincoln’s.

Just past sixty years old when he recorded “’Cross the Green Mountain,” Dylan has, over the two decades since, seen the world in which he started out crumble to dust, and watched fiercely urgent events he wrote about in traditional forms pass into history. He was drawn, early on, to the ballad form, not simply as the source of mythic archetypes like John Henry and Stagolee but also as a means of rendering deadly incidents of injustice that touched him. He has lived long enough now for his once-current ballads to become as ancient-seeming as the original ones that inspired him. Give or take a few years, today we stand as distant in time from the killings of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Hattie Carroll as Dylan stood, in 1963, from the killings of William “Billy” Lyons in “Stagolee,” Albert Britt in “Frankie and Albert,” and Delia Green in “Delia.” Longevity has similarly shaped Dylan’s most recent approaches to history, as he has inhabited old ballads about monumental catastrophes from well before his time and invented new ones about catastrophes he remembers well.

Other songwriters’ ballads about the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, form a subgenre all their own, with a dozen or more different compositions, of which Lead Belly’s “The Titanic” and the campfire favorite “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down” are among the best known. Of all these, Dylan’s “Tempest” (from the album of the same name, released in 2012) is by far the longest, its melody and some of the lyrics lifted from the Carter Family’s “The Titanic,” recorded in 1956. Dylan must have thought the Carters’ version unfinished, and he supplied the missing material, including a couple of time-warp cameos by Leonardo DiCaprio, borrowed, in turn, from James Cameron’s overblown movie. There is a recurring tragic note of a sleeping watchman, but otherwise, the song is a plain yet progressively riveting account that turns to horror: a chaos of floating dead bodies, flooded cabins, and exploding engine rooms, at times resembling a Civil War battle in which, as Dylan sings of the sinking ship, “Brother rose up against brother/In every circumstance/They fought and slaughtered each other/In a deadly dance.” The song offers vignettes of unreflective heroism alongside vignettes of betrayal, human nature in all its complexity amid the disaster.

And so, finally, eight years after that song—that is, in the plague year of 2020—Dylan’s historical quest brought him to the venerable presidential assassination genre with the song “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. He would have known the traditional songs “Charles Guiteau” (about James Garfield’s assassin) and “White House Blues” (about William McKinley’s death) no later than when he first listened to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952, in which both appear. Around the same time, he would also have heard Bascom Lamar Lunsford performing “Mr. Garfield” on Lunsford’s Smoky Mountain Ballads album, which had been released by Folkways in 1953.

Long-mislaid manuscripts from late 1963, rediscovered and later obtained by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, and Nash in 1989, show that Dylan was deeply affected by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, scribbling lines that included what would become the central image in “Chimes of Freedom.” His only public reaction at the time of that event consisted of his notorious, bungled, confrontational remarks three weeks later, upon receiving a civil liberties award, about seeing something of Lee Harvey Oswald in his own alienated self. He later denied that Kennedy’s killing had stunned him: If it had so affected him, he asked, why hadn’t he written a song about it? Today, just at the point when his songs from 1963 are passing from memory into history, he has written “Murder Most Foul” as a kind of incantatory ballad.

Kennedy’s murder inspired an important song in 1966, perhaps Phil Ochs’s finest, “Crucifixion,” even if its starry imagery, recalling Whitman’s elegy to President Lincoln, at times whirls a little grandly. (Ochs suggested his song was not only about JFK but about Dylan himself, also.) Like Ochs, Dylan presents Kennedy as a lamb led to ritual slaughter. Dylan, however, wishes for little imagery: although the song warps time and constructs its own truth, “Murder Most Foul” is as literal as can be, as literal as the Zapruder film (the footage that is described by the song’s narrator as ugly, vile, and deceitful, but which he has watched thirty-three times or more, trying and failing to make sense of what happened). Unlike the older assassination songs, which focus on the assassin or the deed’s aftermath, “Murder Most Foul” dwells on the actual killing, one cold fact after another feeding the tale, to the point at which Kennedy himself—though, in reality, his head would have just been shattered by the assassin’s bullet—describes falling into his wife’s lap, realizing in a flash he’s been caught in a trap.

The song begins by describing the assassination as a coolly calculated conspiracy, with Kennedy, like Julius Caesar, murdered shamelessly, mockingly, in the broad light of day. The singer then calls upon a mysterious wolfman to howl about the evil deed, when suddenly the song jumps from 1963 to 1964 and the Beatles’ arrival in the US, and then moves ahead in time to the rise and fall of the hippies’ Aquarian Age. Yet the irrepressible evil deed just as suddenly intrudes, uncontained; time slips, bits and pieces from the assassination story swirling around and piling up and blotting out the rest.

The Who’s Acid Queen flashes but swiftly disappears into the song’s most horrible couplets, placing us inside the presidential Lincoln at the fatal instant. We then encounter what seems like an odd reference to Patsy Cline, which in turn refers to Lee Harvey Oswald as a “patsy,” no longer a fellow alienated young man as Dylan had pegged him in 1963 but a fall guy.

Then, out of nowhere, the mysterious wolfman reappears, and he’s none other than the famous rock-and-roll disc jockey Wolfman Jack, crazed, shouting, speaking in tongues, just maybe a prophet, and it’s radio request time, and thence begins the better part of the entire second half of Dylan’s longest song ever, a six-hundred-word cascade of callouts, from Nat King Cole to On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy to Etta James to Charlie Parker, some of the best of what America has had to offer the world (plus Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata), tilting to the years since World War II. As in “Blind Willie McTell,” redemption or at least beauty glimmers out of a monstrousness that one of the song’s characters suggests has marked the arrival of the Antichrist. Yet nothing seems to work, and as the requests rampage, the fatal day returns to the song like a revenant, one more time. The perfectly timed bullet left the nation forever changed, forever conflicted, forever haunted: “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell,” the song concludes, Dylan’s voice combining elements of fear, resignation, and menace, “Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’—play ‘Murder Most Foul.’” The song becomes a part of the mercurial history it has just related, a history from which there seems to be no escape.

Dylan has studied the events closely, right down to the minute when Lyndon B. Johnson got sworn in. He connects Dealey Plaza with different layers of American culture, from the horror franchise Nightmare on Elm Street to the legendary Dallas barrelhouse and red-light district from which the traditional song “Deep Ellum Blues” takes its name, two miles from the old Texas School Book Depository sitting at 411 Elm Street. He sees the assassination as a ripping point, not a tipping point, when the three Graces died and when the nation, its soul torn away, began “to go into a slow decay.” With the full story unknowable, never to come out—“What is the truth, where did it go/Ask Oswald and Ruby—they oughta know”—“Murder Most Foul” is in part about the nation’s calamitous failure to come to terms with what happened. You don’t need to buy into the song’s conspiratorial set-up, reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s paranoid fantasy film JFK—which might even appear to be a symptom of the cynical nihilism that the assassination unleashed and that has poisoned the nation—in order to find its larger point deeply moving, the point about reckoning and failing to reckon with the dreadful moment in November 1963, when the fall of America began.

More history appears in the songs that precede “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. In “Mother of Muses,” which sounds inspired by something he’d seen in the Nobel Prize medal that he finally picked up in 2017, Dylan looks back in honor to the military he’d denigrated in his 1963 song, when he sang about “the names of the heroes/l’s made to memorize/With guns in their hands/And God on their side.” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” weaves subtle references to the dead bluesman into a juxtaposition of holiness and sex that is at least as old as the tent show in “Blind Willie McTell.” The awful killing of President McKinley as rendered by Charlie Poole’s slightly macabre 1926 recording of “White House Blues”—not the shooting itself, which the song barely mentions, but McKinley’s unexpected death from gangrene eight days later—is the entryway to Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a dreamlike song about a divine paradise, way down at the end of the line.

Bob Dylan performing in Hyde Park, London, England, July 12, 2019
Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for ABA

Thus, then nearing eighty, Dylan concluded his latest meditations, with American history all over the place. It turns out that Dylan was being straight in Chronicles, if not necessarily about every detail of what happened in 1961, then about a deeper truth in all that followed: if the songs have been, as he has said, his lexicon and prayer book, the American past has come to serve as his template for viewing, in a multitude of ways, an explosive culture of feeling, a place where human nature is visible in its full complexity. In his historical view, this is an America utterly different from our own and yet, in some mysterious and traditional way, not so different at all.

Along with the raging mayhem of history, there has been, also, a powerful elegiac quality to Dylan’s recent songwriting in this vein: a backward glance over traveled roads that appears elsewhere in his recent output, especially in the paintings of American cityscapes and byways in his “The Beaten Path Series,” first exhibited in 2016. That quality, which pervades Rough and Rowdy Ways, actually dates back many years, before Chronicles, and is tied to a feeling that a time is soon coming, if not already here, when truth will be erased and, with it, traditional songs and even history itself. Then, he intimates, anything that came before the here-and-now will be time out of mind. “Look out! there wont be songs like this anymore, factually there arent any now,” he wrote in his liner notes to World Gone Wrong, back in 1993. It’s become a late autumnal feeling in his work—call it November-ish, while recalling that November 22, 1963, was a hot, sunny day in Dallas—a feeling that speaks to a wider condition that has built to this very moment.

It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.

Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton. His most recent book is Richard Hofstadter: Anti-­Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays, 1956–1965, the first in a multivolume edition of Hofstadter’s work that he is editing for the Library of America. (July 2021)

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

In a lifetime of writing and performing music, Bob Dylan has constructed a considerable body of work comprised of innumerable songs that speak to individual listeners in distinct yet profound ways. It is my belief that Dylan’s song writing abilities have only increased with the passing years, and that the some of the songs he has composed since his creative “rebirth” in the late 1980’s are equal – if not superior – to anything he wrote in the halcyon days of his youth. I think that whilst his earlier lyrics captured the desired spirit of a generation – which ultimately catapulted Dylan to the forefront of public consciousness – in a more powerful and immediately persuasive manner, I think that in reaching maturity, Dylan has even more to say; and his breadth of understanding of history, contemporary society and his craft has allows him to  articulate lyrics that are considerably more controlled than the lyrics of youth, but that don’t compromise the extent to which evocative imagery and alluring ambiguity operate as key components of his style.

Songs such as “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Ain’t Talkin” and “Not Dark Yet” are magnificent songs that contain lyrics of the highest calibre. It is the depth and complexity of ideas and feeling that render them works of such stark beauty. They also typify Dylan’s current style of ambiguous and resonant simplicity, as opposed to the unrestrained, passionate imagery of earlier times. Each of these songs deserves fulsome analysis, if only to ensure time is actually given over to enjoying them. But it is “’Cross the Green Mountain – Dylan’s contribution to the largely unwatched civil war film, “Gods and Generals” – that in my opinion sits on par with his finest ever lyrics. It is a bold, rich, evocative and ultimately redemptive exploration of conflict on earth. It may take the American Civil War as an inspiration, but the implications of the themes it contains transcend historical connections. It certainly seems to have been designed to encourage listeners to forge meaningful connections between events, peoples and concepts; the very kinds of connections that I would argue that Dylan views as necessary to avoid the kind of bloodshed that he evokes so poignantly.

The song opens with a multilayered invitation to an experience grounded in reality and reflection, via the allusion to dreams and flood. The framing of the ensuing narrative with the context of “monstrous” dream lends the entire lyric a reflective and meditative air. The image of something rising out of the sea seems an image readily associated with the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2005; an event contemporaneous with the song’s origins.

The final lines of the opening stanza attain a level of authoritative ambiguity that Dylan sustains throughout the lyric; the ominous notion of something rising Leviathan-like out of the sea – a kind of vengeful force. But what is interesting is why a vengeful force would strike a land rich and free; intriguingly, the “otherness” of ‘something’ obscures motive, and Dylan’s selection of “rich” as opposed to brave suggests some uncomfortable possibilities.

The image of a “merciful friend” in the song’s second verse conjures an image of death as saviour or one capable of offering release from struggle or strife; but Dylan blurs this redemptive distinction through the placing the image within a question, and then transfers the narrative from the present to the future tense in a manner that accentuates doubt and emotive resonance, rather an any kind of reassuring certainty.

The concluding lines of the second verse are amongst Dylan’s very best. He twists the Shakespearean sentiment of parting as sweet sorrow into a subversive rejoinder, where in death, the departed meet. In the context of a lyric penned as an accompaniment to a civil war dramatisation, one wonders of whom Dylan is thinking when he “thinks of the souls in heaven who will meet”, as the notion of those on opposing sides meeting and accepting each other in death is a tragic counterpoint from which to consider lives lived and lost in brutal conflict.

The apocalyptic imagery of burning altars in the first couplet of the song’s third verse acts an horrific counterpoint to the battleground imagery of advancing troops in its second. Significantly, Dylan moves fluidly, if mysteriously, from either side of the rather abstract conflict that he recounts, so that listeners cannot easily align themselves to the conflict’s heroes. His shifting, elegiac and compassionate narrative dissolves the hero-villain dichotomy into something far more human, and more tragic.

The notion of a foe having crossed over from the other side is mordant and obtuse, an image that, in the context of far-reaching flames most strongly evokes the notion of the devil walking amongst man. It’s a disconcerting image, as is the notion of those soldiers with “more brave blood to spill”, whose sacrifice is simultaneously poignant and pointless, driven both by honour, desperation, and bloodlust. No wonder the flames fall wide, and that the foe has crossed over; it is as though the actions of man have enlarged hell itself.

The shift from foe to God in the fifth verse is startling; suggesting perhaps that an  “avenging God” and the foe could be one and the same. The wide streets and dim lines seem oddly redolent of the chartered world of Blake’s “London”; a comparably savage mediation on troubled times. It segues poignantly into one of those eminently quotable Dylan lines sagely reminding us that “lessons of life can’t be learned in a day”. In this context, the grey world seems a neglected pot of wisdom, unwisely discarded.

It’s here that again the boundaries between historical account and contemporary reflection blur darkly. And the fact that our narrator listens while he “stands” is a fascinating detail. Within lies the possibly that this is an act of remembrance, and that the music from a far better land is that of the past, or of Heaven. It’s curious that the natural tendency is to extrapolate forward or backwards in order to locate the better land, even though it may be a lateral leap that is required. Perhaps inevitably, Dylan has drawn upon the innate ethnocentrism inherent in all cultural examinations. The important question that remains all but unanswered is the source of the superiority of the better land; but the return to conflict and loss in the following verse gives a world-weary clue.

The death of the Captain seems drawn with the broad brush-strokes of an oil painting; the lament for what horridly would be termed today a “friendly fire” death seems a poetic tragedy, reclaimed in this context from the self-serving euphemism of the ‘friendly fire’ cliché. There is also, buried within these lines subtle allusion to rebellion and to mutiny; and the “great” is as much an affectation as it is affection. Again, Dylan has selected imagery that is readily interpretable, but with multiple, frequently contradictory possibilities.

In the following stanza, where a seeming time of judgement draws inexorably closer, the “unknown world’s” nature can be simultaneously seen from opposing sides: one on hand it is the hellish uncertainty subsequent to an annihilated world, but on another, it is the world beyond the vicious vices of mankind, where even virtue – perhaps no longer needed in Dylan’s utopia – exists only as memory. The “happy year” images makes the former more plausible than the latter, but both readings exist on an implicit level, and it is the latter interpretation’s presence that shades the deathly imagery of the lyric with such profound melancholy.

The assertive declarative tone of the lyric’s eighth verse is fascinating yet elusively troubling. The notions of blasphemy are disturbing, as is the persona’s exhortation of loyalty to truth and right, in spite of blasphemy being on “every tongue”, which logically must include its own. The irony is resolved only through an embracing of the kind of pluralism that accusations of blasphemy logically preclude through their very existence.

The hectoring self-righteousness of the persona at this point seems satirically designed to induce a knowing inscrutability, one that ultimately coheres with the lyric’s weary blend of compassion and indifference to those involved in the central conflict, albeit in a rather opaque manner. The stated fealty to “truth and to right” seems to be advocating a kind of declarative autonomy fused with an ambiguous incarnation of faith or

fidelity, whereby the writer has simply conveyed things as they are, which serves, bewilderingly, to obfuscate the meaning and message of the lyric still further, behind yet another layer of possible interpretations.

The next verse is one of Dylan’s finest ever creations. It delves further into an exploration of the relationship between purpose, perspective and meaning, with the command to “serve God and be cheerful” seeming both logical and ludicrous in equal measure, in that it may be the only sane choice, in spite of an insane context of war.  The choice to link the instruction to serve with being cheerful is fascinating, in that being cheerful can be read as either the end product of serving God, or a second (necessary or tautological) instruction. Depending on how this enigmatic half-line is read, it is either comforting, cynical or something else again. And yet, the concluding, tense-defying “look upward beyond” with its otherworldly overtones seems to yolk together an existence both earthly and spiritual into a single decree, startling in its fusion of futility and its lack of stated alternatives.

These words connect with the following line via one of Dylan’s better employments of the technique of enjambment, as two distinct meanings emerge from within lines that are distinctly (and rhythmically) complete. The notion of looking upward “beyond/the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn” is a surreal subversion of night and day imagery, as the song (and particularly the music)’s somnambulant creep staggers through a world of dark, disturbing visions; and, rather than emerge into a clear, comforting world, it is the night that becomes the place of certainty – underscoring its allure – thereby reinforcing the notion that our day’s actions are little more than an illusory defence against the true darkness and the empty anxieties of each new day.

In this context, the men’s position within the “green grasses of the bloodstained world” seems strangely logical; as though our day’s delusion will inevitably hold sway over other possibilities. At a stroke, Dylan gently, implicitly endorses the notion that reality is little more than smoke and mirrors, but to set it aside is akin to abandoning consciousness, which is as unfathomable in war time as it is in peace time.

The tenth verse is almost unbearably poignant, with its evocation of a world where ghosts permeate every pore of existence. With a deft shift in emphasis, Dylan’s directs the reader/listener’s gaze from the stars above – and their heavenly associations – to a world where the living are “walking in dreams, whoever you are”. Walking in the dreams of the living, including one’s own. And even more powerfully, walking in the dreams of the dead. It’s a startling image of the spirit world; one that simultaneously decries the futility of war, whilst painting the entirety of existence as a sacred place. The final couplet is tightly focused, suffused with sense of stifled grief that comes in acknowledgement of all that must needs be unspoken in times of tragedy and loss,  both in terms of the loss of human lives in conflict and in the loss of human possibility that inevitably comes from clinging to the coldly familiar and shunning the bright unknown.

The lyric’s penultimate verse is its most personal, with the tantalising personal touch of a wounded soldier and his mother, where the solider lives on – if only for a fleeting, tragic moment – in the illusion of a letter that lists him as wounded, rather than deceased. It’s a deftly cutting dramatic touch, positioning the reader/listener to feel – apart from sympathy for the mother and her son – that the real tragedy is the delusion.

It’s at this point that the narrator detaches from his worldly reportage, signified initially by notions of being “lifted away”, but ultimately realised in its shift to a collective first-person point of view. Here, Dylan pulls off the astonishing narrative trick of rendering the present and future into the past tense, and acts as the conscience and consciousness of the entirety of humanity. In it, two key understandings are offered: that the fate of humanity rests of the surrendering of fear – or perhaps the fear of fear – and the embracing of the uncertainty and weakness inherent in change and growth; and secondly, that the past, present and future are tangible, malleable and extant, and that the world we inhabit is a stranger, darker, more beautiful and more tragic reality than our limited perspectives allow us to see.

“’Cross the Green Mountain” is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.

They say artists hold a candle to the world so we all can see it a little more clearly. On this occasion Dylan’s light is searing, and we can see just how rocky are our surroundings, and just our precarious our footing. But certainty – however daunting – must eventually hold sway over delusion. It’s just that reality might be a little more complex – and considerably less tangible – than we would like it to be.

Bob Dylan – ‘Cross the Green Mountain

I crossed the green mountain, I slept by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up out of the sea
Swept through the land of the rich and the free.

I look into the eyes of my merciful friend
And then I ask myself, is this the end?
Memories linger sad yet sweet
And I think of the souls in heaven who will meet.

Altars are burning with flames falling wide
The foe has crossed over from the other side
They tip their caps from the top of the hill
You can feel them come; more brave blood to spill.

Along the dim Atlantic line
The ravaged land lies for miles behind
The light’s coming forward and the streets are broad
All must yield to the avenging God…

The world is older, the world is grey;
Lessons of life can’t be learned in a day.
I watch and I wait and I listen while I stand
To the music that comes from a far better land.

Close the eyes of our Captain; peace may he know.
His long night is done; the great leader is laid low.
He was ready to fall; he was quick to defend;
Killed outright he was, by his own men.

It’s the last day’s last hour, of the last happy year
I feel that the unknown world is so near
Pride will vanish and glory will rot,
But virtue lives and cannot be forgot.

The bells of evening have rung
There’s blasphemy on every tongue;
Let them say that I walked in fair nature’s light,
And that I was loyal to truth and to right.

Serve god and be cheerful, look upward beyond
Beyond the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn
In the deep green grasses of the bloodstained world
They never dreamed of surrendering; they fell where they stood.

Stars fell over Alabama, I saw each star;
You’re walking in dreams, whoever you are.
Chilled are the skies, keen in the frost
The grounds froze hard, and the morning is lost.

A letter to Mother came today;
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say.
But he’ll be better soon; he’s in a hospital bed.
But he’ll never be better. He’s already dead.

I’m ten miles outside the city and I’m lifted away
In an ancient light at the start of day
They were calm, they were blunt we know them all too well,
We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell.

 

Ghayath al Madhoun – the agony of an exiled poet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madhoun’s entry in Wikipedia is unusually lyrical”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Damascus

I Can’t Attend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translation: Catherine Cobham

I Can’t Attend

لا أستطيعُ الحضور.

غياث المدهون

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I became…

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

… كيف أصب.حتُ

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

Massacre

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

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

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

Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham

المجزرة

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

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

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


The World Refugee Crisis in Brief

The Melancholy Mathematics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But situation in Africa is as dire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From In That Howling Infinite’No Going Home

تصور عودة الفلسطينيين – فن إسماعيل شموط

As a COVID-19 lock-down diversion, In That Howling Infinite has translated the story of the life and art of Ismail Shammout into Arabic:  Visualizing the Palestinian Return – the art of Ismail Shammout. Please excuse any grammatical and vocabulary errors.

قمنا بترجمة قصة حياة وفن إسماعيل شموط إلى اللغة العربية. يرجى إعفاء أي أخطاء نحوية ومفردات

المفتاح والعودة – فلسطين كمجاز

رأى الشاعر الفلسطيني محمود درويش فلسطين وطنًا ولكن أيضًا مجازًا – لفقدان عدن ، وأحزان الطرد والنفي ، من أجل القوة الباهتة للعالم العربي في علاقته مع الغرب (محمود درويش ، فلسطين كمجاز)

نشرت النجمة والأستاذة الفلسطينية الأسترالية نجمة خليل حبيب – ومدرسي للغة العربية في العديد من الفصول الدراسية في جامعة سيدني – ورقة بحثية في مجلة نيبولا عام 2008 تبحث في كيفية عودة “العودة” – موضوع متكرر في الأدب العربي المعاصر. – تم تناوله في الرواية العربية ، وكيف يصور من يعيش حلم “العودة” ومن عاد بالفعل إلى فلسطين بعد حرب 1967 أو بعد اتفاقيات أوسلو.

تكتب: “يتجلى مفهوم” العودة “في هذا الأدب بطرق مختلفة بما في ذلك العودة الروحية (كما يتجلى في الأحلام والتطلعات) ؛ العائد المادي الحرفي ؛ عودة الفرد (“العودة” على أساس لم شمل الأسرة) ؛ “العودة” نتيجة احتلال غزة والضفة الغربية بعد حرب 1967 ؛ و “العودة” نتيجة لعملية السلام بعداتفاقيات أوسلو“.

Al Mufta مفتاح

المفتاح ، المفتاح ، المفتاح هو رمز دائم للعودة. وهي موجودة في فن الشارع وفي اللافتات والملصقات في جميع أنحاء فلسطين وفي مخيمات اللاجئين. إنه رمز ، لذكرى ، يعود في يوم من الأيام – إلى المنازل الضائعة ، القرى ، الضواحي ، البلدات ، الأرواح وسبل العيش. كما يكتب نغمه ، “العودة” (العودة) متأصلة بعمق في الذاكرة الجماعية الفلسطينية. إنها متجذرة في ضميرهم كإيمان لا يمكن إنكاره ، لأن إنكاره سيعني اقتلاع العقدة التي يعتمد عليها التاريخ والهوية الفلسطينية الحديثة ”.

ولكن بالنسبة للكثيرين ، هو أكثر من ذلك. كتب نجمة: “سواء حدث النفي طوعًا أو في ظل ظروف قمعية ، فإن حلم العودة إلى الوطن يبقى على قيد الحياة في ذهن الشخص المنفي. يتوهج أو يتلاشى من شخص لآخر ومن ظرف إلى آخر ؛ ومع ذلك ، فإن مفهوم “العودة” لم يعد معناه الأساسي ، ولكنه أصبح ينظر إليه على أنه وسيلة للمقاومة وتحدي القمع “.

وتلاحظ الكاتب والناشط الأمريكي الفلسطيني الناشط فواز تركي أن “حق العودة وحلمها هو الصخرة التي تأسست عليها أمتنا والتوازن الاجتماعي الذي يوحد الأمة في هذا العالم البائس”.

إنه الحلم ، الأمل الذي مكن عشرات الآلاف من اللاجئين في المخيمات في جميع أنحاء بلاد الشام من إدراك وضعهم على أنه مؤقت ومقاومة جاذبية الاستيعاب والتعميم في البلدان المضيفة لهم – إذا كان هذا ممكنًا بالفعل نظرًا لأن معظم المضيفين لديهم بثبات قاومت منح الفلسطينيين الحقوق والامتيازات التي يتمتع بها مواطنوهم. في حين أن كونهم جزءًا كبيرًا من الشتات في الغرب قبلوا الإدماج والتجنس ، فإن هؤلاء الفلسطينيين يتواصلون مع شعبهم وثقافتهم في فلسطين ، ولا يزالون يحتفلون بأعيادهم الوطنية.

فر ما بين سبعمائة وثمانمائة فلسطيني من منازلهم في إسرائيل الحالية أو تم طردهم خلال حرب عام 1948. بقي العديد في إسرائيل إما في منازلهم الأصلية أو حيث لجأوا. لقد أصبحوا مواطنين إسرائيليين ، ولكن حتى بالنسبة لهم ، تستمر الذكريات ويستمر الكثيرون في الإشارة إلى المدن والقرى والمحليات بالأسماء التي كانت لديهم قبل قيام دولة إسرائيل.

ومع ذلك ، فإن العودة وحق العودة هو وهم ، حلم يتدلى أمام أعينهم من قبل قادتهم مثل عرض منوم مغناطيسي. ووضع لاجئ الأمم المتحدة ، وهم قديم متعب دأبت عليه الأونروا لتبرير وجودها ورواتبها الجيدة ، وجامعة الدول العربية كورقة تين لنبضها. كان تعريف وتأسيس الأونروا مخطئًا منذ اليوم الأول ، وبينما خلق اللجوء إلى الأجيال ، ولّد أملًا زائفًا ، وأحلامًا غير قابلة للتحقيق ، وحاجزًا لجهود السلام اللاحقة هناك بالفعل اقتصاد كامل ، وعيش ، ونمط حياة مكرس ويعتمد على إدارة الصراع ومشكلة اللاجئين بدلاً من حلها. كان المنفى غير معقول وغير عادل ، لكن الماضي لن يتراجع أبدًا – وبالتأكيد قرارات الأمم المتحدة.

المفتاح ، إذن ، هو أمل بائس ، باب مغلق لا يمكن لأي كمية من المفاتيح فتحه ؛ والواقع هو أن يكون هناك حظر ، خارج السياسة ، خارج المجتمع ، خارج سوق العمل والإسكان. اللاجئون هم أقلية في فلسطين. لا توجد مفاتيح للمنازل والشقق الجديدة التي ترتفع في مدن الضفة الغربية وحولها في طفرة عقارية مستمرة منذ عدة سنوات ولا يمكن الوصول إليها وبأسعار معقولة إلا للطبقة المتوسطة المتنامية من موظفي السلطة الفلسطينية والمنظمات غير الحكومية الأجنبية والمهنيين الشباب.

ولكن بالنسبة للاجئين ، كل هذا مفارقة. إنهم محرومون من فلسطين القديمة من آبائهم وأجدادهم وأسلافهم. لكنهم أيضاً أغلقوا فلسطين الجديدة التي تناضل من أجل الولادة.

شعراء مثل درويش والروائيين استوعبوا وعكسوا النكبة والعودة في عملهم. ينعكس حلم العودة في كتاباتهم. كما هو الحال مع فناني الجرافيك – لا شيء بنفس القوة والحيوية مثل إسماعيل شموط ، المولود في ليديا ، فلسطين عام 1930. عندما وصل آخر مرة في رام الله ، “عاصمة” إدارية بحكم الأمر الواقع لهذا الجزء من حكومة الضفة الغربية من قبل السلطة الفلسطينية – المنطقة أ (لعباس ، نكتة الذكاء) من إدارة أوسلو ، قمنا بزيارة المركز الثقافي دار زهران ، وهو منزل عثماني تم ترميمه بشكل جميل جنوب وسط المدينة مباشرة (وساحته المركزية المليئة بالصور من المفتاح).

من خلال الصدفة المحظوظة ، كانت دار زهران تستضيف معرضًا صغيرًا للوحات بالتذكير بسلسلة مذهلة من اللوحات للفنان الفلسطيني الراحل إسماعيل شموط التي تحكي قصة النكبة والطيران والمنفى.

لقد نشرت من جديد أدناه سيرة موجزة لشموط من مدونة

Palijounrneys.

https://www.paljourneys.org/en/biography/9727/ismail-shammut

فن إسماعيل شموط

يتذكر إسماعيل شموط ويحتفل به لتصويره للحياة اليومية في القرى الفلسطينية قبل النكبة ، لتصويره المروع لهروب وطرد الكثير من سكان فلسطين العرب المنتدبين ، ولوحاته الرمزية للشتات التالي.

إن فلسطين هي مكان خالد ، يكاد يكون منامياً ، شبه بعيد عن الزمان والمكان بواقعه المعاصر. كان الحنين والفنانين والشعراء في عصر سابق يصفونه بأنه رعوي مع صوره للحياة اليومية في الريف ، ونقوشه من الشباب والكبار الشباب والرجال والنساء والأطفال والرضع. هناك أزواج من الشباب في الأزياء التقليدية ، والأمهات الشابات مع الأطفال في الأسلحة ، والمزارعين في الحقول ، ومجموعات عائلية من أجيال عديدة. هم في الصالات والمطابخ ، في الساحات والحدائق والحقول والبساتين وأسواق الشوارع كمشترين وبائعين. هناك موسيقيون ومغنون وراقصون في بيئات اجتماعية لا تعد ولا تحصى – في الحفلات والاحتفالات والزواج والمهرجانات والعروض والمواكب.

               

 

واحتفالًا بدائرة الحياة من المهد إلى اللحد وإيقاع الفصول ، هناك مشاهد من وقت الحصاد وجمع ثمار الحقول والبساتين. هناك الحبوب والخضروات والزيتون والبطيخ والمشمش والرمان والتين والعنب والبرتقال الذي اشتهرت فلسطين به منذ زمن طويل.

هذه المشاهد الخلوية لعالم مضى – ذهب لنا جميعًا ، وليس فقط لشعب بلاد شموط – تُقترن بصور بيانية للنكبة ، والمنفى ، والطرد والتشريد ، والغزو والاحتلال ، والاحتجاجات والمقاومة المستمرة . وعبر كل شيء ، هناك زخارف أمل وسلام – أزهار وطيور مغنية وحمامات – وأيضًا صراع ومقاومة – أعلام ولافتات وبنادق وصخور.

وتشمل هذه اللوحات الشهيرة شموط لطيران الفلسطينيين وطردهم ، والطريق الطويل الصعب للطائرة على درب الدموع ، والشمس المعادية تنبض. عرضه للحرارة والجوع والعطش والإرهاق يتذكر قصيدة WH Auden المروعة  “درع أخيل”، مع صورها المتناقضة والمضطربة للفرح والاحتفال والدمار القاتم ، أحادي اللون تقريبًا … “سهل بدون ميزة ، عارية وبنية ، لا شفرة من العشب ، وليس علامة على الجوار ؛ لا شيء يأكله ولا مكان للجلوس فيه ، لكن المجتمعين على فراشه وقفت على جمهور مفهومة ، مليون عين ، ملايين الأحذية في الطابور ، دون تعبير ، في انتظار إشارة “.

تظهر هذه الصور ، النزيهة والخطيرة ، في لوحات أكبر تصور العقود التي تلت ذلك ، سواء المباشرة – المخيمات والتناثر – والمعاصر – الاحتلال ، الانتفاضتان ، المقاومة المستمرة ، وعملية السلام المتعثرة بشكل دائم . تظهر في الخلفية رموز وأيقونات فلسطين في الماضي والحاضر – خاصة القدس والقدس الذهبية ، والأماكن المقدسة الثمينة جدًا للعديد من الأديان – المساجد والكنائس والأديرة والمدارس ، بما في ذلك الحرم الشريف وكنيسة القيامة.

هناك صور لمخيمات اللاجئين ، ومدن الخيام المزدحمة التي استقر فيها المنفيون لأول مرة ، وحقول النفط الخليجية التي يعمل فيها المغتربون ، والمهن التي دخل إليها المغتربون في جميع أنحاء العالم ، من العمال إلى عمال المختبرات. يوجد أطفال المدارس في مكاتبهم وعمال المكاتب على أجهزة الكمبيوتر ، والحشود ، دائمًا ما تكون حشود من الأشخاص الذين لا حصر لهم ، مجهولي الهوية ، تقريبًا مجهولي الهوية. هناك مسيرات ومظاهرات واشتباكات مع جنود مجهولي الهوية مجهولي الهوية. هناك شباب يرمون الحجارة ويواجهون سيارات مدرعة وجنود يحملون أسلحة. وهناك أحداث سياسية مثل اللقاء الذي عقد في كامب ديفيد بين ياسر عرفات واسحق رابين والذي سهله الرئيس كلينتون ، مما أثار الآمال والتوقعات لم تتحقق.

دى اللوحات هي قوية ومؤثرة بشكل خاص. امرأة مسنة وابنتها تعانقان شجرة الزيتون مع اقتراب جرافة. يسعى صبيان صغيران لعرقلة  ;طريقه الذي لا هوادة فيه – وهو مشهد غير معتاد على الإطلاق ، مثل الصورة التي قمت بإقرانها بالعروض

“كيف نجد أشجار الزيتون عندما تختفي جميع أشجار الزيتون؟”

 

 

إسماعيل شموط – سيرة

وُلد إسماعيل شموط في بلدة اللدة في 2 مارس 1930. وكان والده عبد القادر شموط تاجرًا لبيع الفواكه والخضروات. كانت والدته عائشة الحاج ياسين. كان لديه سبعة أشقاء: إبراهيم ، كوثر ، جميل ، ميسر ، انعام ، جمال ، توفيق. كانت زوجته الفنان تمام عارف الأكحل ، المولود في يافا عام 1935. أولاده هم يزيد ، بشار ، وبلال.

في عام 1936 بدأ المدرسة الابتدائية ، ورصدت موهبته الفنية في سن مبكرة. تولى مدرسه داود زلاطيمو توليه المسؤولية. خدم زلاطيمو مدرسًا للفنون في ليدا من عام 1930 حتى عام 1948 ، وزينت رسوماته للأحداث التاريخية والطبيعة جدران المدرسة. تم تعليم شموط من قبل زلاطيمو لرسم بالقلم الرصاص والحبر ، والطلاء بالألوان المائية ، والنحت في الحجر الجيري.

بعد إقناع والده الديني والمحافظ بأن “الفن يمكن أن يكون مهنة مربحة” ، بدأ بتزيين فساتين الزفاف بالورود والطيور ثم افتتح متجرا خاصا به ، وهو في الواقع أول استوديو له. وهناك رسم أول زيوته التي تصور المناظر الطبيعية والبورتريه قبل النكبة عام 1948.

بعد ثلاثة أيام من سقوط اللدة و الرملة على يد القوات الصهيونية ، في 13 يوليو 1948 ، اضطر شموط وعائلته (إلى جانب سكان المدينتين) إلى المغادرة والذهاب سيرا على الأقدام إلى رام الله ولم يُسمح لهم بحمل المياه . توفى شقيقه الشاب توفيق من العطش قبل وصولهما إلى قرية نيلين ، بالقرب من رام الله. وثق شموط مسيرة الموت والإرهاق والعطش في العديد من اللوحات المنفذة في الخمسينيات. استمرت العائلة في التحرك حتى استقرت في الخيام التي شكلت في نهاية المطاف مخيم خان يونس للاجئين.

باع شموط المعجنات لمدة عام ، ثم تطوع لتدريس الرسم في مدارس اللاجئين ، التي أقيمت في خيام. هذا سمح له باستئناف مهنته الفنية وعرض لوحاته في غرفة في مدرسة خان يونس الحكومية في عام 1950. وفي نفس العام التحق بأكاديمية الفنون الجميلة في القاهرة وعاش من أرباحه ، ورسم ملصقات الأفلام.

أقام شموط معرضه الأول في عام 1953 ، حيث جمع ما يكفي من اللوحات لمعرض كبير “لكن لم يكن لديه ما يكفي من الشجاعة” لعقده في القاهرة. لذلك عرض في نادي الموظفين في مدينة غزة بالاشتراك مع شقيقه جميل. في ذلك المعرض ، قدم شموط ستين لوحة بما في ذلك لوحاته الشهيرة الآن إلى أين؟ وفم من الماء. اعتبر هذا المعرض أول معرض فني معاصر في تاريخ فلسطين من قبل فنان فلسطيني على الأرض الفلسطينية ، وفقًا لحجمه وعدد الأعمال المعروضة وطريقة افتتاحه والحضور الجماعي.

         

في عام 1954 ، أقام معرضًا في القاهرة تحت عنوان “اللاجئ الفلسطيني” بالاشتراك مع طالب فني في أكاديمية الفنون الجميلة ، تمام الأكحل ، والفنان الفلسطيني نهاد سباسي. كان هذا المعرض تحت رعاية جمال عبد الناصر ، في ذلك الوقت رئيس وزراء مصر ، وحضره قادة فلسطينيون. شجعته أرباحه من هذا المعرض على السفر إلى إيطاليا حيث سرعان ما حصل على منحة للدراسة في أكاديميا بيلي أرتي في روما ، وظل هناك لمدة عامين (1954-1956).

بعد تخرجه ، انتقل للعيش والعمل في بيروت مع شقيقه جميل في وكالة الأمم المتحدة لإغاثة وتشغيل اللاجئين الفلسطينيين (الأونروا). أنشأ الأخوان مكتبًا للفن التجاري وتصميم الكتب ؛ وقد تضمن الأخير كتيبًا للجيش اللبناني بعنوان “التربية المدنية الإنسانية”.

في عام 1959 ، تزوج من زميلته الفنانة تمام الأخال ، وبعد ذلك عملوا معًا عن قرب ، من الناحية الفنية والمهنية. قاموا بتدريب معلمي الفنون في بيروت والقدس والضفة الغربية وقطاع غزة وعقدوا معارض مشتركة في تلك المناطق.

تابع شموط والآخر عن كثب إنشاء منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية في المؤتمر الوطني الفلسطيني الأول في القدس في عام 1964. في عام 1965 ، أنشأ قسم الثقافة الفنية في قسم الإعلام والتوجيه الوطني لمنظمة التحرير الفلسطينية (المعروف لاحقًا باسم دائرة الإعلام والثقافة) ) ووجه أنشطته حتى عام 1984. عندما أغلقت مكاتب منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية في القدس ، عاد الزوجان إلى بيروت في عام 1966 واستأنفوا العمل مع منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية هناك ، بالإضافة إلى عملهم الشخصي كفنانين. أكمل شموط عددًا لا يحصى من الملصقات والمشاريع الأدبية والسياسية والتقليدية ، ونظمت صحيفة

الأخال عشرات المعارض السياسية والشخصية في مدن حول العالم ، بما في ذلك غزة والقاهرة والقدس ورام الله ونابلس وعمان وواشنطن (بالإضافة إلى اثني عشر مدن أمريكية أخرى) ، طرابلس ، دمشق ، الكويت ، لندن ، بلغراد ، صوفيا ، بكين وفيينا ، بالإضافة إلى الجداريات المسماة “المسار في عمان وأنقرة واسطنبول والدوحة والشارقة ودبي والقاهرة ودمشق وحلب وبيروت . ومن بين أبرز إنجازاته قاعة تسمى دار الكرامة في بيروت حيث تم عرض معارض موسمية لفنانين شباب من مخيمات اللاجئين الفلسطينيين ، وكذلك معارض تضامن عربية ودولية أخرى

في عام 1969 ، أسس شموط وغيره من الفنانين الفلسطينيين أول اتحاد عام للفنانين الفلسطينيين. ظل أمينًا عامًا لها حتى عام 1984. وشارك أيضًا في تأسيس الاتحاد العام للفنانين العرب في عام 1971 وكان أول أمين عام لها ، وهو المنصب الذي شغله حتى عام 1984.

بعد الغزو الإسرائيلي للبنان في عام 1982 ، ورحيل المقاومة الفلسطينية وقادتها ، وإغلاق مكاتب منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية ، اضطر شموط (الذي كان يعاني من مرض في القلب وتفاقم) إلى الانتقال مع أسرته إلى الكويت في عام 1983 ، حيث عاشوا خلال احتلال الكويت عام 1991 وحرب الخليج الثانية. بعد تحرير الكويت ، أُجبرت الأسرة مرة أخرى على الانتقال عام 1992 ، هذه المرة إلى ألمانيا. في عام 1994 ، استقر أخيرًا شموط والأخل في عمان ، الأردن.

يعتبر شموط عمومًا رائدًا في الفن الفلسطيني المعاصر. كان فنانًا ملتزمًا كان أسلوبه واقعيًا مع بعض العناصر الرمزية. سيطرت القضية الفلسطينية على فنه ، وقد تم توزيع بعضها على نطاق واسع في المخيمات والمنازل وتضامنًا مع حملات فلسطين في الدول العربية وخارجها. يمكن اعتبار بعض أعماله أيقونة للشعب الفلسطيني.

لم يتوقف شموط عن تصوير الخروج الفلسطيني من فلسطين في لوحات تحمل ألقابًا ومعانيًا موجودة كثيرًا في أذهان الناس وفي تجربته الخاصة ؛ مثال على ذلك هو اللوحة التي تحمل عنوان أين؟ (1953). كانت لوحاته مستوحاة من حياة المخيم (مثل      Memories and Fire ، 1956 ؛ We Shall Return ، 1954 ؛ و Bride and Groom at the Border ، 1962) ودعت إلى التفكير في معنى الأمة في الانتظار.

منحته منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية الدرع الثوري للفنون والآداب ، وميدالية القدس للثقافة والفنون والآداب ، وجائزة فلسطين للفنون. منحه منتدى الفكر العربي الجائزة الإبداعية للرسم العربي. يتم منح جائزة سنوية باسمه عن اللوحة الفلسطينية الممتازة. تم الحصول على أعماله من قبل العديد من المتاحف العربية والدولية.

أجبرته حالة قلبه على الخضوع لثلاث عمليات حرجة ، أجريت الثالثة في لايبزيغ ، ألمانيا ؛ توفي في 3 يوليو 2006 ودفن في عمان.

بالإضافة إلى لوحاته ، كتب قصصًا عن الرسم والحرف الفلسطينية وأنتج عددًا من الأفلام التي تأثرت بخبراته الفنية. تشمل هذه الأفلام فيلمًا بعنوان الذكريات والنا (1973) ) ، وفاز بجائزة الأفلام الوثائقية القصيرة في مهرجان لايبزيغ ؛ نداء عاجل (1973) ؛ وعلى الطريق إلى فلسطين (1974). أنتجت نورة الشريف فيلمًا قصيرًا يدعى إسماعيل ، وتناول جزءًا من حياته خلال فترة ولايته الأولى كلاجئ في مخيم خان يونس. يتوفر موقع ويب مخصص لعمله على الموقع

http://www.ismail-shammout.com

   In That Howling Infinite   رأ المزيد عن سياسات وتاريخ الشرق الأوسط في كتاب   

In English: Visualizing the Palestinian Return – the art of Ismail Shammout

Joy فرح

Rhiannon the Revelator – 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.
Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

Brown girl in the ring, raise your voice and sing

Rhiannon Giddens, a multifaceted singer, musician, folklorist and storyteller brings American history alive in her her drive to unearth the stories of forgotten people so that her audiences and listeners may remember them.

On Moon Meets The Sun, a defiantly joyous song, Giddens and her comrades of Our Native Daughters sing in the round over a polyrhythmic lacework of banjo and guitar, vowing not to let radical suffering diminish humanity. “You put the shackles on our feet, but we’re dancing”, she sings, “You steal our very tongue, but we’re dancing” “Ah, you sell our work for your profit, but we’re dancing,” she scoffs. “Ah, you think our home we have forgotten, but we’re dancing.” Then she recedes into the jubilant tangle of voices: “You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing). You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)”. 

As Leonard Cohen sang, “that’s how the light gets in”. 

Songs of Our Native Daughters is at once a harrowing ride through early America’s darkness and also, a celebration of resilience and resistance. As  Rhiannon Giddens describes it:

“There is surely racism in this country — it’s baked into our oldest institutions – just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice — in large, public ways that are only beginning to be highlighted, and in countless domestic ways that will most likely never be acknowledged.” (NPR – First Listen to Our Native Daughters)

‘… slavery is not a historical event but rather an intrinsic, dominating, and ultimately destructive part of everyone’s day-to-day reality’ (CE Morgan’s “great American novel”)

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

You put the shackles on our feet
But we’re dancing
You steal our very tongue
But we’re dancing

Brown girl in the ring
Raise your voice and sing
Sing us solace
Sing us freedom
Hold us steady
Keep us breathing
We’ll endure this
You can’t stop us
And we’re dancing

You steal our children
But we’re dancing
You make us hate our very skin
But we’re dancing 

We’re your sons
We’re your daughters
But you sell us
Down the river
May the God
That you gave us
Forgive you
Your trespasses
We’re survivors
You can’t stop us
And we’re dancing

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

Like the rabbit
We won’t bend to your will
Like the spider
The smallest will still prevail
The stories of our elders
We find comfort in these
We smile to the sky
We move to stay alive
And we’re dancing

You steal our work for your profit
But we’re dancing
You think our home we have forgotten
But we’re dancing

Step into the circle
Step into the ring
Raise your voice and sing
Sing freedom
Sing freedom
You can’t stop us now
You can’t keep us down
We’ll be dancing

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now
You can’t keep us down
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)

Quasheba, Quasheba
You’re free now, you’re free now
How does your spirit fly?
Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we have life

From the Golden Coast of Ghana
To the bondage of Grenada
You kept the dream of hope alive
They burned your body
They cursed your blackness
But they could not take your lights

Raped and beaten, your babies taken
Starved and sold and sold again
Ain’t you a woman, of love deserving
Ain’t it somethin’ you survived?

Quasheba, Quasheba
You’re free now, you’re free now
How does your spirit fly?
Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we have life

You dreamt of home, you dreamt of freedom
You died a slave, you died alone
You came from warriors who once built empires
Ashanti’s kingdom carries on

You were forgotten, almost forsaken
Your children founded generations
Your strength sustained them
They won their freedom
Traced their roots to find you [waiting?]

Quasheba, Quasheba
You’re free now, you’re free now
How far your spirit’s flown
Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we are home

Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we are home
By the grace of your strength we are home
We are home
We are home
We are home

Also in In That Howling Infinite,  Soul Food – music and musicians, a collection of posts on matters musical, My Country ’tis of thee, a collection of posts on american history, politics and music, Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana, and The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “great American novel”

Postscript

I am reminded 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?

and of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
They’re going to hear from me

Here is the wondrous Éabha McMahon of Celtic Woman:

 
 
 

Sawt al Hurriya – remembering the Arab Spring

Ten years ago, people across the Middle East and North Africa rose up in protest against their corrupt, autocratic and repressive rulers, demanding freedom and democracy. Tyrants were toppled or feared that power was being torn from their grasp as millions of demonstrators surged through the streets, chanting that “the people demand the fall of the regime”.  

Myth and memory often embellish the stories and the glories of oppressed people rising up against the power, but when we recall these oft-times forlorn hopes, from Spartacus to the Arab Spring, it is difficult to imagine ourselves, in our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of heroic failure.  We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

As Patrick Cockburn writes in a gloomy opinion piece in The Independent,

“There was nothing phoney about this mass yearning for liberty and social justice. Vast numbers of disenfranchised people briefly believed that they could overthrow dictatorships, both republican and monarchical. But …the dream of a better tomorrow expressed by herself and millions during the Arab Spring in 2011 was to be brutally dispelled as the old regimes counter-attacked. Crueler and more repressive than ever, they reasserted themselves, or where they had fallen, they were replaced by chaotic violence and foreign military intervention.

… none of the kleptocratic powers-that-be intended to give up without a fight. They soon recovered their nerve and struck back with unrestrained violence. … across the Middle East and North Africa, rulers used mass imprisonment, routine torture and summary executions to crush dissent. Repression not only affected places where the Arab Spring had been at its peak, but spread throughout the region, which is home to 600 million people, as frightened rulers sought to stamp out the slightest hint of dissent in case it could become a threat to their regimes …

… Could could the Arab Spring have ever succeeded against such odds? The question is highly relevant today because oppression by regimes, aptly described as “looting machines” on behalf of a tiny elite, is no less than it was in 2011. Even more people now live crammed into houses with raw sewage running down the middle of the street outside while their rulers loll on yachts anchored offshore.”

We published the following piece just over a year ago. Little has changed since them – if anything, with the world distracted by the pandemic and the US and its allies – and also  adversaries, indifferent if not complicit, the situation has gotten much worse. 

In Egypt, the grip of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi has tightened. Civil wars rage still in Yemen and Libya exacerbated by outside interference (see Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East). Syria’s misery continues with the regime almost but not quite on the verge of victory, and the Kurds betrayed by the Trump administration and defeated by Turkish forces and their Syrian mercenaries. Lebanon, which avoided the fate of other Arab countries a decade ago, although enduring the influx of millions of Syrian refugees, in the wake of a winter of protests, economic meltdown and political paralysis, and the explosive destruction of Beirut’s port and environs, is on the edge of an abyss (see our Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada).

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

Sawt al Hurriya – Egypt’s slow-burning fuse

In That Howling Infinite, 9th October 2019

Déjà vu

Last month saw the death in exile of former Tunisian strongman, dictator and kleptocrat Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and the resurgence on 20th September of Friday street protests in Cairo and smaller Egyptian towns – and around the world – against the corruption and oppression of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi and his military cronies. Predictably, some three thousand people have been arrested – protesters, prominent activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians, including Islamist and leftists alike and dissenters in general. These have now been added to the tens of thousands that have already been incarcerated on conspiracy and terrorism charges, largely without trial.

it appears to be an indiscriminate backlash, The Independent’s Bel True writes: “… according to rights groups and people I’ve interviewed, among those haphazardly rounded up are children who were out buying school uniform, tourists holidaying in Cairo, human rights lawyers going to court to represent clients, confused bystanders, young men popping out for evening strolls, visiting foreign students and street vendors. All are now swallowed up in Egypt’s notoriously opaque justice system”.

The protests have for the moment been contained, but with a third of Egypt’s population below the poverty line (and that’s a government figure – it’s very likely much higher), about one-third of the total under age 14 and sixty percent under 30, one can’t help feeling a hint of déjà vu. It is hard to keep one hundred million people down with just a strong arm up your sleeve.

Meeting with al Sisi in New York, US President Donald Trump praised him for restoring order to Egypt. At this year’s G7 summit in Biarritz, Trump had referred to the Egyptian president  as his “favourite dictator”, a comment that was met with stunned silence from American and Egyptian officials. Boris Johnson has likewise found a friend in Al Sisi. Tru quotes a British-Egyptian filmmaker: “There is a misconception that Sisi is a partner in stability which allows governments, particularly in Europe, to turn a blind eye to his behaviour: as long he keeps buying weapons and submarines and power stations”.

The Voice of Freedom

In our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, it is difficult to put ourselves in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of potentially heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

The courage of the of the Egyptian protesters – for brave they are indeed For having experienced six years of brutal and vengeful military regime, they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions – reminded me of an exhilarating song and video created by a young Egyptian and his friends, celebrating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of practically president-for-life Hosni Mubarak eight years ago last February. Sawt Al Huriya (The Voice of Freedom)), went viral on YouTube after its release on 11 February 2011, the day before Mubarak’s departure.

Bur first, let us revisit those heady days and the doleful years that followed.

Remembering Tahrir Square

The self-immolation in December 20111 of young Tunisian Muhammed Bouazizi was the catalyst for the pent-up popular outrage that led to the heady days of January and 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.

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; for a society in which there were jobs and a decent living, where you could save up enough money to get married, where you didn’t have to bribe corrupt officials for everything from traffic fines to court decisions to business permits to jobs, where you could be arbitrarily arrested and/or beaten up or worse for speaking out against the government, the system, or just…speaking out.

Egypt had only known a handful of military rulers until Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, following weeks of protests centred around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

When elections were held a year later, Mohammed Morsi, standing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, emerged as president. After decades of repression of the Muslim Brotherhood under Egypt’s military rulers, Morsi promised a moderate agenda that would deliver an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”.

A year later, he was gone, replaced by Abd al Fatah al Sisi, his own defense minister, who threw him in jail and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its members in front of courts that sentenced them to death in mass trials. 

His year in office was turbulent, however, as Egypt’s competing forces struggled over the direction the country should go in. Opponents had accused him of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country and mass protests began on the anniversary of his election. After more than a week of spreading protests and violence and talks with Sisi in which Morsi reportedly was prepared to make concessions to the opposition, the army announced it had removed Morsi and taken control on 3rd July 2013.

Morsi’s supporters had gathered in Cairo’s Rabaa Square before he was toppled, and there they remained, demanding he be reinstated. On 13th August, the army moved in, clearing the square by force. More than a thousand people are believed to have been killed in the worst massacre of peaceful demonstrators since China’s Tienanmen Square in 1999.

Whereas Hosni Mubarak died in pampered confinement, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president, was held in solitary confinement for six years, and died in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power. See: Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohamed Morsi 

Morsi’s fall led to a military regime more brutal and corrupt than any that preceded it, and with full support from the US and it’s European allies, and of the Egyptian elites, has consolidated the rise and rise of the new pharoah. Al Sisi and other US supporterd and armed Arab autocrats have transformed an already volatile Middle East into a powder keg. 

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president died  in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power in 2013

The Arab Spring failed because its youthful vanguard were not prepared for the next stage. In reality, it only occurred in Tunisia and in Egypt. Like the Occupy movement in the west, it lacked coherent leadership and purpose, and in the end, unity against the forces of the establishment that were mobilized against them. But the young, inexperienced idealists were no match for the experienced activists of the Muslim brotherhood, the apparatchiks of the established political parties, and the cadres of the mukhabarat, the military, and the “deep state” that were able to hijack and subvert the revolution.

The Arab Spring was effectively over once the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators had departed and the counterrevolution had already begun – in Egypt particularly with the electoral success and later putsch of the Ikhwan, and finally the “tamarrud” or “rising” of the fearful and conservative middle classes that ushered in military rule.

 The great unravelling

The Tunisian and Egyptian risings were followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These were more sectarian and tribal based, with less reliance on social media, and while media chose to consider them as part of the Arab Spring, in reality, they were not.

This was transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter., and eight 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.

And they led 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, extending southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

Tunisia alone has held on to some of the gains of its “Spring”, but there it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. Nevertheless, the country is holding ostensibly free and fair elections as I write. Elsewhere, the misnamed Arab Spring entered into a cycle of protest and repression little different from earlier unrest, and also, as in the past, foreign intervention. And the story has still a long way to run…

Civil war and economic desperation propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism 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 intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.

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

See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

 The voice of freedom

Against this a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked, and betrayed, I share the song created by Seed Mostafa Fahmy and his friends and the video they shot in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations. “In every street in my country, the voice of Freedom is calling!”

Sawt al Hurriya

I  went (to go protest), vowing not to turn back.
I wrote, in my blood, on every street.
We raised our voices, until those who had not heard us could.
We broke down all barriers.

Our weapon was our dreams.
And we could see tomorrow clearly.
We have been waiting for so long.
Searching, and never finding our place.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

We raised our heads high into the sky.
And hunger no longer mattered to us.
Most important are our rights,
And that with our blood we write our history.

If you are one of us,
Stop your chattering,
Stop telling us to leave and abandon our dream.
Stop saying the word, “I”.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

Brown Egyptian hands
Are outstretched amidst the roars (of the crowd)
Breaking barriers.

Our innovative youth
Have turned autumn into spring.

They have achieved the miraculous.
They have resurrected the dead,
Saying: “Kill me,
But my death will not resurrect YOUR country.
I am writing, with my blood,
A new life for my nation.
Is this my blood, or is it spring?
In color, they are both green.”

I do not know whether I smile from happiness,
Or from my sadnesses.
In every street in my country,

The voice of freedom is calling.

(Translated by Egyptian Seed Mariam Bazeed.)

Sout al-Hurriya
صوت الحرية

Nezelt We qolt ana mesh rage3
نزلت وقلت انا مش راجع
I went out and said I would not return

we katabt bedamy fe kol share3
وكتبت بدمي في كل شارع
And I wrote on each street with my blood

Sama3na elli makansh same3
سمعنا اللي ما كمش سامع
We heard what was not heard

we etkasaret kol el mawane3
واتكسرت كل الموانع
And all the barriers were broken

sela7na kan a7lamna
سلحنا كان احلامنا
Our weapon was our dreams

we bokra wade7 odamna
وبكره واضح قدمنا
And tomorrow was clear ahead of us

men zaman benestana
من زمان بنستني
We’ve been waiting a long time

bendawar mesh la2een makkanna
بندور مش لاقيين مكانا
Seeking but not finding our place

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

sout el houriya beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the voice of freedom is calling
……………….
rafa3na rasna fe elsama
رفعنا رسنا في السما
We lifted our heads high (in the sky)

we elgo3 maba2ash beyhemna
والجوع مبقاش بيهمنا
And hunger no longer bothered us

aham 7aga 7a2ena
اهم حاجه حقنا
What’s most important are our rights

wenekteb tarekhna be damena
ونكتب تاريخنا بدمنا
And to write our history with our blood

law kont wa7ed mnena
لو كنت واحد مننا
If you were really one of us

balash terghi we t2ol lena
بلاش ترغي وتقولنا
don’t blather and telling us

nemshy we neseeb &elmna
نمشي ونسيب حلمنا
To leave and abandon our dream

we batal te2ol kelmt ana
وبطل تقول كلمه انا
And stop saying the word “I”

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

Sout El-7ouria beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
……………..
spoken poetry at 2:14:
ايادي مصريه سمره
Dark Egyptian arms
ليها في التمييز
knows how to characterize (against discrimination)
ممدوده وسط الذئير
reached out through the roar
بتكسر البراويز
breaking the frams
طلع الشباب البديع
the creative youth came out
قلبوا خريفها ربيع
turned it’s fall into spring
وحققوا المعجزه
and achieved the miracle
صحوا القتيل من القتل
awakinging the murdered from death
اقتلني , اقتلني
kill me , kill me
قتلي ما هايقيم دولتك تاني
killing me is not going to build up you regime again
بكتب بدمي حياه تانيه لوطاني
I am writing with my blood another life for my country
دمي ده ولا الربيع
is this my blood or the spring
اللي اتنين بلون اخضر
both seem green
وببتسم من سعادتي ولا أحزاني
am i smiling from my happiness or my sadness
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling

The agony and extinction of Blinky Bill

In 1991, Australian publishers Allen & Unwin, the Aussie buyout of the antipodean subsidiary of the venerable British publisher that gave us JRR Tolkien, published an original political and environmental history of Australia: William J Lines’ Taming The Great South Land – a history of the conquest of nature in Australia.

It was, and remains, an eye-opener and a page-turner. All our past, present and future environmental hotspots are covered. Squatters and selectors,  rabbits and real estate, hydro and homosexuals, uranium and aluminum, environmental degradation and deforestation, and the trials of our indigenous fellow-citizens who who up until a referendum in 1967 were classified as fauna and excluded from censuses. 

Behind many of the names that are attached to our suburbs, our highways, our rivers and our mountains are the names of dead white men who were aware of, even witnessed, and were often complicit in “dark deeds in a sunny land”. Perhaps I shall write more on this at a later date, but meanwhile, the following is what Lines has to say about our iconic wildlife, and particularly, our endangered koalas.

At the beginning of white settlement, it is believed that there were millions of koalas across Australia. But their’ perennial paradox and their doom has been that they and humans covet the same habitats – good land and good soil. We have always sought to acquire, clear and develop the land they like for timber, for farmland and for development. Research by the World Wildlife Fund has shown that eastern Australia is one of eleven deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Lines writes that at the turn of the twentieth century, state governments were less concerned with planting trees than with “how to kill a forest quickly”. “Elsewhere in Australia, “settlers regarded native animals an obstacle to development, the equal of native trees. The morality of development sanctioned virtually unlimited increases in the quantity of humans and tolerated virtually any decrease in the populations of other life forms – except animals directly useful to humans, such as sheep and cattle”. 

Settlers and professional hunters therefore shot anything that moved in the bush. Around the turn of the century, encouraged by an international demand for fur – primarily for the fashionably consciousness in Britain and the US – hunters began killing large numbers of koalas. In 1908, 58,000 koalas passed through the Sydney markets. In1924 over two million were exported from the eastern states. By the late twenties, the total total nationwide is reckoned to have been about eight million. 

By the end of the Great War the koala was extinct in South Australia. Other native animals survived, however, so in 1920, SA removed the brush-tailed possum from the protected list. Within four months, hunters trapped more than 100 000. As a consequence of hunting and habitat destruction, over 70 percent of native land mammals in South Australia are now extinct, extremely rare or uncommon and endangered.

In 1927 the Queensland government declared open season on possums and koalas. The eradication of wild animals, the government believed, promoted closer settlement. Despite widespread protest the government persisted the slaughter, and within months 10 000 trappers disposed of over one million possums and 600 000 koalas – more than the total number of koalas which remain alive in the whole of Australia today. The carnage caused the virtual elimination of koalas from Queensland. 

Four years later New South Wales declared open season on possums and during June and July 1931, hunters and trappers brought over 800 000 possum skins to market. To avoid offending the sensibilities of city nature lovers, merchants marketed possum as chinchilla and koala skins as wombat. 

Efforts to protect the koala have and remain a matter of “one step forwards, two steps back”. To burnish their dubious environmental credentials, governments broadcast their good intentions, announce inquiries and censuses, and then withdraw discretely in the face of all-too-friendly fire from political and industrial interest groups and their lobbyists. A WWF scientist has remarked that ”drop bears have more teeth than of the (National Koala Conservation and Management) Strategy”. It was not just on the Big Rock Candy Mountain that the cops had wooden legs and the bulldogs, rubber teeth.

In her masterful and lyrically beautiful “Fathoms – the the world in the whale” (Scribe 2020), – the Sydney Morning Herald called it a “a marvelous work of haunted wonder” – Australian author Rebecca Griggs notes how we earthlings anthropomorphized the leviathan of the deep as the symbol and indeed monument to our fall from environmental grace and our quixotic hopes for a return to Eden. Writer and author Stephanie Wood attaches a similar symbolism to Australia’s iconic marsupial in a well-written feature on our koalas’ dire straits. We reproduce this in full below. 

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it is usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so”, she writes. Echoing Griggs, she asks: “if we can’t save koalas, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to save ourselves”.

See also In That Howling Infinite: Losing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

Featured photograph: In the thirty years we have owned our property in Tarkeeth Forest, much of which has been designated primary koala habitat, we have heard koalas in the surrounding forest, but , we have never seen one – until the day after Christmas last year. Meet Chrissy Dunggir (that’s Gumbaynggirr for koala).

How good were koalas?’: A national treasure in peril

Dwindling habitat. Climate change. Mega-bushfires. Koalas face dire threats, yet politicians continue to obfuscate.

Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald 6th February 2021

A koala in a tree on Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.” Ricky Carioti, Washington Post/Getty
Every summer for a decade now, the curious photos have surfaced: a koala gulping water from a firefighter’s bottle, a koala drinking from a watering can, another on its belly trying to slurp from a swimming pool. By late 2019, images were popping up daily: a koala clinging to a bike as a cyclist tipped water into its mouth, another drinking from a pot of water while a dog stood nearby. In northern NSW near Moree, one was photographed in the middle of a road after rain, its curling pink tongue licking a puddle.

The comments came from around the world: “OMG, so cute” and “How adorable!”

But there was something unsettling about the images; koalas don’t drink water, they get the moisture they need from gum leaves. Don’t they? Even scientists and koala experts who knew the species was in peril were unlikely to have realised just how portentous the images were.

In spring 2019, the fires started.

There was nothing cute about the new images, which came in a flood. Koalas with bandaged paws and scorched ears nestling in laundry baskets in a wildlife volunteer’s lounge room. A huddled koala trying to drink from a Kangaroo Island dam, the charred carcass of another nearby. A woman stripped down to her bra running out of a blaze near Port Macquarie holding a koala in her shirt; if you watched the video, you heard the koala mewling in pain as the woman doused it in water.

As the imagery spread and the world’s attention focused on this devastating escalation of the koala crisis, the animal became a global symbol of environmental grief and fear. Prayers and messages of love rained down. So did money. Port Macquarie’s Koala Hospital created a GoFundMe account with a $25,000 goal and got nearly $8 million. From Kazakhstan to Kentucky, people sewed mittens for burnt paws. A cosmetics firm made eucalyptus-scented, koala-shaped soap to raise funds. A little boy in Massachusetts moulded the marsupials in clay and his parents gave one to every person who donated more than $50 to the cause. A friend in London couldn’t stop crying. “You’re not looking at koala pics again, are you, Mum?” her daughter asked.

At the time of white settlement, it is believed there were millions of koalas across our continent. Two centuries later, before the 2019-20 fires, the most authoritative study available estimated 331,000 koalas remained in the wild nationally, 79,000 of which were in Queensland and 36,000 in NSW. But koala counting is a notoriously difficult exercise and the 2012 study, led by University of Queensland conservation biologist Dr Christine Adams-Hosking and drawing on the research of a number of koala experts, noted that in Queensland, population estimates ranged from 33,000 to 153,000, and in NSW from 14,000 to 73,000.

But if the numbers aren’t firm, one thing is: even before the fires, koala populations had been declining precipitously. Studies carried out in 2020 by Dr Steve Phillips, principal research scientist at environmental consultancy Biolink, found that in the past two decades, Queensland had lost half its koalas, and NSW a third. Experts are still trying to tally the full extent of Black Summer’s carnage but University of Sydney research found 61,000 koalas nationally and 8000 in NSW were injured, displaced or died during the fires.

We did this. Since settlement, our needs have always trumped those of koalas. We needed the land their trees were on. Sometimes we shot them to eat. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald in June 1851, the author noted that Aboriginal people called the creature a “kola” and settlers described it as “the native bear or monkey”. It was an animal with a “singular aspect”, he wrote, “its appearance is a sort of caricature upon gentlemen of the legal profession with their wigs on. It is said to be good eating, but is not frequently met with …”

“The response to the majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’.”

We wanted their furs. From the late 19th century to the end of the 1920s, hunters slaughtered up to eight million koalas nationally to supply a voracious international fur market. Most went to England and the US, where they were described as “wombat fur” and often became part of that Jazz Age wardrobe essential, the fur collar wrap coat. By the late 1930s, the animal was considered extinct in South Australia and critically depleted elsewhere.

Still we wanted more: more land for farms and tree plantations and highways and developments of massive houses with manicured gardens. Developers saw dollar signs, their bulldozers kept moving. With all that came fast cars, feral animals, family pets and disease. A submission from a koala activist in northern NSW’s Ballina to the NSW parliamentary inquiry listed in wretched detail the fate of some local creatures: “Healthy breeding female, hit by car”; “Female, dog attack, dead”; “Male, retrovirus, ulcers in mouth and throat, hadn’t eaten for probably [two] weeks, maggots down throat while still alive, found sitting on a road after a storm”.

Above all else, our insatiable needs have led to the greatest threats koalas face: climate change and its handmaidens, more extreme droughts and bushfires. But despite the international spotlight the 2019-20 fires threw on the urgency of the species’ plight, one year on, governments have taken little meaningful action to protect the marsupial and its habitat.

The NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, says he wants to double koala numbers in the state by 2050 but in January his government announced it would fully commit to only 11 of the upper house inquiry’s 42 recommendations designed to protect koalas. Conservationists and koala scientists were horrified. “It’s really disheartening that the response to the vast majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’,” Port Macquarie Koala Hospital clinical director Cheyne Flanagan says. “In koala circles, everyone’s disgusted.”

Meanwhile, for months through 2020 the koala became a political football after the Deputy Premier and National Party Leader, John Barilaro, staged a failed rebellion against his own government over koala policy. The result of the subsequent political wrangling was that, by the end of the year, policy to protect the species was weaker than it had been at the start.

Experts also point to the federal government’s shilly-shallying. Key national measures to protect the koala are either out of date or yet to be completed. “The koala was listed as a vulnerable species by the federal government in 2012; seven years later, we’re still waiting for a national koala recovery plan,” says Biolink’s Steve Phillips.

And what of the three billion other animals killed or displaced by last summer’s fires? One million lumbering wombats. More than 100,000 echidnas. Millions of kangaroos and wallabies; bandicoots, quokkas and potoroos. A terrible number of birds, lizards and frogs. The uncounted pretty beetles, butterflies and bugs. Well, it’s hard to spare too much emotional energy for a frill-neck lizard. But a koala … we can mourn a koala.

Scientists who study other species despair at the attention the koala gets. But a koala is emblematic; we feel in our bones that it says something important about us as Australians. “Koalas are woven into the narrative of Australia,” says Danielle Celermajer, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney and the author of the recently released book Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future. Dr Kellie Leigh, a koala scientist in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, offers an anthropomorphic explanation for why they have such a profound place in our psyche. “The whole thing about koalas is the head shape, with the forward-facing eyes and the big round head that instinctively reminds people of a human baby,” she says, adding that mobilising resources for koalas is not a single-species approach.

“They get people engaged in conservation who otherwise wouldn’t be.” The koala is also an “umbrella species”, depending on a broad range of habitats which are home to many other species. Put measures in place to protect koalas in the wild and other creatures will also be saved.

Given that fact, perhaps we should ask an inverse question: if we can’t save koalas, what can we save? And if we can’t save koalas, can we save ourselves?

A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires.
A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires. Micheal Weinhardt

Kellie Leigh names many of the Blue Mountains koalas she studies after gods “because we’re on the Mount Olympus for koalas … we’ve had Medusa, Mars, Athena”. The Greek mountain is the home of the gods and famously biodiverse. The Blue Mountains is – was – home to a surprising and remarkable population of koalas.

The mountains were long thought not to be propitious koala habitat, although records show there were at least some in residence. In a letter to the Sydney weekly The Catholic Press in 1921, a reader described a “shooting expedition” to Hazelbrook, during which her uncle shot a koala. She added that at one time, her family had kept at their Paddington home in Sydney four “tame native bears”, which had been captured in the mountains. After a month, one by one, they died. The last survivor sat in a backyard peach tree crying all night until the family decided to liberate it and “one evening at dusk we took it to Bellevue Hill”. The fur trade was believed to have knocked out any remaining in the mountains.

In 2013, during the devastating Blue Mountains bushfires, three koalas were seen emerging to seek water around the town of Winmalee. Another climbed a pole in a backyard near Mountain Lagoon. “It was like, ‘Hey, there are koalas … they haven’t been on record for a long time, what’s going on?’ ”, says Leigh, executive director of the not-for-profit Science for Wildlife, which in 2014 started to survey koalas at five sites in the mountains.

This koala, named Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in the Blue Mountains in NSW.
This koala,Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd NP, the
Blue Mountains, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Their significance could not be understated: they were largely within national park boundaries so developers could not get near them, they seemed to be breeding like rabbits and, most importantly, a study with which Leigh was involved found they had the highest genetic diversity within a koala population of any in Australia. Darwin 101: genetic variation individuals in a species allows for its adaptation to changing environmental circumstances and so ensures the survival of the species. Leigh dared to hope that the Blue Mountains koalas might one day help recolonise the broader World Heritage area.

Photo: Eddie Jim.

But genetic variation is of no assistance to a koala in the event of a mega-fire. In late October 2019, Leigh’s teams were surveying sites in Kanangra-Boyd National Park and in the Megalong Valley when lightning ignited a blaze 100 kilometres or so to the north. That fire, dubbed the Gospers Mountain fire, or “the monster”, would become Australia’s largest ever. In the days that followed, it raced in from the north, licking up Leigh’s survey sites in the south-east Wollemi National Park and on Newnes Plateau. Leigh pulled her teams out of the bush.

She floated an idea with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service: could she attempt to rescue some of the koalas at the Kanangra-Boyd site? “At the 12th hour we got a ‘yes’. ” Within two days, a Victorian climbing team had flown in and volunteers had started to track the radio signals coming from the koalas’ collars and scour canopies for creatures without collars. Two days after that, 12 koalas had been temporarily moved to Taronga Zoo.

It was a small triumph in a great tragedy. Only one of Leigh’s study sites – in the Lower Blue Mountains, near where residential areas were protected by firefighting efforts – was unaffected by the fires. She estimates that 80 per cent of the mountains’ koala habitat was burnt and perhaps 1000 animals died, and is now madly working to assess what koalas remain and what potential there is for them to recolonise. “It totally changed this little picture of hope we had,” says Leigh. “It was like, ‘Okay, it’s not a source population any more.’”

Koalas rescued from bushfires returned to their native habitat

Pockets of optimism remain. In November, I followed Leigh and a VHF signal along a ridge line within the Kanangra-Boyd site looking for Kali, one of the 12 koalas which had a Taronga Zoo holiday. The lovely hum of the bush in late spring: rising warmth, birdsong, a darting dragonfly. Only months ago, soon after the 12 were rescued, fire raced through here; the trees are blackened still and there is a subliminal scent of something burnt. But the young epicormic shoots are lush and our feet crunch over new bracken fern and lomandra grass. And there, high in a narrow-leaved peppermint gum (Eucalyptus radiata), is Kali.

“Kali” is the Hindu goddess of death and destruction but is also associated with motherhood and rebirth. There could not be a more appropriate name for this creature half-concealed behind branches above us. Leigh “pouch-checked” Kali for a joey when she was rescued and was surprised not to find one. “I was like, ‘That’s unusual, she’s having a year off breeding.’ ” When Kali was returned to the wild in late March, a joey was in her pouch, that bonus baby peeking out now from her position snuggled on her mother’s back.

Leigh has tracked Kali for nearly four years. “If she was a person, she’d be sitting there with a crocheted rug and a cup of Earl Grey tea watching over the kids,” says Leigh. “She’s a homebody; she breeds every year, has a joey every year and doesn’t go far; she has one of the smaller home ranges of those we have tracked.” But for a homebody, Kali is a rule-breaker, as are the other koalas on the mountains.

Koalas are generally known to like trees on richer soils, but the mountains are sandstone country. Generally, the rule is that they live below 800 metres in altitude, but two of Leigh’s sites, including Kanangra-Boyd, are above 1000 metres and often white in winter. It was not thought that the silvertop ash (Eucalyptus sieberi) was a food source but here, they eat it delightedly. Additionally, the Kanangra-Boyd population is one of only two NSW koala populations to be chlamydia-free. “So it seems to be, or was, a thriving, growing population in an area that’s above the climate envelope for koalas, using tree species they shouldn’t,” says Leigh. “Yeah, they’re just a bunch of rule-breakers.”

The story of Kali and her compatriots is just one of dozens of koala stories to have emerged from the fire grounds. Taken together, they shed some light on the challenges of saving the species: there are hundreds of stakeholders working in the field, from wildlife rescuers to scientists and multiple points of disagreement; the science is dense but there are still big gaps in knowledge about the creature; and, depending on where they live, koalas have varying behaviours and face different threats.

Some of the most gut-wrenching images came out of Kangaroo Island, where tens of thousands of koalas are believed to have died from a pre-fire population of about 50,000. Evan Quartermain, head of programs for the Humane Society International Australia (HSI), travelled to the island to help with rescue attempts. “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

But it was a tragedy of animal welfare rather than species decline. In the late 19th century, three koalas were put on French Island in Victoria’s Western Port in an attempt to rescue the species from the fur trade’s devastation. Descendants of those koalas were later used to repopulate areas in Victoria and South Australia, including Kangaroo Island. But despite a widespread misconception that the island’s koalas can be used to replenish depleted mainland populations, they have issues resulting from inbreeding. “Their genetic diversity is very low,” says Sydney University associate professor and ecologist Mathew Crowther. “They’re a very bad source population.”

Additionally, before the fires, koala numbers on the island had ballooned to the point that they were putting unsustainable pressure on the environment. Some proposed culling. Likewise, in parts of South Australia and Victoria, introduced koala populations breed so prolifically that they put untenable pressure on native vegetation. In 2015, The Age revealed that wildlife officials secretly culled 600 koalas in Victoria’s Cape Otway area. The animals were starving as a result of over-population.

The complexity of the subject matter is matched only by the confounding nature of koala politics and bureaucracy across federal, state and local levels. Federally, there’s a National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy but it’s out of date: it was developed before the east coast koala population was listed as vulnerable in 2012 and does not take into account updated predictions about climate change. “Drop bears have more teeth than the strategy,” conservation scientist Dr Stuart Blanch from WWF-Australia says.

Similarly, a recovery plan to bring koala populations back to health, a legislative requirement that followed the koala’s 2012 vulnerable listing, was to be finalised two years ago but remains undone. In June last year, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that the government had been waiting on the states’ draft plans. In November, Ley announced an $18 million koala package, which will include a national audit of populations, health research and habitat restoration. But within days, 23 conservation groups had signed an open letter slamming the audit as a diversionary tactic and a waste of money. Research scientist Steve Phillips agrees. “It’s garbage … The numbers don’t matter, it’s about the rate of change that’s occurred. We already know what that rate of change is and the science is very strong that the animal is very clearly on a trajectory towards extinction.”

Meanwhile, the skirmishes that occupied the NSW government through 2020 showed the complexity of legislation governing environmental planning policy over koala habitats at a state level and the extent to which conservative ideology plays a role in the debate about saving the creature.

In September 2020, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro threatened to move his MPs to the crossbench over the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) that, among other things, increased the number of tree species identified as koala feed and habitat trees from 10 to 123. Many described his move as a “dummy spit” but, seen in context, it was more understandable: since 2016 the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party has grabbed the heartland state electorates of Orange, Barwon and Murray and the Nationals are struggling to remain relevant. In claiming the policy was an assault on landholders’ property rights, Barilaro was appealing to his base (two-thirds of NSW’s koalas are on private land). He backed away from his threat but the political wounds were deep: a week or so later, the Nationals MP for Port Macquarie, Leslie Williams, defected to the Liberal Party. In a statement, Williams said her community rightly expected that policy should overshadow politics.

Related Article: Bushfires  Storms, tornadoes and explosions: Bushfires are getting stranger. How?

Dashcam Captures Speed Of Bushfire.

The machinations continued through spring as a bill amending the Local Land Services act (LLS), which regulates native vegetation management on private land, was passed by the lower house of Parliament but blocked in the upper house when Liberal MP Catherine Cusack crossed the floor to vote with Labor, the Greens and other crossbenchers. She told the chamber that she had never seen “such poor integrity of processes” which had “zero to do with protecting koalas”. She said: “It is to try to patch up a political disagreement … Far too many mistakes have been made already, many buried in regulatory complexity. But the trends, the science and the outcomes are very clear. We are failing, and this bill cannot possibly assist.”

During the state’s hottest November on record, the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, sacked Cusack as parliamentary secretary for voting against the government and announced she would scrap the SEPP and revert to its predecessor – a weaker, 25-year-old koala habitat policy – until a new one was developed.

Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd National Park, NSW.
Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd NP, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Kellie Leigh’s koalas might be rule-breakers but, mostly, koalas and people like the same habitats: good land, good soil types. “We always want to develop the land koalas like, that’s where we can grow our vegies and crops,” Leigh says. According to WWF international research, eastern Australia is one of 11 deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Multiple koala experts I spoke to for this story noted that despite layers of bureaucracy and multiple koala plans and strategies, the hard decisions needed about the most important measure to save koalas aside from reversing climate change – habitat protection – are still not being taken. Port Macquarie Koala Hospital’s Cheyne Flanagan notes that the NSW government is taking some positive steps, including the development of a new koala strategy due to be released this year. But she says legislation to protect koala habitats is not tight enough.

“It’s still rape and pillage and open slather with regards to removal of habitat,” she says. NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, who chaired the upper house inquiry into koalas, says that successive governments have made koala protection policies “complex and overlapping, but ultimately there’s hardly any of it that actually stops koala habitat being cleared”.

Meanwhile, Evan Quartermain from the Humane Society International Australia believes there is an untold element to the habitat loss story: “It’s the cumulative effect of smaller developments … death by a thousand cuts.” They don’t get much attention but they’re happening everywhere, all the time. Often, what is lost is the critical “corridors” koalas need to travel across the land.

But the overarching threat to koalas is climate change. Ahead of a firefront that ravaged the NSW Southern Tablelands in January 2020, more than 40 koalas were rescued and taken to the Australian National University for sanctuary. Scientists were appalled to discover that most were starving to death. “They were in that condition because of the extreme heat and the drought that set up those conditions for the fire to happen. The climate was killing them before the fires even got there,” says Dr Kara Youngentob, an ANU ecologist. Youngentob says she has now seen eucalypts, trees adapted to one of the driest climates in the world, dying from moisture stress. “Before this past summer happened, I had a hard time believing that eucalypts could get that desiccated … [they] can’t handle the type of climate they’re now experiencing.”

Conventional wisdom has long been that koalas don’t need to drink water because gum leaves provide all the moisture they need. But a new study led by Dr Valentina Mella, a research associate from the University of Sydney, captured koala drinking behaviour in the wild for the first time: researchers observed koalas licking water running down smooth tree trunks during rain.

Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”, says a researcher.
Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”.Kate Wilson

So what should we make of all the photographs of koalas drinking from humans’ water bottles and bird baths and pools? “That is very incredible behaviour; that really tells you there’s something wrong,” says Mella, who has preliminary data showing the moisture content of eucalyptus leaves is declining. “No wild animal would approach a human unless there was something to get from it … these animals can’t find water anywhere else.” (Experts caution against giving koalas water from a bottle because when they tip their head back to drink, water can get into their lungs, potentially causing aspiration pneumonia.) Youngentob says when koalas in the care of ANU during the fires drank a lot of water, it was an indication they’d sustained physiological stress. “Drinking is kind of their swansong,” she says. “When you see a koala drink a lot, it’s on its way out.”

“It’s about climate change … these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.”

Sometimes people try to tell Biolink’s Steve Phillips that the decline in koala numbers is primarily due to disease. “Oh, bullshit!” he replies. “Every time I see somebody try to hijack the koala conservation argument and mention disease as one of the driving factors, I go, ‘No, no, no.’ It’s about climate change, and the drying out of the landscape and these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.” Phillips has seen the climate envelope for where koalas can survive shrink dramatically. During surveys in the mid-1990s, he found thousands of koalas in the Pilliga forests of north-central NSW. He returned in 2019 and surveyed 108 sites. “We did not find one single bit of evidence of koalas being alive.” East of the Pilliga, the “koala capital” of Gunnedah had a koala population of nearly 13,000 in 2012. Phillips says that, by 2019, estimates were that about 90 per cent had gone. “This wave of extinction moving through from the west has taken out the Pilliga animals and now looks like it’s going to take out the Gunnedah population.”

What he says next makes me shiver. “I could go out into the Pilliga at night 15 years ago and drive along the road with a spotlight and see four koalas and three brushtail possums and a couple of ringtails and possibly a carpet snake and various other things. Now I can do that and I see nothing.” A night in the Australian bush, and there is no life.

Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in NSW in March last year. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.
Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd NP in NSW March2020. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.Ian Brown

Why do we place so little value on the glorious, pulsing, sweet-smelling beauty of our landscapes and the creatures rustling within them? Why do we argue with what scientists tell us, scientists whose research is not published until it has undergone rigorous, peer-reviewed assessment? Why do we imagine things will go on as they always have?

Is it about greed and self-interest? HSI’s Evan Quartermain observes: “Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

Is it about priorities? Kellie Leigh’s mad scramble to save some of the Blue Mountains’ koalas was done without assistance from authorities. “All the firefighters were out protecting people and property,” she says. “There were no resources for wildlife.” Firefighters call it “asset protection” – protecting people and property.

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

But we diminish ourselves and imperil our own future when we take such a narrow, short-sighted view of assets and self-interest. Professor Danielle Celermajer wants people to recognise “we’re all earth beings … We are woven in relationships with other earth beings: animals, rivers, forests, rainforests, gum trees.” She rejects the idea that humans are in a different realm. “It’s a very pernicious fantasy we continue to indulge that everything else can go but we’ll be okay.”

On November 30, The Guardian published a story noting that international lawyers were developing plans for a crime of ecocide: criminalising destruction of the world’s ecosystems. On Twitter, Matt Haig, the acclaimed English author of the 2016 book Reasons to Stay Alive, posted a link to the story with the comment: “Ecological destruction is ultimately self-harm.”

The day before The Guardian story was published, a video of a koala under a lawn sprinkler in Bowenville, near Dalby in south-east Queensland, travelled around the world. “Even the koala bears are coming up with ways to stay cool there,” a perky TV presenter in Oklahoma City said. “That’s pretty cute.”

Dalby’s average maximum November temperature is 30.6°C. In November 2020, the maximum average temperature was 33.9°C. On November 29, the day the video of the koala under a sprinkler was shot, the thermometer hit 38.5°C. Watch the video. The koala is guzzling from the sprinkler head.

In December 2019, as an apocalyptic haze of smoke blanketed Sydney, thousands of people marched through the city demanding action on climate change. An image of one person’s placard pinged around social media: “How great were koalas?”

O Beirut – songs for a wounded city

When venerable and remarkable cities are hurt, we feel their pain. The world felt it when Sarajevo was besieged for four years; when New Orleans was flooded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005; when the heart of the antique city of Aleppo was destroyed in 2012, and when Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral was burned in 2019. And there was also Palmyra, the “Queen of the Desert” ( see In That Howling Infinite’s The Tears of Zenobia, 

So too with Beirut, once hailed as the “Paris of the Middle East.

In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki ripped the heart out of Lebanon’s historic capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate, the stuff that brought down the Alfred C Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995 went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Hundreds perished and thousands were injured, whilst the port and its adjacent neighbourhoods, a crowded inner-city of apartments and cafes, were devastated. Lebanon’s people, already roiled by economic ruin and political paralysis, the trigger for months of civil unrest (see In That Howling Infinite’s Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada) and the chains of COVID19, blamed their corrupt and incompetent rulers and the archaic sectarian dispensation that kept them in power. Caught up in the cogs of Lebanon’s crooked system, the search for the perpetrators, justice and closure will grind on for years. Meanwhile, the dead have been buried, the wounded will recover, limp on or succumb, and the psychological damage will endure.
When the port went up, many Beirutis were cast back into what must have seem like a time tunnel, a harrowing vortex of memories and traumas inherited from the fifteen-year long civil war – a conflict that has left wounds that ache still (see In That Howling Infinite’s Pity The Nation (there is an extract from this at the end of this post).

Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared YouTube videos featuring songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – and most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people: “From my heart, peace to Beirut, and kisses to the sea and to the houses, To a rock shaped liked the face of an old fisherman”.  Listen to it below, and to a lovely cover by a young Lebanese teenage – and yes, the tune is indeed Joaquin Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez.

Beirut-born Fairuz, already a renowned singer and songstress, celebrated and adored throughout the Middle East, chose to remain in her home-town throughout the civil war. But whilst she continued to tour the world as a performing artist, she declined  to sing in Lebanon, refusing to be seen to be as taking sides in the political and sectarian conflict. As a national, unifying and consoling figure, she sang Li Beirut in a charity concert for the victims of the explosion, and for the wounded city itself.
For much of the past year, I have been refreshing my Arabic under the mentorship of Ya’rob, a Syrian and former refugee from America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Working on my reading, I have spent time translating Arabic songs and poems into English – primarily Syrian poet Nizār Tawfīq Qabbānī, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and Fairuz herself – and English poems and songs into Arabic for the benefit of my teacher – these have included my own, WH Auden, and Leonard Cohen, and even Redgum – in a study of Australian icon and bad boy Ned Kelly, I translated Poor Ned!

And lo’, here was Qabbani’s poem Ya Beirut, Ya Sit al Dunya – O Beirut, Mistress of the World, a bitter soulmate of Fairuz’  Li Beirut.

Nizār Tawfīq Qabbānī was a Syrian diplomat, poet, writer and publisher. He is considered one of the most revered contemporary poets in the  Arab world and is acclaimed as Syria’s National Poet. His poetic style combined simplicity and elegance in exploring themes of religion and Arab nationalism, and controversially, in the Middle East, of love, eroticism and feminism. It may say something about Arab culture, and it’s moralistic constraints, that Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish used his craft to navigate similar waters – although   never have had the opportunity to have had an Israeli lover like his contemporary (the inspiration for oud master and jazz great’s Anouar Brahem in his excellent The Astounding Eyes of Rita.

Ya Beirut, Ya Sit al Dunya was was published in 1978, three years into the fifteen year long Lebanese Civil War. In it he eloquently and emotionally described the malign impact that the Arab world was having on Beirut, a beautiful and historic coastal city that for centuries has been a cultural and economic entrepôt between east and west.

In Arabic, the title can read O Beirut, Lady of the World, But figuratively, it could be seen to imply that the city was indeed the “mistress’ or prostitute of the Levant, used and abused by many outside powers. “We confess, he wrote,”that we were envious of you, that your beauty hurt us … that we offered you a dagger in place of flowers … that we hurt you and exhausted you, that we burned you and made you cry, that  that we weighed you down with our sins”. Fairuz was less brutsl but no less angry when she asks of her city: ‘how did its taste become the taste of fire and smoke.  “She has became alone at night, alone with the night.”

Contemplating Ya Beirut, I was reminded of Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s famous poem, Pity the Nation, published posthumously after his death in 1931, a sardonic and incisive commentary 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 in our liberal democracies wherein ‘populism and post-truth, 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. See In That Howling Infinite‘s Pity the Nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion. It came as no surprise that in the Age of Trump, onetime beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s clone, also titled Pity The Nation, was circulating widely in anxious progressive circles.

I reproduce each of these poems and songs below, in English and also in Arabic. As I was working on this post, I recalled a song by Bruce Springsteen that echoed them in their blend of bitterness and optimism – My City In Ruins. Indeed, the play-out of Bruce’s song, “Come on, rise up!” is almost identical to the last part of Qabbani’s poem: “Rise from beneath the rubble like the almond flower in April. Rise from under your grief. Rise!”  So I’ve reproduced Bruce’s song too, with a video thereof.
© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

Qabbani’s and Fairuz’ are presented in the original Arabic; the translations are a blend of my own and the work others that I believe best reflect the imagery and intent of the writer. The Arabic versions of Gibran’s poem and of Springsteen’s song are my own, word, grammar and narrative-checked by Ya’rob. He also checked the English translations for faithfulness to the original text.

“That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves?”  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Parable of the Mad Man

O Beirut, O Mistress of the World
O Beirut,
O Mistress of the World
We confess before the One God
That we were envious of you
That your beauty hurt us
We confess now
That we gave you no justice, no mercy
That we misunderstood you and were not sorry
That we offered you a dagger in place of flowers
We confess before the just God
That we hurt you and exhausted you
That we burned you and made you cry
That we weighed you down with our sins
O Beirut
Without you, the world is not enough
We know now that your roots run deep within us
We know now just what was done by our hands
Rise
Rise
Rise
Rise from beneath the rubble
Like the almond flower in April
Rise from under your grief
Rise
The revolution is born in the womb of sorrows
Rise from beneath the rubble
Rise in honour of the forests
Rise in honour of the rivers
Rise in honour of the rivers and the valleys
And of humanity
Rise in honour of humanity
Rise O Beirut
Rise
The revolution is born in the womb of sorrows
O Beirut
O Beirut

 يا بيروت
يا ست الدنيا

يا بيروت
يا ست الدنيا
يا بيروت
نعترف أمام الله الواحد
أنّْا كنا منك نغار
وكان جمالك يؤذينا
نعترف الآن
بأنّْا لم ننصفك ولم نرحمك
بأنّْا لم نفهمك ولم نعذرك
وأهديناك مكان الوردة سكيناً
نعترف أمام الله العادل
بأنّْا جرحناك واتعبناك
بأنّْا أحرقناك وأبكيناك
وحملناك أيا بيروت معاصينا
يا بيروت
إن الدنيا بعد ليست تكفينا
الآن عرفنا أن جذورك ضاربة فينا
الآن عرفنا ماذا إقترفت أيدينا
قومي
قومي
قومي
قومي من تحت الردم
كزهرة لوز في نيسان
قومي من حزنك قومي
إن الثورة تولد من رحم الاحزان
قومي من تحت الردم
قومي إكراماً للغابات
قومي إكراماً للأنهار
قومي إكراماً للأنهار والوديان
والإنسان
قومي إكراماً للإنسان
قومي يا بيروت
قومي
إن الثورة تولد من رحم الاحزان
يا بيروت
ا بيروت

Pity The Nation

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)

رحم على الامة

ارحم على الأمة المليئة بالمعتقدات والخالية من الدين
ارحم على الأمة التي تلبس ثوبا لا يحاك
وتأكل خبزا لا تحصد.
ارحم 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

To Beirut
Fairuz

To Beirut,
From my heart, peace to Beirut
And kisses to the sea and to the houses,
To a rock shaped liked the face of an old fisherman
She is wine from the spirit of the people
From its sweat, she is bread and jasmine.
So how did its taste become the taste of fire and smoke

Glory from the ashes of Beirut
From the blood of a child held in its hand,
My city has extinguished its beacon,
She has closed her door,
She has became alone at night
Alone with the night.

You are mine, you are mine.
Oh, embrace me, you are mine
My banner, the rock of tomorrow, the waves of my travels.
The wounds of my people have blossomed
The mothers’ tears have blossomed
You, Beirut, are mine
You are mine
Oh, embrace me
You are mine.

 يا بيروت

فيروز

لبيروت
من قلبي سلامٌ لبيروت
و قُبلٌ للبحر و البيوت
لصخرةٍ كأنها وجه بحارٍ قديمِ
هي من روحِ الشعب خمرٌ
هي من عرقِهِ خبزٌ و ياسمين
فكيف صار طعمها طعم نارٍ و دخانِ

لبيروت
مجدٌ من رمادٍ لبيروت
من دمٍ لولدٍ حُملَ فوق يدها
أطفأت مدينتي قنديلها
أغلقت بابها
أصبحت في المساء وحدها
وحدها و ليلُ

لبيروت
من قلبي سلامٌ لبيروت
و قُبلٌ للبحر و البيوت
لصخرةٍ كأنها وجه بحارٍ قديمِ

أنتِ لي أنتِ لي
أه عانقيني أنتِ لي
رايتي و حجرُ الغدِ و موج سفري
أزهرت جراح شعبي
أزهرت دمعة الأمهات
أنتِ بيروت لي
أنتِ لي

Tell me, tell me about my country
Fairuz

Tell me, tell me about my country,
Tell me, O breeze blowing through the trees before me
Tell me stories of my family and of my home
Tell me a long story about me and my childhood sweetheart.

O breeze blowing through the laurel garden,
I beg you, come and play with me in my house
Tell me if he still remembers me in my country
Does he wait for me in the evening in my country
In these few hours happiness, tell me,
Habibi, tell me.

I beg you, tell me how are the olive trees
And the boy and girl in the shade of the windmill
And the almond trees and the earth and our sky
It is our our country, and our love
Blooms in these ungenerous times
Habibi, tell me

احكيلي احكيلي عن بلدي

فيروز

إحكيلي إحكيلي عن بلدي إحكيلي
يا نسيم اللي مارق عالشجر مقابيلي
عن أهلي حكايي عن بيتي حكايي
و عن جار الطفولي حكايي طويلي
يا نسيم اللي مارق عا أرض الغار
حلفتك تجي تلعب عندي بهالدار
خبرني ان كان بعدو بيذكرني
ببلدي و عالسهرة ناطرني
بساعات الفرح القليلي حبيبي إحكيلي
حلفتك خبرني كيف حال الزيتون
و الصبي و الصبيي بفيي الطاحون
و اللوزي و الأرض و سمانا
هو هني بلدنا و هوانا
زهر الأيام البخيلي حبيبي إحكيلي

My City In  Ruins

Bruce Springsteen
There’s a blood red circle
On the cold dark ground
My city of ruins
Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves
While my brother’s down on his knees
Tell me how do I begin again?
My city of ruins
My city’s in ruins
Now with these hands
With these hands, I pray Lord
With these hands
I pray for the strength Lord
With these hands
I pray for the faith, Lord
With these hands
I pray for your love, Lord
With these hands
I  pray for the strength, Lord
With these hands
I pray for your love, Lord
With these hands
I pray for your faith, Lord
With these hands
I pray for the strength, Lord
With these hands
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up

مدينتي في اخراب
بروس سبرينغستين

هناك دائرة حمراء بالدم
على الأرض المظلمة الباردة
مدينتي الخرائب
الشباب في الزاوية
مثل الأوراق المتناثرة
بينما أخي على ركبتيه
قل لي كيف أبدأ من جديد؟
مدينتي في الخراب

مدينتي في خراب
الآن بهذه الأيدي
بهذه الأيدي أدعو الله
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل القوة يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل الإيمان يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل حبك يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل القوة يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل حبك يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل إيمانك يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل القوة يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض

Postscript

Lebanese author Dominique Eddé has written: “We know more or less what constitutes Lebanon, but we don’t know how it works. If we had to send into space a country capable of containing the world, Lebanon would fit the bill. If we had to send one that did not contain what is needed to make a real country, Lebanon would also be the answer”. (See Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada

In April 2015 In That Howling Infinite  published a piece on Lebanon’s’ fifteen year long civil war. Named for Khalil Gibran’s iconic poem, it was entitled Pity The Nation.  It ran thus:

The Lebanese Civil War broke loose forty years ago this month. A cold war fuelled, by aggregating hostility between the Palestinian refugee community, a militarized state within a state, and their reluctant Lebanese hosts, became hot with deadly clashes between Palestinian and Maronite militias. Sects, clans, families, and the political parties and militias that gathered about them, went for their guns, the hounds of hell were loosed, and the massacres began.

In a Levantine echo of the Thirty Years War that raged through Western Europe from 1618, cities were destroyed and the countryside ravaged as armies, militias and gangsters fought over the fallen body of a divided and devastated land. Muslims fought Christians, Sunni fought Shi’a, Maronites fought Orthodox, Druze fought Muslims and Christians, communists fought nationalists, and Palestinians, at one time or other, fought everyone, including other Palestinians. And all changed partners and enemies in a bloody danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery.

This Hobbesian “war of all against all” drew in outsiders. Syrians, who during the course of their intervention, changed allies and adversaries as their political and strategic aims and interests mutated, and ruled the country until, implicated in the assassination of popular former prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, beat an undignified retreat (whilst never quite relinquishing the levers of power). Israelis, threatened by guerrilla attacks in the Fatah land of southern Lebanon, ostensibly invaded Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian military machine, and as the midwife in the birth of the Shi’a Hezbollah, waded with eyes wide shut into a quagmire that many have viewed as their Vietnam. Americans and French, who intervened with the aim of separating the warring sides and pushing them towards a ceasefire, departed in the aftershock of Hezbollah bombs that killed hundreds of their servicemen. And United Nations Blue Berets who serve and die still in the hostile borderlands.

The war raged for the next fifteen years, staggering to an end in 1990 after claiming over 150,000 lives and destroying the lives of tens of thousands of others, including over 100,000 permanently handicapped. Nearly a million souls fled their homes, and some 76, 000 remain displaced to this day, now forgotten in the midst of the new and greater Syrian diaspora, whilst tens of thousands emigrated permanently. There are still some 17,000 “disappeared” who may be either still in Syrian or Lebanese jails, or more likely, in one of hundreds of unmarked graves scattered across this tiny country.  

 

The Crown – the view from Down Under

Having luxuriated in series one to three of The Crown, the fourth is deliciously seditious – particularly if one is a republican – and an Australian republican at that. 

Pheasants and peasants, dead trout and salmon, trekking the wilds in tweeds and wellies, and the stalking of a wounded stag. When Uncle Dickie gets blown to smithereens, it feels like some karmic comeuppance. This is even before we get to witnessing the making and breaking of “the people’s princess” in what transpired to be a fractured fairytale. 

There was plenty for us antipodeans to enjoy in an episode ironically titled Terra Nullius, a phrase that is particularly potent in our ongoing “history wars”. The Australian scenes were actually filmed in Spain, but never mind. There was Richard ”Cleaver Green” Roxburgh as our larrikin Prime Minister, the late Bob Hawke, remarking that Princess Di had set back the republican movement for decades. The “silver bodgie” is cast as as an impatient republican, but in reality, he did not forcefully agitate for a republic during his early years in office.

On matters Australian, series four offered up a couple more events that have contemporary echoes. 

During the royal couple’s trip to Australia in 1983, Diana tried and failed to scale our iconic Uluru – it was called Ayers Rock in those days, the site of the tragically famous “a dingo are my baby” saga. Our government has only recently conceded to the wish of the traditional owners that climbing the sacred megalith be forbidden – to the chagrin of many, and the joy of many more. 

There is also the presence of Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary. Though long gone to his maker, and retired well before his fictional appearance, his name and reputation have been brought into critical review with revelations of the role he played in our Governor General’s dismissal of Labour Prime  Minister Gough Whitlam on Remembrance Day 1975 – an event that resonates still nearly half a century on. Whilst it has been shown that Queen Elizabeth did not have foreknowledge, it has also come to light that Prince Charles gave retrospective encouragement to Sir John Kerr, who was enthusiastically pushing for the Crown Prince succeed him as Governor General.

It is said that Australians’ affection for Wills and Kate has an impact on republican sentiment DownUnder similar to that of Princess Diana – though The Crown’s unflattering portrayal of Prince Charles, fresh on the heels of the release of “the Palace Letters” might lead folk to contemplate that when Her Maj goes to meet the saints, will we Aussies might declare that “it’s time!”?

For further reading on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see; Down Under and The Frontier Wars – Austrtalias Heart of Darkness

Call yourself a Republican?  Then why are you bingeing The Crown?

Jacqueline Maley, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 November 20207

The television show The Crown presents a unique dilemma for republicans. How can we maintain our disdain for the monarchy, our assurance of its irrelevance, while we are bingeing on its depiction, lapping up every detail of its costume, marvelling at the strong hairline of Princess Margaret and delighting in Diana? Even the corgis who have walk-on parts compel us with the sureness of their stride.

As a friend of mine put it in our defence: I don’t like murderers, but I like watching shows about serial killers. Tolstoy knew how interesting unhappy families were, and there is plenty of personal misery in the fourth and latest season of The Crown, even though the only person the creators give us any sympathy for is Diana, Princess of Wales.

The power of her celebrity, two decades after her death, defies gravity. We only really want to watch the show because of her – the scenes which just feature the self-absorbed, self-pitying Prince Charles are the only ones that drag.

This mirrors the central problem of Charles’ life – the public was never very interested in him. What he doesn’t understand, at least according to the show (yes, I know, I know, it’s fiction), is that nobody is actually obliged to find him interesting.Advertisement

The Real Life Charles is reportedly very cross at the characterisation of him as a cruel husband who moons around Highgrove enunciating his pretentious gardening philosophy (“There will be no straight lines, Mummy,” he tells the Queen when she comes to visit).

I find myself straining to care when I read articles where “sources close to the prince” tell us such-and-such an event never happened that way, or that the depiction of Charles as smug and insecure is mean. So what? Fiction portrays truth far better than documentary, and that is the genius of the show.

Illustration: Reg Lynch
Besides, the most outlandish parts of the story are all true – the fact that two of the Queen’s first cousins were locked away in an institution for life because their disability might have caused people to believe the royal bloodline was “tainted”. The fact that a princess was so unhappy before her wedding that she tried to disappear herself through the misery of bulimia. The fact that the Queen’s children have to make appointments to see her.

I remember reading a defence of Kate Middleton – who was accused of not welcoming her sister-in-law Meghan Markle into the royal family – in which it was indignantly stated that Kate had even invited Meghan to her home once. This sort of weirdness is the second-generation iteration of Diana’s loneliness – in the show, the breeding mare/child bride Diana (she was 20) has been chosen to provide an heir, then locked in a palace to learn the rules. 

She is the key to the monarchy’s survival, yet when she rings the Queen, and her fiance, over and over, neither will take her call.

The Crown S4. Picture shows: Denis Thatcher (STEPHEN BOXER) and Margaret Thatcher (GILLIAN ANDERSON). Filming Location: Rothiemurchus, Scotland Gillian Anderson plays Margaret Thatcher in season 4 of The Crown.

In a recent essay on the pandemic, British novelist Zadie Smith writes that “suffering is not relative; it is absolute … it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like ‘privilege’.”

This sums up the Diana dynamic perfectly, and explains why millions of people loved her, or thought they did, for her vulnerability and her sadness, even though it was attended by servants and played out on the plump couches of Kensington Palace.

Here is another partial defence for republican viewers: the locations. Who is not dreaming of salmon-fishing in the Icelandic wilderness, walking the beach sadly in Mustique, a la Princess Margaret, or roaming the highlands of Scotland on a jolly hunting party (maybe minus the animal suffering)?Advertisement

The scenes of Balmoral, when Margaret Thatcher comes to stay with her husband Denis, are a fascinating portrayal of the clash between the low-born, broom-sweeping neo-liberalism of Thatcherism, and the fusty conservatism of Establishment Britain.

The Windsors look down on the shopkeeper’s daughter who doesn’t know how to dress properly for hunting. Seen through Thatcher’s eyes, the royal family are a ridiculous tribe with funny costumes and arcane habits.

Thatcher’s partially-sympathetic portrayal should be more controversial than Charles’ unsympathetic one. The bleakness of Thatcher’s Britain is shown but not focused on, and the only victim of her recession we see is Michael Fagan, the intruder who famously broke into the Queen’s bedroom in 1982. Fagan tells Liz “the system” is broken and complains about PM Maggie. The Queen is sympathetic and they have a moment together before he is whisked off by security.

Emma Corin as Princess Diana  in an episode of The Crown  about Charles and Diana's tour of Australia.
                                                         Emma Corin as Princess Diana

But nothing happens, because the monarchy can’t make a material difference to any of its subjects’ lives, not that many of its members have shown an inclination to do so.Advertisement

Then there are the sons – Charles is self-pitying, Edward is a bullied boy turned bully, Andrew is charming but spoiled (perhaps a future series will explore the protection racket the royal family ran for the prince who refuses to answer police questions about his pedophile friend Jeffrey Epstein).

The Queen’s children, Diana, and even the Queen herself, all desperately need the validation of popularity, usually via the medium of the press, because it’s too sticky to get involved with one’s subjects personally. They are all jealous of the attention the others are getting. They all believe their misery to be worse than others’.

That, finally, is what the show brings out – how needy the royals are, and perhaps that’s the best republican take on The Crown.

That the act of divesting ourselves of the monarchy, when it eventually happens, will feel less like unshackling from a colonial power, and more like shaking off a clingy partner: the relief that comes with the end of a relationship you have simply grown out of.

Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road

A wide-ranging rural road trip through England’s green and pleasant land takes the traveller by antique and desolated abbeys and monasteries, their ageing walls crumbling and lichen covered, their vaulted pediments open to the English elements. The celebrated poets of the romantic era immortalized these relics in poetry, and even today, when one stands in grassy naves, gazing skywards through skeletal pillars, one can almost feel an ode coming on. Their number is remarkable – as a Wikipedia catalogue shows – and incalculable. The list is by no means exhaustive. There were one eight hundred religious houses existed in England and Wales before Henry VIII’s dissolution of the the monasteries and abbeys. Virtually every town of any size had at least one abbey, priory, convent or friary, including many small houses of monks, nuns, canons or friars. Many were spared despoliation and demolition, but many more were reduced to ruins and rubble by workmen and weather.

The 1530s were among the most significant in British history for the changes they wrought on its politics, society, culture. The backwash of the King’s Great Matter – his divorce from Katarina of Aragon, the onetime Spanish Princess and daughter of the formidable Queen Isabella, who was unable to give him a male heir to set fast his dynasty, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn in the hope that love and lust would bring forth male progeny – severed Britain from Rome’s papal dominion in matters of church and state, of its people’s bodies and souls. The pope in faraway Rome, regarded as a puppet of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna – who centuries later, historian Edward Gibbons declared as neither holy nor Roman – refused to grant Henry a divorce from Queen Katherine, his niece. Their reluctance and ultimate failure to secure this for their master doomed two wise, erudite and formidable chancellors, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More.

They were succeeded by Thomas Cromwell – kin, by way of his nephew, to his more famous namesake, Lord Protector Of The first and last English republic, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell has until very recently been one of those people who whilst having immense historical significance is virtually unknown outside academia – most probably because his preeminent role in English government, politics, religion and society has long been overshadowed by the deeds and misdeeds of his royal master. Everybody knows about Henry and his six unfortunate wives – only one, Jane Parr who outlived him, got to live happily ever after – and his schism with catholic Rome that led to the establishment of the Church of England. It’s as if the narrative of the juvenile but enduring British history primer 1066 And All That had become established fact – to wit, Henry was “a bad king” but The Reformation was “a good thing”.  Few will be aware that Cromwell, Henry’s counsellor and Chief Minister, had a hand in three of those marriages and their undoing, and was the prime mover for Henry’s religious revolution, and much more besides.

German artiist Hans Holbein The Younger’s portrait of Cromwell

The Hand of the King

In Hilary Mantel’s superb Wolf Hall and it’s equally magnificent sequels, Bring Up The Bodies and The Mirror and the Light, the story of English King Henry VIII is retold through the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, royal counsellor and chancellor. All the manoeuvres and machinations of church and state are set against the background of day to day life in 16th century England politics,trade, commerce and culture; and the annual plague that scourged high and low born alike, swift and deadly, laughing in the morning, dead by the evening. And threading through it all, is the religious ferment that was to persist, dangerous and deadly, for the next 150 years – Henry’s split with Rome, his founding of what was to become the Church of England, papists and protestants, priests and puritans, bells and smells, hair shirts, and burning flesh.

This article is the first of two published In That Howling Infinite discussing Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell. Read Beyond Wolf Hall – Icarus Ascending here.

It is Mantel we must thank for placing Cromwell on a pedestal denied him for close on five hundred years. He is now a household name, and even, as she has herself described it, an industry. She and Oxford scholar and ecclesiastical historian Diarmaid MacCulloch have developed a mutual appreciation of each other’s ‘Crummie’, and it is MacCulloch’s 2018 biography Thomas Cromwell – A Life that is the ‘go to’ book for a definitive insight into the man and his works.

Before Wolf Hall, many of a certain age might remember he was portrayed with leering, Machiavellian relish by the late Leo McKern in the old movie A Man For All Seasons. In the play and film adaptation, Cromwell was the definitive ‘baddie’ and nemesis of the virtuous and principled Thomas Moore. Wolf Hall tells a different tale. More is the wowser and prig, and also, a keen inquisitor and torturer. And Cromwell is the reasonable, affable, capable, cultured “man for all seasons”.

Younger generations met him In HBO’s sprawling, splendidly dressed, violent and naughty multi-series The Tudors. James Frain plays Cromwell as an able, cunning, too-clever by half, commoner on the make; a vindictive and vengeful man who is not averse to “showing the instruments” (of torture, that is) and ordering their use upon those he wishes to interrogate and invariably execute. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas would do no such thing. A lifetime of observing and recording has taught him that less sanguinary measures more often than not encourage confessions, and indeed, as the value of information gleaned under torture is usually false, tend to elicit the truth also. Merely talking about the instruments is enough to open the most reticent of mouths. In the television adaptation of Wolf Hall, Cromwell is played with calm understatement and restraint by veteran actor Mark Rylance.

Henry VIIII and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors

In her review of the book, What Hilary Mantel left left out, The Guardian’s Jessie Collins wrote of Cromwell: “It is his contradictions that stand out: intense focus and frenetic energy, rapacity and a social conscience, “clubbability” and a trainspotterish enthusiasm for waterworks. He was a wily operator, but a favourite of widows and wayward young men. He was undoubtedly ruthless, but sometimes tried to mitigate the king’s cruellest inclinations. He was at his fiercest when seeking revenge for Wolsey’s fall, but if we are to be sympathetic to Cromwell – as MacCulloch is – then we must recognise its correlative: his ardent loyalty”.

Reviewing MacCulloch’s tome for The London Review of Books, Stephen Alford wrote that is was “necessarily the study of a royal bureaucracy knocked into shape by the size of the job it had to deal with, as well as a close encounter with a Church remodelled in the 1530’s image of a king”.

And regarding ‘The Hand of the King’, to borrow contemporary coinage, Alford continues:  “A man who in life strenuously resisted easy categories, Cromwell has been forced into the competing roles of hero and villain many times over. Neither quite fits him. To his enemies, of whom by the late 1530s there were many, he was an abominable heretic. Even today it can seem that every ruined monastery south of Carlisle and Berwick was somehow pulled to pieces by Cromwell personally … Over the centuries great claims have been made on Cromwell’s behalf. One is that he helped to bring the ‘true religion’ of Protestantism to England. Another is that he revolutionised and modernised the functioning of the English state. Both rest their weight on an individual whose life story is full of question marks …”

I have reproduced Alford’s and Collin’s reviews of MacCulloch’s biography of Cromwell below. They are well worth reading.

James Frain as Cromwell in The Tudors

The rift with Rome

Henry’s dispute with the Pope concerning his Great Matter was ostensibly more about monarchical power and sovereignty, his existential need to secure his heirs, and to Europe’s dynastic yet dysfunctional power struggles than about religion. He did not regard himself as one of the reformists, or Protestants as they became known. He remained, and regarded himself, a catholic monarch, and a “Defender of the Faith”, a title the Pope himself conferred upon him for his written repudiation of the heretical works and preachings of one time cleric Martin Luther – and a motto that still circles the image of the monarch on Britain’s coinage.

Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is well aware that Henry is no true Protestant and that. His repudiation of papal authority split is about power and sovereignty, and not popish practises, which he persists in observing. The king continues to follow the mass, to observe the saints’s days (though there are less of them now). Both king and clergy resisted the publication and dissemination of the bible in English. Like their predecessors, they did not want the lower orders to discover that the scriptures made no mention therein of indulgences, of clerical celibacy, of purgatory, and indeed, of clergy. Like the kings and prelates of Catholic Europe, he was not averse to consigning heretics to faith’s cleansing fire, and torched those who’d adopted the rejectionist doctrines of Martin Luther and John Calvin – those who by the end of the sixteenth century, would be described as  Protestants – and before that, theological dissidents who populated a broad continuum between traditionalists and reformers. Later, when  Protestants were in the ascendant, the authorities cast Catholic and other adversaries into the fire.

But perennially impecunious, His Majesty can smell the money and is soon hooked on the riches and the lands that accrue to the crown and its cronies with the dissolution of the great abbeys and monastic houses. Thomas, his “go to”, “can do” red right hand fixes it – to his own benefit and that of his family and friends, and, also of the impecunious honour-rich but debt-deprived ancient families.

Whilst Henry was opportunistic and impulsively adventurous, Thomas, for all his erudition, political skill, and lived experience in Europe and England, was actually a cautious and calculating true believer. Stephen Alford again: “He was a man of the world, a pragmatist whose preoccupations were with the possible; it just so happened that for Cromwell the scope of possibility was so much greater than it seemed to be for other people. Yet he was a believer too, from at least the 1520s an enthusiast for Reformation. After 1537, as secure as he was ever likely to be politically, he began to pursue with a single mind an evangelical agenda. But he was also cautious …In the always unpredictable and often dangerous religious landscapes of the 1520s and 1530s he played his faith very close to his chest. Spared the agony and ecstasy of a public spiritual crisis, he left prophecy and martyrdom to others”.

In the wake of Cardinal Wolsey’s failure and demise, Cromwell becomes the public face of the king’s split with Rome and the spiritual and temporal authority of the Pope. His Protestant beliefs, fostered during his sojourn in the heretical Low Countries, impelled his rejection of the Roman faith with its corruption and its confidence tricks, its profiteering and its hypocrisy, its fabricated sinecures and sacraments, its relics and its indulgence. His pure hatred and contempt for the whole shaky edifice is force-fed by the prospects of divesting the English church of its immense power, wealth and influence, of filling the crown’s hungry coffers.

Cromwell is fully aware that he is loathed by the common people who yearn for the old, familiar ways, the “bells and smells”, the bits of dead saints’ bones and the shreds of their shrouds. They rise up, in a quixotic revivalist crusade called The Pilgrimage of Grace, and having risen up in rebellion against the new order, are on his orders, put down mercilessly with sword and rope by England’s hereditary warlords.

“It takes a generation, he says, to reconcile heads and hearts. Englishmen of every Shire  are wedded to what their nurses told them. They not like to think too hard, or disturb the plan of the world that exists inside their heads, and they will not accept change unless it puts them in a better case”?

And yet he is resolute in his convictions. “But new times are coming … children yet to be born – will never have known their country in thrall to an old fraud in Rome. They will not put their faith in the teeth and bones of the dead, or in holy water, ashes and wax. When they can read a Bible for themselves, they will be closer to God than to their own skin. They will speak His language, and He theirs”.

The Dissolution Of the Monasteries

The harrowing of the shires

Hilary Mantel gives us a formidable and very original account of the dissolution of the monasteries and the demolition of the very foundations of the established faith. She catalogues the work of the commissioners, the enforcers and the executioners, the suppression of the superstitions and the scams, and the rivers of gold that flowed into the pockets of the king and his agents along with lands and mansions. It’s such a remarkable read, I quote it here in full:

This winter the king is taking the surrender of the great abbeys, with their manorial titles and broad acres, their watercourses, fishponds, pastures, their livestock and the contents of their barns: Every grain of wheat weighed, every hide counted. If some geese have flocked to market, cattle strolled to the slaughterhouse, trees felled themselves, coins  jumped into passing pockets… it is regrettable, but the kings commissioners, men not easy to deceive, could not go about their work without their presence being heralded: The monks have plenty of time to spirit the assets away. Treat the King fairly, and he will be a good master. When Saint Bartholomew surrenders and it’s bells are taken to Newgate, Prior Fuller is granted land and a pension. Officers of the Court of Augmentations move into its great buildings, and Richard Riche plans to turn the prior’s lodgings into his townhouse. In the North Country, Abbot Bradley of Fountains settles for an annual pension of 100 pounds. The Abbot of Winchcombe, always a helpful man, accepts a hundred and forty. Hailes surrenders, where they displayed the blood of Christ in a phial. The great convent at Syon is marked for closure, and he reminds himself of Launde, with Prior of Lancaster has been in post for three decades, which is too long. It has not been a pious or happy house these last years. When questioned the prior would always declaring, omnia bene, all’s well, but it wasn’t: the church roof leaked and there were always women about. All that is over now. He will rebuild it, a house after his own liking, in England’s calm and green heart. In dark weather, he dreams of the garden arbour, of the drifting petals of the rose, pearl-white and blush-pink. He dreams of violets, hearts-ease and the blue stars of the pervink or periwinkle, used by our maids as lovers knots; in Italy they weave them into garlands for condemned men … (page 699)

… In November he writes in his memoranda, “the Abbott of Reading to be tried and executed”. He has seen the evidence and the indictments; there is no doubt of the verdict, so why pretend that there is? The Days of the great abbeys died with the north country rebellion. The king will no longer countenance subversion of his rule, or the existence of men who lie awake in their plush curtained lodgings and dream of Rome. Thousands of acres of England are now released, and the men who lived on them dispersed to the parishes, or to the universities if they are learned: if not, to whatever trade they can find. For the abbots and priors it’s mostly ends with an annuity, but if necessary with a noose. He has taken into custody Richard Whiting, the Abbott of Glastonbury, and after his trial he is dragged on a hurdle through the town and hanged, alongside his treasurer and his sacristan, on top of the tor: an old man and a foolish, with a traitors heart; an embezzler too, who has hidden his treasures in the walls. Or so the commissioners say. Such offences might be overlooked, if they were not proof of malice, a denial of the king’s place as head of the church, which makes him head of all chalices, pyxs, crucifixes, chasubles and copes, of candlesticks, crystal reliquaries, painted screens and images in guilds and glass.

No ruler is exempt from the death except King Arthur. Some say he is only sleeping, and will rise in an hour of peril: if say, the emperor sends troops. But at Glastonbury they have long claimed that he was as mortal as you and me, and that they have his bones. Time was, when the abbey wanted funds, the monks were on the road with the mouldy head of John the Baptist and some broken bits of the manger from Bethlehem. But when that failed to make that coffers chime, what did they arrange to find beneath the floor? The remains of Arthur, and beside him the skeleton of a queen with a long golden hair?

The bones proved durable. They survived the fires have destroyed most of the Abbey. Over the years they attracted so many pilgrims that Beckett’s shrine waxed jealous. Lead cross, crystal cross, Isle of Avalon: they wrung out of pennies from the treacherous and awed. Some say Jesus himself trod this ground, a bruit that the townsfolk encourage: at Saint George’s In they have an imprint of Christ’s foot, and for a fee you can trace around it and take the paper home. They claim that, after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea turned up, with the Holy Grail in his baggage. 700 He brought a relic of Mount Calvary itself, part of the hole in which the foot of the cross was placed. He planted his staff in the ground, from which a Hawthorne flowered, and continues to flower in the fat years and lean, as the Edwards and Henrys reign and die and go down to dust. Now down to dust with them go all the Glastonbury relics, two saints called Benignus and two kings called Edmund, a queen called Bathilde, Athelstan the half-king, Bridget and Crisanta, and the broken head of Bede. Farewell, Guthlac and Gertrude, Hilda and Hubertus, two abbots called Seifredus, and pope called Urbanus.Adieu, Adelia, Aidan Alphege, Wenta, Walburga, and Cesarius the martyr: sink from man’s sight, with your muddles and your misstranscriptions, with the shaking of your flaky finger bones and the compound jumble of your skulls. Let us bury them once and for all, the skeletons of mice that mingle with holy dust; the ragged pieces of your tunics, your hairshirts clumbed with blood, your snippets and your offcuts and the crisp charred clothing of the three men who escaped from the Burning Fiery Furnace. The lily has faded, that the virgin held on the day the angel came. The taper is quenched, that lighted the Saviour’s tomb. Glastonbury Tor is over 500 feet high. You can see for miles. You can see a new country if you look, where everything is fresh, repainted, re-enamelled, bleached, scrubbed clean … (page 701)

While the welcoming party is around the sea, the Abbott of Colchester is in the air. Colchester had signed up to the King supremacy, he had taken the oath. Then he gave backward, in whispers behind the hand: More and Fisher were martyrs, how he pitied them! When he was called upon to surrender his abbey, he said the king had no right to it – which is to say, his will and laws I know. He is head neither of the spiritual realm nor the temporal; in effect he is no king and parliament can make the law. According to the Abbot.

… It is the last of the hangings, he is sure. They were infecting each other, Colchester,  Glastonbury and Reading.  But now resistance to the King’s will is broken. All other houses can be closed by negotiation: no more blood, no more ropes and chains. No more examples are needed; the traitor’s banner is trampled, that portrayed the Five Wounds. Superstitious men in the north claim that in addition to his principal wounds, Christ suffered 5470 more. They say that every day fresh ones are incised, as he is cut and flayed by Cromwell. (page 709)

Let England shake

Thomas Cromwell was executed on Tower Hill  on 28th July 1540 and was buried in the Tower of London’s  Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Interred thereto are  Anne Boleyn and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and the last of the Plantagenet line – both of whom were executed through Cromwell’s’ manoeuvrings. Seventeen year old Catherine Howard became Henry’s fifth wife on the day that Cromwell died – and condemned for adultery and accordingly, high treason, she went to the block on Tower Green less than two years later. These were dark times for bad girls and wide boys.

Hilary Mantel’s story has been about England, it’s legends and it’s legacies, it’s rythmns and rhymes, it’s history past, present, and future. And he, Thomas Cromwell, has made England shake. And hisnrevolution endured. Henry VIII let it run, and his son, frail but resolutely Protestant Edward, endeavoured to anchor it. The Spanish Princess’s daughter ‘Bloody Mary’ strove with fire and sword to unmake it. And Anne Boleyn’s child, Elizabeth, set it in concrete so strong that Scottish James and his unfortunate son Charles I could not crack its foundations.

The rest, as they say, is our history.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

For other posts in In That Howling Infinite on matters historical, see Foggy Ruins of Time – history’s pages

A Man It Would  Be Unwise To Cross

Stephen Alford, London Review of Books November 8th 2018

Review of Thomas Cromwell –  A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch, September 2018

In 1517, a fierce commercial struggle broke out in England between two enterprising competitors in the busy trade of saving souls. The English Province of Austin Friars and Our Lady’s Gild of Boston, deep in the Lincolnshire fenland, went to law over the sale of indulgences, those pardons, common across the whole of Europe, offering remission for souls in purgatory. Since 1500 Our Lady’s Gild had built up what was probably the largest indulgences business in the kingdom. The friars pursued the same trade with equal vigour. The collision of interests was not surprising – big money was at stake. Far away in Saxony, Martin Luther, a brother Augustinian, was about to open heavy fire on what he saw as the whole worthless racket.

Our Lady’s Gild threw its considerable resources at the case. It appealed to Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s indispensable right hand: cardinal, archbishop, lord chancellor, Wolsey was a formidable broker of power. And it also bought the services of a clever (and therefore expensive) attorney. This was Thomas Cromwell, who in early 1519 went to Rome to make his client’s case at the pope’s court. He journeyed via Calais, was away on his mission for 26 weeks, and as he travelled read Erasmus of Rotterdam’s New Testament in Greek and Latin. Erasmus, the most brilliant scholar of the age, got him thinking.

Cromwell loved books. He was a talented linguist and his Italian in particular was excellent. But he wasn’t a secluded intellectual. He hadn’t studied at a university, and the law he picked up in London he used to make a good living for himself. Intelligent and restless, he had knocked around a bit in his time. Teenage wanderlust had taken him as far as the Mediterranean, and in his twenties he was in Antwerp, the greatest European entrepôt of its day, a magnet for merchants and high financiers. He was comfortable in mercantile company and he liked money. Socially it was tricky to pin him down. His father was a yeoman with a substantial interest in brewing, his mother was a gentlewoman. He was thus himself a bit of a hybrid, and would always remain so. The accounts of Our Lady’s Gild of Boston gave their comfortably middle-aged attorney (he was now in his thirties) the gentleman’s title of master. Cromwell was the boy from Putney who rose and fell at the court of Henry VIII with, as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography shows, spectacular unobtrusiveness.

A man who in life strenuously resisted easy categories, Cromwell has been forced into the competing roles of hero and villain many times over. Neither quite fits him. To his enemies, of whom by the late 1530s there were many, he was an abominable heretic. Even today it can seem that every ruined monastery south of Carlisle and Berwick was somehow pulled to pieces by Cromwell personally. Reginald Pole called him a Machiavel, and the label, seemingly congruent with the Frick Collection’s famous portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, has stuck: Cromwell’s intensely focused stillness suggests a man it would be unwise to cross. Even for those who lionised him as a champion of the English Reformation, there were bits of his life which didn’t quite fit. The story of attorney Cromwell’s mission to Rome was first told by John Foxe in Actes and Monumentes, the ‘Book of Martyrs’. Foxe had to rescue his hero with some deft literary footwork, turning on its head the uncomfortable tale of Cromwell’s journey to the heart of Roman superstition and error. Elizabethan Protestants could thank providence that Erasmus’s New Testament had spoken to Cromwell’s spiritual sensitivity in those weeks of travel and given him a ‘better understanding’ of God’s truth.

Over the centuries great claims have been made on Cromwell’s behalf. One is that he helped to bring the ‘true religion’ of Protestantism to England. Another is that he revolutionised and modernised the functioning of the English state. Both rest their weight on an individual whose life story is full of question marks. There is no tidy box of historical explanation into which we can put him. The brisk judgment of Hugh Trevor-Roper was that Cromwell ‘was a freak in English history’. It has always been easier to fall back on broad-brush assertions or to dismiss him with an adjective: ‘sinister’ and ‘Machiavellian’ used to be two of the most common. As Geoffrey Elton wrote in 1953, ‘We do not call a man sinister whom we know well, whether we like him or not.’ But Elton merely restates the problem. How do we get to know Thomas Cromwell in the first place?

The answer is by a painstaking forensic recovery of every surviving piece of evidence and then letting the completed dossier speak for itself. MacCulloch’s biography is itself an exercise in Cromwellian rigour. Nothing here is rushed, no detail overlooked. Care and precision are everything. Later reminiscences of Cromwell are positioned and repositioned, the chronology tested, every particle sifted and cross-referenced. We need to know before we can judge. We feel by the end of MacCulloch’s formidable book that we know Cromwell very well indeed.

The Cromwell of this Life seems at times to be a watcher more than an actor, purposeful and busy yet somehow also passive. He had a strong sense of family and kinship, and a gift for making friendships durable enough to survive the later painful upheavals in religious belief. He understood the obligations of courteous reciprocity in a society whose mechanisms were lubricated by patronage. MacCulloch’s Cromwell is a collector and a reader of books. Italy is his passion, Italian the shared language of his friends and colleagues. He read Machiavelli (History of Florence as well as The Prince), Petrarch and Castiglione’s manual for the courtier, Il Cortegiano – important reading for the attorney from Putney. He was on equal terms with university scholars like Cranmer, a don to his fingertips. But Cromwell never lost the self-containment and self-reliance of the autodidact. He was a man of the world, a pragmatist whose preoccupations were with the possible; it just so happened that for Cromwell the scope of possibility was so much greater than it seemed to be for other people.

Yet he was a believer too, from at least the 1520s an enthusiast for Reformation. After 1537, as secure as he was ever likely to be politically, he began to pursue with a single mind an evangelical agenda. But he was also cautious. As Foxe described it (and his description seems to fit the man), Cromwell’s conversion was a process, not a spasm of Damascene revelation. In reading the Erasmian New Testament, as Foxe put it, Cromwell ‘began to be touched and called to better understanding’. In the always unpredictable and often dangerous religious landscapes of the 1520s and 1530s he played his faith very close to his chest. Spared the agony and ecstasy of a public spiritual crisis, he left prophecy and martyrdom to others.

Striking in the world MacCulloch builds around Cromwell is its sense of order and routine, its reasonableness, its gentleness even. The fractures of the 1530s, the consequences foreseen and unforeseen of Henry’s ‘Great Matter’ – the problem of Katherine of Aragon and the break with the Church of Rome – are all the more shocking because the bonds of social and political solidarity which pushed Cromwell up the ladder of preferment and promotion had once been so resilient. He had no grand plan for greatness. To talk about his ‘rise to power’ after 1530 feels almost like bad form; however true, the cliché, which suggests the energy of personal ambition, doesn’t quite fit. Though he was ever the sharp-eyed attorney, it was his grasp of minutiae, his gift with a pen, his ability to persuade others, his patience, that really marked him out. He had an instinct for the right move to make at the right time, offering a masterclass in the softly, softly approach to the acquisition of authority. In his life, routine and process counterweighted those moments in Henrician politics when the blade of the executioner’s axe met the neck on the block or the fire was lit under the prisoner bound to a stake. Volatility in this book is left to King Henry, tantrums and petty revenge to Anne Boleyn, sulks and tactlessness to Stephen Gardiner, fuming at upstart nobodies to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk. Cromwell, without title and for a long time without proper position, moved quietly ever forward.

It all​ began in Putney, a few miles upriver from London, where he was born and from where he escaped probably as soon as he was able. Born around 1485, he was a teenager at the turn of the new century. His father, Walter Cromwell alias Smith, was a more or less successful businessman whose brushes with manorial justice were practically routine. His mother’s name may have been Katherine, and her origins can be traced with some close detective work to the Meverell family of the Staffordshire Peaks.

The mature Cromwell looked back to his own wild youth, ‘as he himself was wont oftentimes to declare unto Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury, showing what a ruffian he was in his young days’ (the words belong to John Foxe). We shouldn’t take him too seriously here; it is easy to overlook his wry sense of humour. He was a wanderer and a traveller, and gave himself an education in the world so very different from the suffocating discipline and narrow curriculum of a university. What historians and biographers can’t fix with the certainty of fact and evidence offers the novelist the rich and necessary space of imaginative possibility. This has been true of Cromwell’s life since the 16th century. A novella by the Italian author Matteo Bandello, printed (naturally) by John Foxe, interpreted Cromwell’s adolescent travels in Europe as an escape from the violence of his father, a story with shaky foundations that was taken up with enthusiasm by the Victorians. Our first meeting with a young Thomas felled and bloodied by the calculated savagery of Walter Cromwell’s kicks in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is viscerally memorable.

There is no clear vision of Cromwell until the age of forty, though by the 1510s he begins to come a little more into focus. He married his wife, Elizabeth, probably a few years after Henry’s accession in 1509. They had two daughters, Anne and Grace, and a son, Gregory, born in 1519 or 1520. At some point in the 1520s Elizabeth’s mother, Mercy (the Mistress Prior always popular with the family’s friends and handy with medicines), moved in. In 1523 the Cromwells took up residence near Austin Friars, in a grand house on Throgmorton Street. Thomas was doing well for himself. Nestled close to the beautiful Augustinian friary, his legal practice took him upriver to the Court of Chancery in Westminster. His Anglo-Italian business and legal connections were extensive. He counted as friends and clients merchants who went to the king’s court to trade their luxurious fabrics before Henry himself. Already Cromwell was on the fringes of power.

The big step up came in 1524, when he was recruited into the household of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey, prince of the Church and Henry’s man, wanted to build his legacy in stone. He planned two colleges, one in Ipswich (his home town) and the other in Oxford, as well as a tomb that would stand as a masterpiece to celebrate a masterly career. With his scrupulous eye for detail, Cromwell was perfect for the job of managing these considerable projects. This laid the groundwork for a later career that, had Wolsey lived years longer, might never have happened. Cromwell had the job of winding up some small religious foundations whose liquidations funded Wolsey’s colleges and tomb. Cromwell visited these houses and, with an improvisatory talent for handling the paperwork, oversaw the legal details. By the late 1520s few outsiders knew the English monasteries better than he did. He was given a job and got on with it, enjoying his freedom. In recruiting distinguished scholars for the Oxford foundation, Cromwell already had a good eye for university men sympathetic to Reformation ideas.

And so he prospered and he learned. Elected to the House of Commons for the Parliament of 1523, he saw for the first time from the inside a body he would come to manage in the 1530s with the same confidence he demonstrated in Wolsey’s service. He knew early on what he was up against, though he saw too the very human side of institutions. Of his 17 weeks in Parliament he wrote to a friend in 1523: ‘Howbeit, in conclusion, we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do, that is to say, as well as we might, and left where we began.’ Even the frighteningly efficient attorney had a sense of humour.

The hardest year personally and professionally was 1529. Elizabeth, Anne and Grace Cromwell died and Wolsey proved unable to deliver what Henry VIII had demanded: a satisfactory conclusion to the Great Matter, the neat annulment of a marriage to Katherine of Aragon that had been no marriage at all in the eyes of the king. Wolsey – like everyone else – had failed to attend to his majesty’s delicate conscience. Yet Cromwell remained close to Wolsey. He stuck his neck out to defend the cardinal in the Parliament of 1529, where Wolsey’s many enemies were determined to bring him down once and for all. For most of 1530 Cromwell hovered uncertainly between loyalties. But he was Wolsey’s man still, handling his master’s business long after the cardinal’s fall.

Parliament had shown his capabilities. In early January 1530 he took a walk with the king in his majesty’s garden at Westminster during which, such evidence as there is suggests, he gave an expert’s view of how profit might be made out of Church reform. Henry, at a critical moment in his fight with Rome, saw the possibilities. But no deal was done. That summer Cromwell toyed with a plan to fall back on his private practice as an attorney. In August 1530 he laboured over the wording of a letter to his disgraced master, who seemed incapable of keeping himself out of the headlines. ‘Learn to experiment how ye shall banish and exile the vain desires of this unstable world,’ he wrote to Wolsey. Now with a decision to make for himself, Cromwell’s words may have spoken as much to his own situation.

Something almost irresistible seems to be acting on Cromwell in the early 1530s, MacCulloch’s biography suggests, and the next step in his career happened as a kind of natural process, like the turning of the seasons. Somehow it was inevitable. Some people noticed it, some didn’t. By 1530 he had supporters at court, and they shared a common profile: they had been close to Wolsey, they didn’t like Anne Boleyn, but they were obeying as loyal subjects the king’s efforts to get rid of Queen Katherine, though with little enthusiasm. Just when few knew precisely how to give Henry what he wanted, Cromwell was the man being talked about. ‘And forasmuch as now his Majesty had to do with the Pope, his great enemy, there was (he thought) in all England, none so apt for the King’s purpose, which could say or do more in that matter than could Thomas Cromwell.’ So, in later years, said Sir John Russell, a court insider.

From 1531 Cromwell became the king’s fixer. In a sense he merely moved from one legacy project to another, for by now Henry was no longer content to play by the rules of Rome. His majesty’s cause had run into the buffers at the legatine court at Blackfriars in 1529, precipitating the collapse of Wolsey’s power. Yet Henry refused to give up, and by 1530 a kind of royal think tank, of which Cranmer was a member, was beginning to suggest a radical change of strategy.

The King Henry of this biography is impulsive and unpredictable, with a short attention span and a consistently high regard for his own genius. In the Great Matter he knew what he wanted. When in late 1530 Henry read a dossier that set out compelling historical evidence of his own spiritual supremacy, he annotated it in 46 places. Even Henry’s normally dormant critical senses were alert enough to ask of key passages ‘Ubi hic?’ (‘Whence does this come?’). But naturally he was an enthusiast, for supposedly erudite scholarship by others told him what he wanted to hear. In his mind was the image that Cromwell and Cranmer were later able to transmit to all the king’s subjects by means of the title-page of the Great Bible: Henry at the centre of everything, beholden to no other human power, communicating with his God without the need for an intercessor.

It was Cromwell’s job to make something strong and meaningful out of this confection of royal ego, dodgy history, polarised court politics and happenstance. It was a task that involved facing down the elite of the English clergy, detaching England from the authority of the bishop of Rome by statutory means (while emphasising that the king was very firmly above any law), managing official propaganda, and breaking Henry’s opponents. Thomas More and John Fisher were two victims. In the final encounters with More we find in Cromwell the human face of a process the collateral damage of which meant almost nothing to the king; they were two servants of a royal master, bound by that commonality, who found themselves on opposite sides of his majesty’s will. Cromwell as ever got on with the job, roughly balancing duty and conscience, and smoothing to the best of his ability the sharper edges of Henry’s displeasure.

Closeness to the king himself mattered more for Cromwell than formal position. The later promotions – Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon in 1536, Earl of Essex for a mere two months in the year of his downfall, 1540 – look like overcompensations for a loyal servant snubbed early on. But the initial appointments, the earliest signs of favour, meant something. Master of the jewels (1532), chancellor of the exchequer (1533), master of the rolls (1534), vice-gerent in spirituals (1535): each of these gave access to the king and influence over the flow of paper, allowing Cromwell to expand his horizons and his control. Newly promoted, he quickly needed a portrait (hence Holbein’s extraordinary picture) and a coat of arms, for which he, daringly, chose to incorporate elements of Wolsey’s own. Always perhaps a little unpredictable, a bit of a hybrid, his standing was never quite fixed. In fact the new offices of vice-gerent and vicar-general, which gave him as the king’s deputy the authority to suppress the religious houses, produced a very English awkwardness over etiquette. How should one refer to the vice-gerent? ‘Your grace’ was out, ‘Your holiness’ a non-starter. One bureaucrat with a talent for flattery came up with the perfect title: ‘Your goodness’. Probably it spoke to Cromwell’s own genius for flexible improvisation, as well as to his sense of humour.

The question​ that used to be asked of the huge upheavals of Reformation in the 1530s was ‘King or minister?’ Henry or Cromwell? Whose responsibility was it all? Whose vision? Whose fault? These questions once made sense, based as they were on the belief that an individual alone might be masterful or visionary enough to direct the fortunes of a kingdom. We seem today to have lost that easy faith. In the 1530s there was a sustained effort at making the Henrician revolution work, at least in the interests of the king. That conversation between Cromwell and Henry in Westminster in early 1530 bore fruit. The king and his elite made a fortune out of the Church and its lands. Enforcement was tough, its instruments being a new treason law and propaganda and new agencies of government able to process a massive administration. There was of course a reaction from subjects who saw their world being ripped apart. In the great rebellion in the north of England in 1536 ‘pilgrims’ stood for the commonwealth against Cromwell and other heretics. And all of this from the king’s passion and scruple of conscience. There was little intelligent design here, at least initially. Henry was too flawed a leader to have thought very much or for very long about the consequences of what he began, other than for himself. Led by impulse from one moment to another, he put the allegiance of loyal subjects under immense strain. Disconnected from the human cost of his actions, he was a tyrant in the making.

Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell shows the ideal bureaucrat. Within reach are the implements of office: quill, book and papers. The steadiness of the gaze is what unnerves the viewer. Cromwell’s instinct for government and process, and his sense of balance, were impeccable, at least when he was at the height of his powers. He liked detail and he preferred neat uniformity. He understood possibilities and he worked with the realities of the moment. He was able to manage change on an immense scale. He shared with friends like Thomas Cranmer a reforming agenda in religion, and he had ambitions for his own promotion and the standing of his family. But even Cromwell could go only so far. He was human after all. Later portraits lack Holbein’s extraordinary precision but they succeed in showing just a little softening of that early hardness.

A Life of Thomas Cromwell is necessarily the study of a royal bureaucracy knocked into shape by the size of the job it had to deal with, as well as a close encounter with a Church remodelled in the 1530s in the image of a king. This is where MacCulloch’s passion lies: one feels his love of ecclesiastical process and order, his sympathy for spiritual men wrestling with the material realities of change and ambition. He has the pleasure in fine detail of an antiquary, the historian’s range and depth of vision and the biographer’s feel for his subject. This is a book about people, their friendships, alliances and obligations. As such it is inevitably a book about the forces in the 1530s that had the power to fracture all of those things. In it we never lose sight of Cromwell’s humanity. One strand of this is the protective eye he kept on wayward boys, the first of them Wolsey’s genially feckless illegitimate son Thomas Winter, the second his own son Gregory. An exquisite Holbein miniature of Gregory in 1537 shows a young man of about 18 with closely cropped hair. Lips pressed together, he looks down. There is something submissive in his attitude: the son of a powerful man with a certain weight of expectation resting on young shoulders. How different from the experience a generation earlier of that young ruffian who had knocked around Europe in the years after 1500, and who later made his own way up the ladder.

The end came in 1540. It was the strangest of years: an earldom, an English Bible, another neck on the block. The politics of the court finally caught up with Cromwell, as they had with so many others before. The debacle of the Cleves marriage, which was annulled after six months, left him exposed to enemies ready to take advantage of his having fallen from favour with the king. Of Cromwell’s arrest in early June we have a second-hand account by the French ambassador. Informed by the captain of the king’s guard that he was a prisoner, he ‘ripped his cap from his head and threw it to the ground in contempt, saying to the Duke of Norfolk and others of the Privy Council assembled there that this was the reward of the good service he had done to the king, and that he appealed to their consciences to know whether he was a traitor in their accusations.’ Norfolk’s response was to rip the Garter collar of St George from the prisoner’s neck. It’s likely His Grace rather enjoyed the moment.

In spite of his appeal to the loyal service he had given his majesty, he’d been around long enough to know that any minister was in the end dispensable. He served at his majesty’s pleasure, and his majesty’s track record spoke for itself. It was the same for everyone: once you were on the wrong side of Henry, he cut himself off completely, pulling down the shutters even on his closest relationships. In any case, Cromwell had never made Wolsey’s mistake of believing that he was the king’s friend. In some ways, oddly, Cromwell and Henry seem to have operated almost in parallel spheres. It was true at the very end. On the day of Cromwell’s execution, 28 July 1540, the king was otherwise occupied: that was the day he married Katherine Howard. With Cromwell on the scaffold there was no melodrama, only loyal submission to God and to Henry’s will. His thoughts in those few remaining minutes of his life were for the future wellbeing and security of his family.

In 1529, at the fall of Wolsey, Stephen Vaughan wrote to Cromwell: ‘You are more hated for your master’s sake than for anything else which I think you have wrongfully done against any man.’ We might ask ourselves whether Vaughan’s judgment is as true for the king Cromwell served, for that second legacy project he steered through to a conclusion of sorts – the heavy burden of a service from which he is only now being rescued.

Thomas Cromwell, by Diarmaid MacCulloch – What Mantel left out

Jessie Childs, The Guardian, 22nd September 2018

iarmaid MacCulloch, who is presumably no stranger to mispronunciation, thinks we’ve been getting Thomas Cromwell wrong. It should be “Crummle”. This matters more now that Cromwell is a household name, or, as Hilary Mantel has put it, “an industry”. There have been several biographies of him recently, but this is the one, according to the Booker-winner, “we have been awaiting for 400 years”.

The admiration is mutual: Mantel appears in MacCulloch’s introductory material as well as the main text, where he refers to a scene in her novel Wolf Hall in which Cromwell’s glowering portrait is unveiled. He adds that Cromwell put up with it, whereas Thomas More’s image took Holbein “quite a lot of adjustment to get right”. The two are now locked in a duel in the Frick collection in New York.

So this is far from being a buttoned-up biography of Henry VIII’s chief minister. MacCulloch is a stylish and playful writer who knows his readership and keeps his more scholarly conversations (“Frankly, that seems a naive reading of events”) to the back of the book. It is, at the same time, seriously heavyweight, both in terms of size (more than 700 pages) and archival heft. Anyone looking for the true story of Wolf Hall will be challenged, but also mightily rewarded. MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford (you have to understand religion to get anywhere near Cromwell) and has spent six years reading, re-dating and interrogating Cromwell’s papers.

Cromwell only really got going in his 40s. His early years, like Shakespeare’s, are “lost” to the historian. MacCulloch does a fine job of slashing through dense undergrowth and catching “Putney straws in the wind”. The Cromwells might have had Irish roots. Thomas’s father, Walter, a brewer, was charged with assault, but was not necessarily abusive. MacCulloch doesn’t now think that he watered down his beer.

The Dissolution Of the Monasteries

As a teenager, Thomas travelled to Europe and opened his eyes to Florentine politics, Habsburg-Valois wars, Antwerp markets and the intellectual ferment of the early 16th century. He returned, according to MacCulloch, “the best Italian in all England” and it is ironic – though by no means incredible – that the man who would be known as the hammer of the monasteries began his career (in legal work for a Lincolnshire guild) as a champion of papal indulgences. MacCulloch speculates that his son Gregory might even be named after Pope Gregory the Great.

Cromwell soon caught the eye of Cardinal Wolsey and went to work on his “legacy project”, which involved dissolving monasteries in order to fund two memorial colleges and liaising with Italian sculptors on a magnificent tomb, topped by four bronze angels. Then Wolsey fell, the legacy was dismantled, and the angels flew. They eventually alighted on the gateposts of Wellingborough Golf Club and are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Cromwell was rescued by Henry VIII, who relied on his “improvisatory genius” to drive through the break with Rome. Councillor Cromwell had the instinct to recognise the potential of parliament as an instrument of government. He had the talent to oversee the Valor ecclesiasticus, a financial survey comparable to the Domesday Book in scope. He had the chutzpah to curb the power of the church, as well as to marry his son to the king’s sister-in-law, and he was cut-throat enough to destroy Anne Boleyn, among others.

His greatest lasting achievement was the provision of an authorised vernacular Bible

None of this was straightforward, as can sometimes appear in more condensed narratives. MacCulloch describes Cromwell’s progress as “complex and crabwise”. He came to be loathed by the nobility as an upstart and by the rest of the country as a metropolitan elitist. The Pilgrimage of Grace (‘a northern civil war’) nearly toppled him, but iIn the end what did it was the king’s fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves. Henry’s Trumpian sense of injury was nowhere more apparent than in the bedroom.

Cromwell’s driving impulse was not to revolutionise government, but the church. MacCulloch brilliantly teases out his links to reformers in Zürich, far hotter Protestants than Martin Luther, who was too hot for Henry VIII. This was supremely risky and it is astounding that he should become, in 1535, vice-gerent in spirituals – effectively the lay head of the church under the king – a position that was unique and never repeated. His greatest lasting achievement was the provision of an authorised vernacular Bible, “the basis of every English biblical translation until modern times”.

This is a superb rendering of an extraordinary decade and a virtuoso portrait of the man whom most contemporaries blamed for its worst outrages. MacCulloch’s focus is sharp, but since nearly every item of business and news crossed Cromwell’s desk in the 1530s, there are fascinating vignettes on everything from water mills to Münster, that city state of apocalyptic fanatics who refused to baptise their babies. MacCulloch thinks it plausible that Cromwell’s much-laudedintroduction of parish registers listing burials, marriages and baptisms was a way of flushing out Anabaptist extremists at home.

Geoffrey Elton, the Cambridge don whose name was synonymous with Cromwell in the second half of the 20th century, didn’t think that his biography could be written. He thought it a poor way of doing history, and infra dig for a scholar, but the main problem was the nature of the evidence. It is overwhelmingly political and half of it is missing. MacCulloch thinks the filed copies of Cromwell’s sent letters, the ‘out-tray’, were burnt by his servants when he was arrested in June 1540. A few survive, but not enough. There is often a sense with Cromwell that we are running alongside his supplicants, clawing at his cloak as he hastens from Austin Friars, to Westminster, to The Rolls, to the Court.

The Family of Henry Viii: an Allegory of the Tudor Succession, by Lucas de Heere, 1572.

There are no Cromwellian poems (though MacCulloch might have thrown us one of Wyatt’s), no hint from Cromwell as to why he didn’t remarry after the early deaths of his wife and two daughters, not even a legal trial at which he might have dropped his guard as More had done in 1535.

It is remarkable, therefore, how much of the man MacCulloch does, in fact, capture, certainly more than any previous attempt. It is his contradictions that stand out: intense focus and frenetic energy, rapacity and a social conscience, “clubbability” and a trainspotterish enthusiasm for waterworks. He was a wily operator, but a favourite of widows and wayward young men. He was undoubtedly ruthless, but sometimes tried to mitigate the king’s cruellest inclinations. He was at his fiercest when seeking revenge for Wolsey’s fall, but if we are to be sympathetic to Cromwell – as MacCulloch is – then we must recognise its correlative: his ardent loyalty.

There is a beautifully drawn scene in which Wolsey, his power ebbing away, avidly reads a letter from Cromwell and keeps it close, like a talisman. We later find Master Cromwell painfully drafting another letter that is full of crossings-out and corrections. He was trying to save Wolsey from himself, and from Henry VIII, who was manipulable, but always the master and sometimes a monster. “No one,” MacCulloch asserts, “reading the original of this letter can think of Cromwell simply as a heartless bureaucrat.”

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