The work, the working, the working life

Ironically, one of my favourite songs about working, Bruce Springsteen’s Factory, was written by a bloke who by his own admission has never done a day’s manual labour for wages in his life. But as for myself, I sometimes feel that I have worked all my life. When I’m busily shoveling soil into a wheelbarrow and tipping it into our garden beds, I imagine that I was born with a shovel in my hands. After all, that’s what my Irish father was doing on the building sites of Birmingham while I was being conceived, gestated, born, and brought up in the first decade of my life.

The Cubs and Boy Scouts’ Bob A Job Week taught me the basics of “working for others” and getting paid for it. Weeding and cleaning and shopping, mostly. I hated it, not least because it took up most of our Easter school holidays, but it was an early lesson in duty and toiling for a cause.

As a schoolie in sixties I just had to have hit parade LPs and singles and Airfix kits and the pocket money provided by my folks did not go that far. So while other kids did paper rounds and helped out in local shops, I worked Friday nights and Saturday morning stacking shelves and cutting boxes in a Sainsbury supermarket on Stratford Road. Later, when my existential needs extended to clothes, books, and beer, a school chum got me a gig on Saturdays and school holidays in the food hall of the now defunct Rackhams department store – it was snobbishly upmarket for Brum, being a division of the famous Harrods of London, and us weekend lads had to wear naff little white waiter’s jackets which did not flatter my then portly (by sixties standards, but relatively svelte today) physique.

Rackhams Department Store, Birmingham

On the recommendation of my uncle, I worked for Sheldon Industrial Cleaning on Sundays at various Midlands motor plants, cleaning toilets and floors before the beginning of the weekday shifts. Willing hands would stand outside the Sheldon office in Digbeth hoping to be selected by the foremen and bussed to our workplace, be that in Brum, Coventry or Rugby. Come the long summer school break, when the motor industry workers took their holidays, I and other students would be hired to help with the annual stock-take at the huge Austin plant at Longbridge. One time, I was assigned to help demolish a computer room that was being renovated and upgraded. The old computer was the size and shape of a larger container, and the new one wasn’t much smaller. The iPad I am writing this piece on has probably more processing power.

The Austin, Longbridge, Birmingham

By 1967, I was a fit and adventurous eighteen year old, but still in need of cash. Summertime in the outdoors was an attractive prospect, and labourers’ pay on building sites was excellent for the times – up to fifty quid a week depending on the work, and which, I soon found out, included “danger money”.

So, for four summers in a row, I spent three months a year working on the new housing estates that were going up all over the fringes of suburban Brum, and most conveniently, near where we lived, on the new estate on what was the old Bromford Race course near Castle Bromwich – high rise flats for Briant on the Bromford, system-built houses on the Chelmsley Wood estate (built on a redundant wartime airfield – there is still a Spitfire Way leading into the estate), and finally on the M1-M6 motorway link at Castle Bromwich with Marples Ridgeway. Inspired by the Clancy Brothers’ folk song, I wanted to join McAlpine’s Fusiliers, but that mob were working down the emerging motorway in what was to become Spaghetti Junction whilst M-R was operating right in from of my parents’ house, building the elevated motorway right on top of the River Tame. I built muscles, risked life and limb, and acquired a great sun-tan.

Bromford Bridge Racecourse

 

System-built housing on Birmingham’s fringes. I lived in one of these.

 

Chelmsley Wood council estate as God would have seen it

 

Another God’s eye view of Chelmsley Wood council estate

Work “on the buildings” was hard, and the hours were long, and I got to meet some great blokes and some right arseholes – my workmates came from all over the United Kingdom – particularly the Emerald Isle, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean -the language was colourful and and conversation was often what we’d now describe as as racist and misogynist. I unloaded bags of cement and thousands of house-bricks by hand, dug trenches, and sledge-hammered survey stakes and learnt many things that most students did not, like using kangos and jackhammers, driving tractors, pouring skips of concrete and fixing reinforcement steel.

But those were dangerous days on the construction sites. There was minimal health and safety regulation – helmets were optional and hi-vis had yet to be invented – I witnessed many accidents during my stints on the sites, many serious and some fatal, and I narrowly missed a few myself. Job security was tenuous – most of us “navies” were hired “on the lump”, and could be “put off” on the spot, and if it rained, we weren’t paid.

Building the M1-M6 link motorway through north Birmingham

My folks were none too happy about it. My dad had come over from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland in the late forties and had worked on building sites in Birmingham for years before finding work in the motor industry. He still bore the scars and the aches and pains. Having worked so hard to give me and my brothers an education and opportunities that they never had, it was a disappointment for them to see my brother and I head off every morning in work clothes and with lunch boxes, and returning  ten hours later tired, dirty and aching with blistered hands, tired limbs and sore feet. They couldn’t fully comprehend that we did it for quick money and not for a living.

But the money was good, and during my uni years, I was able to spend up big on books and clothes, booze and dope, with enough left over to finance my travels to the Mediterranean and then overland to India and back – it lasted until I finally reached Istanbul, when I had to call my folks for money to ge me back to England.

But that is another tale …

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For more biography in In That Howling Infinite, see: Tall Tales, small stories, eulogies and epiphanies

Postscript

My days “on the buildings” inspired many of my songs, poems and prose, though few recordings and documents now exist. One  song that has been uploaded to SoundCloud  is The King of the May, and is published below. It tells how in the early ‘seventies, a man staged a ‘sit-in’ atop a tower crane. High over London Town, he was protesting against ‘the lump’, that exploitative form of casual labour then in use on British building sites as I noted abi ‘‘em there was no compo, no OH&S, no rights. They were tough times – men died. I was there.  The title comes from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kral Majalis’. Allen was actually crowned thus in Czechoslovakia – before the Prague Spring of 1968 too. And thank you to WH Auden for the loan of his lyrics. I republish also below two poems I wrote about work when I was on the nine-to-five hamster wheel in Sydney during the eighties. And below two are two prose pieces I wrote about working on the Chelmsley Wood housing estate in 1969. They reflect on the kind of work I was doing, the people I worked with, and the stare I’d mind I was in at the time – which was decidedly under the influence of my politics and also my acid. 

My short career as a labourer effectively ended on the motorway. In the years that followed I entered into clerical and then professional employment in the public and private sectors, although between jobs and also, to make some extra money, I cleaned, gardened, and even worked as a hired hand at Persian carpet auctions holding up beautiful artifacts that I could never afford for punters to lay their money down … And I sang and played my songs across Australia and Britain, including many about my work, my work, my working life …

Early in the morning factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
It’s the working, the working, just the working life
Bruce Springsteen

Poems and Prose ; Chelmsley Wood  – London John and Engineers https://howlinginfinite.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/chelmsley-wood.pdf ;

 On the hamster wheel – two poems

 

 

 

Journey’s end – photographer Tim Page’s wild ride

Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow

Bob Dylan

Friends of acclaimed Anglo-Australian photographer, writer and humanist Tim Page, gathered from all across the shire, from the mountains to the sea, and from around Australia on Saturday 10th September to bid him farewell at his bush home in Fernmount next to Tarkeeth Forest to bid him farewell. Bellingen’s resident square-tailed kite did a fly past as if to salute him, and as we sat around the campfire under a full moon, a bevy of fireflies emerged from the forest like faeries coming for to carry him home.

Tim had departed this mortal realm at 4.15pm on Wednesday 24th August 2022, after a relatively short illness. He been sleeping most of the time during those last few days when we dropped by on our way over the hill. We knew it was very close as we’d visited several times, and almost at the exact time of his passing, we’re were actually driving by but decided not to disturb him.

The international and social media response to Tim’s death was astounding and almost instantaneous. Within hours, tributes had been published and posted all over the world. The New York Times published an excellent eulogy, as did the Sydney Morning Herald. The Guardian presented an excellent gallery of his work. An interview by the ABC with Ben Bohane, photojournalist and author and longtime friend and mentee, is both poignant and precise. We had the pleasure of meeting Ben when he visited Bellingen and spent several days with Tim immediately before his death.

He was given a fine send-off. As one mourner noted in a Facebook tribute, “It was a long, melancholic, yet kind of wonderful weekend … the kind of gathering he’d have loved, crammed with people he cared about, the Stones and Dylan rolling out over the Birds of Paradise grove in the gully, a grassy aroma in the air, and tales of his misdemeanours, wisdom and humanity prompting chuckles and affirmations as a light breeze loosened leaves and sent them down in lazy spirals onto his wicker casket …”

Fine eulogies were delivered by Tim’s “brothers” in photo-journalism who’d worked with him over all over the world and down the years. There were tales of battlefields and bar-rooms, of recovery and resilience, of road trips and revelries, of incidents and accidents.

Tim Page 1944-2022

Tim Page 1944-2022

I spoke too, as a friend and a forest neighbour, and also, as a resident of Bellingen Shire. We’d had the privilege and pleasure of sitting with Tim for many an hour during the three months of his decline. We talked of was and when, of our childhoods in Nineteen Fifties England, of life in our valley, of history and politics and of his long and colourful career – and we were able to say goodbye to him in person four days before the end.

This is what I said …

Journey’s End

Living just over the hill, and forever dropping in here at paradise park, Adèle and I spent many an hours sharing stories and gossip with Tim and his partner Marianne and her sister Annette, who we farewelled right here just over a year ago. We all shared a common English heritage, having all grown up in postwar Britain with its rationing, blandness and monochrome conformity – in the midst of the Cold War and under the shadow of the mushroom cloud.

During the three months of his decline, Tim and I would reminisce about our common boyhoods in nineteen fifties England before we both split for foreign parts. 

We were into bicycles with drop handlebars and comics like The Beano and illustrated stories about “the war” – which was still a lived experience for the adults around us whilst the sons and brothers of our friends and acquaintances were called up for national service. We’d built the same Airfix aeroplane kits and hung our trophies from our bedroom ceilings – Tim’s are now hanging in his archive bunker over yonder. I believe he still has his Hornby train set and, no doubt, his Meccano – folks here of a certain vintage will know what I mean. He was and remained a great collector of stuff. He even picked up a UN Toyota “technical” utility truck in Bosnia and brought it back here.

In the sixties, we’d listened to the same music, and used some of the same drugs – me, much less than he. We both took to the Hippie Trail from Europe to Asia taking the ‘overland’ road that decades later would be called ‘the Hippie Trail’.

But Tim had already been two years “in country” when I was demonstrating in front of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square against what Kenny Rodgers would call “that crazy Asian war”. 

Tim virtually ambled into the Vietnam War, the last of the “great” wars of the Twentieth Century, and though photography was a teenage hobby, in Vietnam, he drifted into the profession almost by accident. The war was a conflict with many names, but the best is probably one from Ken Burns great documentary: “chaos without a compass”. Tim navigated it cannily if carelessly for several but left ‘Nam a few years later critically injured in a minefield and indeed clinically dead in a medivac chopper. Post-op and recuperating in the US, Tim took himself off to Woodstock, New York State. where it was being said that there was going be a cool scene – which indeed there was, as we all remember:  the famous music festival held over three days in August 1969 on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York (65 km) southwest of the town of Woodstock. But Tim never got to hear any of the great music – complications from his injuries meant that he had to be medivacced out of Woodstock, probably on the same chopper that had just brought in the legendary Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Tim told us the clear-felled Tarkeeth Forest to our immediate south, just beyond those trees, reminded him of those Vietnam battlegrounds – indeed, the use of fires and herbicides in Forestry Corporation’s “forest re-establishment” reminded him of the devastation wrought by the defoliant Agent Orange in that unfortunate country. Ironically, Agent Orange may have contributed to his illness. He was unable to have MRI scans because of the shrapnel fragments in his liver from one of his many close encounters with the Grim Reaper. 

Listening to Tim’s stories, you wonder whether this peregrinating, ever-restless bloke had more lives than a cat! When he was first diagnosed in early May, as Adèle and sat on his hospital bed, I remarked that he’d already used up his nine lives. He replied: “No matter how many times you’ve faced the prospect of death, you’re never prepared for it”.

But, when the end came, he faced it with stoicism and courage. I hope that when we get there, we’ll all be as brave. 

Farewell wild rover.

Your’s was a life well lived, and to borrow from Rudyard Kipling, filling the unforgiving minute of the unrelenting day with sixty seconds worth of distance run.

As Bob Dylan sang, “Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore – you may not see me tomorrow”.

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
Jim Morrison 1967

This painting by his friend Joanne Brooker portrays his long and colourful career.

Tim Page by Joanne Brooker

In Country

Tim Page’s War

Any good war picture is an anti-war picture. Tim Page

Almost exactly a year ago, In That Howling Infinite published a piece on Tim’s journey to a war. I had been editing one of his several autobiographical accounts of his adventures and reading Max Hastings’ tombstone of a book, Vietnam – an Epic Tragedy, and spent hours talking to Tim about his life and viewing his splendid if often harrowing pictures. In Tim’s words, written on his archive “bunker”, a converted shipping container that became his last great project (buoyed up on steroids, he’d risen from his bed finished unpacking his collection on the Saturday before he died), “Any good war picture is an anti-war picture”.

In Tim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam Journey, I wrote:

For Tim, it was the worst of times, it was the best of times. “Hot and cold running …” he says, using the vernacular of those days … booze, drugs, girls, he meant – battle injuries and diseases – and action, lots of it, in the air in helicopters and on occasion, fighter bombers, on the land in jeeps, armoured vehicles, and motor bikes, on the rivers in patrol boats, and on foot. The lure of sex, drugs, and excitement – and paid work for a major news agency saw him wash up in Saigon and the celebrated, inebriated Frankie’s House, a kind of home-away-from home and party house for transiting bao chi – ‘round-eye’ newsmen – a decadent, dissolute, de facto foreign correspondents club. From here, they would fan out though war-wracked South Vietnam under the often dodgy and dangerous protection of Uncle Sam. Like the soldiers they accompanied, many came back in body bags or on stretchers. Many just disappeared, and it has been Tim’s mission in life to trace these lost souls. They include his best buddy Sean Flynn, the son of famous actor and pants man Errol Flynn”.

In the 1992 series of Frankie’s House, based on Tim’s Vietnam days, he was portrayed by the Scottish actor Iain Glen, famous nowadays for his role as Ser Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones.

Iain Glen on the left as Tim Page in Frankie’s House

“Any good war picture is an anti-war picture”.

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
Khalil Gibran

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration…

TS Elliot, Little Giddng

© Paul Hemphill 2022. All rights reserved

In In That Howling Infinite, see also, Tall tales, small stories, obituaries and epiphanies

Also in In That Howling InfiniteThe Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy ; anThings fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited

The Roots and Fruits of Putin’s Irridentism

Prologue

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was in many ways a seminal event in my own journeying. Until then, I was a political ingenue and a naive communist sympathizer and fellow-traveler, although my evolving perspectives were transforming and expanding as I studied the history and politics of Russia and the Soviet Union, under the tutelage of exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely. Born in Moscow to a prominent communist family, his father disappeared into the Gulag. Young Tibor served in the Red Army, and he too was arrested and sent to a Labour camp. Rehabilitated, he served as Chancellor of Budapest University encore finally settling in the UK he taught me Russian politics at Reading University. He advised my to study with an open mind and to put off juvenile thinking. He hadn’t been well when I knew him and he died in 1972, a year after I graduated. Under his tuition, I’d resolved to specialize in Soviet Studies – but events intervened and I ended up in the Middle East (see: Tanks for the Memory – how Brezhnev changed my life).

I am recalling Tibor Szamuely today because he would always impress upon me the historical and political continuity of what he called The Russian Tradition – the title of his one and only book, published shortly before his death. He believed that the bloodstained drama of 1917 and the years that followed largely obscured the underlying consistency of Russian history. It is this basic pattern, circular and repetitive, that has seen the frequent turmoils that have overtaken this vast continent have in their various ways made changes that were essentially superficial, leading in the end to the intensification, under new forms, of the old authoritarian structure. From medieval times, autocracy has coexisted with a revolutionary traditionalism – a contradiction in terms as only Russia could sustain, a unique Russian capacity to seek revolution and discover regression, to invoke liberty merely to reinforce repression. if he were with us today, Szamuely would explain that the Soviet Union under Lenin and his successors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin bears so disconcertingly close  a resemblance to Russia under the most savage of its tsars.

It is a theme echoed recently by Russian scholar and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore who wrote recently about how on 17th March, Putin appeared to threaten his people with a revival of Stalin’s Great Terror that began in 1937 and in which 1 million people were shot over two-and-a-half years:

“He’s dog-whistling 1937, so that’s pretty scary and the reason he’s doing it is because he realises there’s opposition in the elite and among the populace.He used all these keywords: ‘traitors,’ ‘enemy of the people,’ ‘scum,’ ‘bastards,’ all of which were from the thirties, which a Russian would know he’s threatening massive repression in Russia. He’s literally putting the fear, an ancestral, terrifying fear into these people. People who would have heard of these stories from their old parents, and grandparents and great-grandparents about the time when people didn’t sleep at night, they kept a bag packed in case they were deported. People were never seen again. It was a terrifying speech in only a way the Russians would know.”

One nation under an Orthodox god

In That Howling Infinite’s last post, Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism, we wrote:

‘Observing Putin’s mystical nationalism, his idea of Ukraine as part of Russia’s “spiritual space” … American historian Victoria Smolkin argues that his imagination of Ukraine is a fantasy of a fallen empire, a fever dream of imperial restoration. “Undoubtedly, many still harbour fantasies of such imperial restoration. But fantasy is not history, and it’s not politics. One can lament – as Putin does – that Soviet politics was not “cleansed” of the “odious” and “Utopian” fancies “inspired by the revolution,” which, in part, made possible the existence of contemporary Ukraine. But that is the burden of History –  it is full of laments”.’

By his own account, Putin sees himself not as the heir to the Soviets but as a champion of Russian civilization and Moscow’s Eurasian empire, whose roots extend back to a much earlier Vladimir—St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kyiv from about 980 to 1015. St. Vladimir was ruler of what the Russians consider their first empire, the Slavic state known as Kievan Rus—based, of course, in Kyiv, the capital of what is now Ukraine. St. Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity in 988 later gave rise to the idea that Russia would be the “third Rome”—the heir to the fallen Roman and Byzantine Empires following the surrender of Constantinople to the Ottomans. It is why, like Putin, many Russians refer to Kievan Rus as “the cradle of Russian civilization” and Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities.”

He didn’t realize that even most of the Russian-language speakers in eastern Ukraine see themselves now as Ukrainian—that over the past 30 years, the Ukrainians had formed their own country. He didn’t realize that their sense of identity had changed,”

Fortress Russia This attitude also has profound roots in Russian history, especially the Russian belief that Orthodox Christianity is superior to the West’s liberalized Christianity, which Putin and other conservative Russians view as corrupted by Enlightenment ideas. In the early 19th century, the Russian answer to the French Revolution’s Enlightenment creed, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity), was “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”—which Sergey Uvarov, minister of public education to Tsar Nikolai I, formulated as the conceptual foundation of the Russian Empire. This tripartite credo isn’t mentioned in Putin’s speeches and writings—he still likes to pretend Russia is a democracy—but it has been invoked by the far-right thinkers said to influence Putin, including Aleksandr Dugin, Lev Gumilev, Ivan Ilyin, Konstantin Leontiev, Sergei Petrovich Trubetskoy, and others dating back 200 years.

It is a sense that goes back centuries: In order to survive, you need strategic depth, so you need to push borders out as far away from the heartland as possible—not so much physical as geopolitical barriers. You just push until you meet something that can resist you.”

It is little understood by many Westerners that Russian literary figures they revere, such as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, were also devotees of this idea of a “greater Russia” under an absolute autocrat. Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author best known for writings that exposed the horrors of the Soviet gulag, later became one of Putin’s favorite intellectuals. Before his 2008 death, Solzhenitsyn wrote in an essay: “All the talk of a separate Ukrainian people existing since something like the ninth century and possessing its own non-Russian language is recently invented falsehood.” Shortly before his death in 1881, Dostoevsky wrote: “To the people the Czar is the incarnation of themselves, their whole ideology, their hopes and beliefs.”

Many commentators on left and right are now pondering what they see as the inevitability of what is happening today in Ukraine, and several of them point to the malign influence of the man people are calling “Putin’s brain”, the nationalist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin -a latter day Rasputin, indeed, although  Vladimir Putin is not as naive and dependent as the doomed Tsar Nikolai II, he is seemingly appearing to be as isolated – he is nobody’s puppet. David von Drehle wrote recently in the Washington Post: “A product of late-period Soviet decline, Dugin belongs to the long, dismal line of political theorists who invent a strong and glorious past — infused with mysticism and obedient to authority — to explain a failed present. The future lies in reclaiming this past from the liberal, commercial, cosmopolitan present (often represented by the Jewish people). Such thinkers had a heyday a century ago, in the European wreckage of World War I: Julius Evola, the mad monk of Italian fascism; Charles Maurras, the reactionary French nationalist; Charles Coughlin, the American radio ranter; and even the author of a German book called “Mein Kampf.”

Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of The Australian and a committed Roman Catholic, wrote a very good piece not just discussing Dugin, but also, the long arm of Russian history and the depth of Russian culture, including not only those icons of the Russian literary cannon, but also, what he describes as the “self-obsessed and self-regarding Russian Orthodox Christianity”. It is, he says, “ a treasure of spiritual depth and theological insight. But it’s view if the rest if Christianity is tied up in its tangles relationship with Russian nationalism”. Russia, he writes, considers itself as the third Rome, the true heir and successor to Rome and Byzantium, and the chaplain to the tsars.

I republish Sheridan’s article below, along with a piece from the eZine Foreign Policy by Michael Hersh, Putins Thousand Year War, which follows a similar historical track although with more emphasis on its present day geopolitical implications.

Both lead us back to Tibor Szamuely’s perspective that in Russia, there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

© Paul Hemphill 2021. All rights reserved

Posts in In That Howling Infinite, about Eastern Europe: Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism; Ghosts of the Gulag, The Death of Stalin is no laughing matter, Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life, 2nd September 1939 – the rape of Poland (1), 17th September 1939 – the rape of Poland (2)  

Inside the twisted mind of Vladimir Putin

Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor, The Australian, 12th March 2022

Putin sees Ukraine and Belarus as the absolute minimum he must reclaim for Russia.

Ukraine and Belarus are the absolute minimum Putin must reclaim for Russia

Is Vladimir Putin out of his mind? As their savage invasion of Ukraine began a third week, Russian forces deliberately bombed a maternity and children’s hospital in the southern city of Mariupol. Last week, they attacked a nuclear power plant. The Ukrainian government accuses Moscow of using illegal thermobaric bombs, vacuum bombs, which suck the oxygen even out of people’s lungs.

Evacuation routes for civilians fleeing the heavy fighting in Mariupol have been repeatedly agreed, then shelled when terrified women and children try to escape.

International sanctions have crippled the Russian economy, crashed the rouble, caused a flight of capital. Russian oligarchs have lost tens of billions of dollars. Civilised nations won’t let Russian planes enter their air space. Moscow has created the biggest European refugee crisis since World War II. US intelligence thinks Putin might be about to use chemical weapons.

On the battlefield, Russia’s forces have been humiliated by a much smaller, less well-equipped Ukrainian military enjoying overwhelming civilian support.

But Putin cannot afford to lose. In Russian history, losing a war normally leads to government collapse and often the ruler’s assassination. The Russian govern­ment is now a one-man show. All power resides in Putin, the most comprehensive personal dictatorship since Josef Stalin. Only Xi ­Jinping of China wields a similar degree of absolute control in a big nation.

Putin has re-established not the Cold War, but the pre-Cold War norm that major powers invade other nations for conquest and territory, and population. Putin has even threatened the use of nuclear weapons.

US senator Marco Rubio thinks Putin is deranged. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who met him many times, thinks he has changed. Previously, Putin was cool and calculated; now he’s erratic and delusional.

The televised kabuki performance Putin had his national security council put on, in which they all advised him to be tougher, from across a vast room (like Xi and ­Donald Trump, Putin is a germaphobe), not only looked weird but seemed false and clumsy, unlike most of Putin’s theatricality.

But this analysis is surely overdone. Putin has miscalculated in Ukraine. He thought his military stronger, Ukraine weaker, and the West more divided. But these are mistakes leaders, especially dictators who seldom get disagreeable advice, sometimes make. There is no reason to think Putin mad, even unbalanced. He’s always been a gambler. The next few weeks could be terrible, as the main military tactic left is simply to bomb and shell Ukrainian cities, repeatedly if not relentlessly, to cut off food, water and power, and effectively starve and murder the population into submission.

While Putin cannot afford to lose, perhaps he can compromise, using that word loosely, to describe a situation where he keeps a chunk of Ukraine but stops fighting. Putin is intensely unpredictable but he is not irrational and the Ukraine campaign lies at the very heart of his long-held ideological world view. It was predictable, and he himself often predicted it.

That world view is very particular and sees Russia as the centre of a Eurasian empire. It relies on a theory called Traditionalism, which rejects modernism and every aspect of Western liberalism, especially the West itself. This ideology is most clearly expressed in the writings of Aleksandr Dugin, who has prospered as a public sage under Putin. Dugin’s exotic views have earned him the label of Putin’s Rasputin (a mad mystic whose influence on the family of the last tsar, Nicholas II, was wholly baleful).

More of Dugin below, but Putin of course is nobody’s puppet and embodies many distinctive influences. Putin, now 69, was born in St Petersburg, studied law and went into the KGB. He rose to lieutenant-colonel and served in East Germany.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin became active in St Petersburg politics. He has said the chief lesson he learnt there was that if there’s going to be a fight, make sure you hit first.

Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

He was briefly in charge of intelligence services, then rose like a rocket to become prime minister, then president. He has been the boss of Russia for 20 years. That brings its own psychological baggage. Democratic leaders have told me they think people go a bit mad if they stay in the top job too long. That’s particularly so for dictators. As they grow older they seek a special place in history and become ever more paranoid. Numerous tsars were killed by ambitious rivals. Putin has no obvious succession plan. He has two daughters and may have a couple of sons, but none is involved in Russian politics or public life.

Putin is careful to look after his personal security detail. A number have become very wealthy. But the isolation, the gnawing paranoia, the eschatological date with history, these are the dark and lonely reaches of absolute power, which no human being is meant for.

Putin has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. He was an orthodox communist, but this expresses nostalgia not for communism, which Putin routinely criticises or dismisses these days, but rather for the Russian empire embodied in the Soviet Union.

Dugin is an important expression of the dominant ideology of the Putin era, but Putin emerges out of a much broader tradition. That is the long history, the dark forest, of Russian nationalism and cultural hubris.

Russia is a paradox because it is indeed one of the greatest cultures. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy were perhaps the supreme novelists in any language. Life could not be complete without the melancholy sweetness of Tchaikovsky’s music. The Thief, a film made in Russia’s brief post-­communist freedom, surely rates among the finest of all films.

But this culture is also self-­obsessed and self-regarding. Russian Orthodox Christianity is a treasure of spiritual depth and theological insight. But its view of the rest of Christianity is tied up in its tangled relationship with Russian nationalism.

It considers itself the third Rome, and the true Rome. After the fall of Rome, in this view, Christianity was carried on in the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople (Istanbul) was the second Rome. Now Moscow is Byzantine’s rightful heir, the third Rome, the true Rome. Yet the Russian Orthodox Church has also always been the tsar’s chaplain.

Putin is much more a modern tsar than a modern communist like China’s Xi.

The tsars themselves, both the occasional liberal reformers and the aloof autocrats, resided at the heart of Russian cultural self-obsession and hostility to the West.

Dostoevsky was the supreme Christian novelist of the 19th century. His Christian vision was transcendent, at times sublime. The most Christ-like character in all Dostoevsky’s novels, Prince Myshkin, surely gives expression to Dostoevsky’s own views when he declares: “Our Christ must shine forth in opposition to the West … Catholicism is no more than an unchristian faith, it is not a faith but a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire.”

That last is an astonishing comment, given that the Holy Roman Empire hadn’t by then (1869) been powerful for hundreds of years. But that paranoid style, retaining grievance over hundreds of years, seeing enemies where none exist, that is characteristic of Russian culture both at the elite and the popular levels.

These qualities animate the mind of Vladimir Putin. He must have espoused atheism when a KGB colonel, but since ruling ­Russia he funds the Russian Orthodox Church and is happy to be filmed participating in its services on feast days.

Putin is said to own luxury yachts and enjoy living very well. But the Russian population never sees any debauchery from him. He is proud of his physical fitness and his private life is entirely private.

Putin may or may not hold any religious belief himself but he is in many ways a traditional tsarist leader. This tradition pays no lip service to Western liberalism.

I attended a lunch with Putin at the Sydney APEC summit in 2007. He told a long, and it must be said very funny, joke about what a fool Alexander Kerensky was. Kerensky was the social democrat leader the Russian communists deposed in 1917. Kerensky lived for a time in Brisbane in the 1940s. What Putin thought bizarre was that he formed a romantic liaison with a journalist. Putin thought this contemptible, grotesque, in any political leader. Putin went on and on about it. At the time it seemed funny enough, but odd. Looking back, I can’t imagine any other leader behaving that way.

Most dictators would ignore the press, democrats would celebrate it or josh it or whinge about it. Dictators pretending to be democrats would pretend to tolerate the media. Putin was none of those things. In expressing contempt for the press, in this case humorously, he was giving an early sign of the contempt in which he held all the norms of Western liberalism.

There is no better insight into the strategic mind of Putin than the book (which admittedly has a pretty wordy title): The American Empire Should be Destroyed – ­Aleksandr Dugin and the Perils of Immanentized Eschatology, by James Heiser, a Lutheran bishop in the US.

Dugin is a Russian political activist, university professor, prolific author and public commentator of great note. He has been a formal and informal adviser to several figures in the Russian leadership. Some of the things he says are truly bizarre and Putin doesn’t repeat those. But there is a deep continuity and overlap between Dugin’s writings and Putin’s recent long essay on why Russia and Ukraine are the one people, the one “spiritual space”.

There is no way Dugin could be as prominent as he is if Putin didn’t approve, and there is ample evidence that Putin, whom Dugin supports with wild enthusiasm, takes Dugin very seriously.

Dugin has written many books, but changed his fundamental views little over the years. A typical Dugin passage reads: “When there is only one power which decides who is right and who is wrong, and who should be punished and who not, we have a form of global dictatorship. This is not acceptable. Therefore, we should fight against it. If someone deprives us of our freedom, we have to react. And we will react. The American Empire should be destroyed. And at one point, it will be. Spiritually, globalisation is the creation of a grand parody, the kingdom of the Antichrist. And the United States is the centre of its expansion.”

For a time, Dugin was an anti-communist but he came to support the Soviet Union not long before it collapsed. He also sees good in Nazism, especially its paganism and its rejection of modernity, though of course he condemns its wildest excesses and certainly its war against Russia. Like many Nazis, he is obsessed with the occult.

People walk past a stencil painting depicting Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky on a building in downtown Podgorica. Picture: AFP

People walk past a stencil painting of President Volodymyr Zelensky in Podgorica. AFP

He believes Russia is protected by a specific good angel, that every nation has its assigned angel. Russia’s angel is at war with the West’s angel.

Dugin is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church but has a very eccentric view of Christianity. He embraces Traditionalism, which he holds shows that traditional human life, which is decent and good, comes from primordial traditions which pre-date modernism, which is evil. He has a pretty arbitrary selection of some religions as OK – Russian Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and a few others – and some as fraudulent and twisted, especially Catholicism and Protestantism.

He believes the good religions can all live side-by-side. More than that, he thinks all Russians are automatically Russian Orthodox. It doesn’t matter whether they go to church or not. The church is a kind of accompanying minor theme in the symphony of Russian nationalism. This ideology is immensely chauvinist, but not exactly racist. A nation is defined by cultural unity rather than race.

One of the things Dugin hates most about the West is its stress on individual rights. Peoples have rights, in Dugin’s view, but individual people do not. The society has rights; individuals do not have rights.

Dugin glorifies violence and the violent assertion of culture and national destiny.

Dugin also espouses the long-held Russian doctrine of Eurasianism. He sees the Eurasian culture as land-based, wholesome and good, and the Atlantic culture as sea-based, decadent and corrupt. He erects an enormous theological and philosophical sub-structure behind all this, but the bottom line is that Moscow should rule a Eurasian empire running from Western Europe all the way through central Asia and beyond.

The aftermath of Russian army bombardment on a children hospital in Mariupol, southeastern Ukraine.

The aftermath of Russian  bombardment on a children hospital in Mariupol

Putin, following Dugin but also of course interpreting him freely, sees Ukraine and Belarus as the absolute minimum he must reclaim for Russia. Their addition would make Russia a nation of 200 million, and an even more vast geographical behemoth. Putin sometimes calls his opponents Nazis, as he grotesquely labels the Jewish President of Ukraine, but Putin has himself become a hero for the far right in the West. The right is always inclined to fall for a strongman leader. Putin funds, and thereby compromises and corrupts, the Russian Orthodox Church. He despises Western liberalism, the failings of which also distress Western conservatives. Putin promotes traditional values, as Dugin also claims to do within his bizarre world view. So before invading Ukraine, Putin had a lot of fans on the far right.

Dugin’s writings are a rich and weird compendium of often frightening conspiracies and speculations and they certainly exist at the extremes of Russian nationalism. There are countless milder versions than Dugin.

But the final element of Dugin’s theories which ought to give concern is his conviction that these are the “end days” and that a mighty battle between Russian Eurasia and the vile West is at hand. Putin is much smarter and more practical than Dugin. But this ideological impulse – to hate the West, to see anti-Russian conspiracies everywhere, to reclaim territory for Russia and favour violence – are all evident in the mind and actions of the Russian leader.

As Dugin says, chaos can think.

Putin’s Thousand-Year War

Michael Hersh, Foreign Policy, March 12th 2022

Whether or not Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ends any time soon, what is certain to continue is the Russian president’s abiding hatred and mistrust of the United States and other Western powers, which he believes left him no choice but to launch an unprovoked war.

It’s not just Putin. These views are shared by the many Russian elites who have supported him for two decades. They have also been a chief reason for Putin’s domestic popularity—at least until recently, when his invasion ran into fierce resistance—even as he has turned himself into a dictator and Russia into a nearly totalitarian state reminiscent of the Soviet Union at its worst. It is an enmity worth probing in depth, if only to understand why Washington and the West almost certainly face another “long twilight struggle” with Moscow—in former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s words—rivaling the 45-year Cold War.

The Russian president’s enduring antagonism toward the West is a complex tale, one compounded of Putin’s 69-year-old personal history as a child of World War II and career Soviet spy as well as the tangled, thousand-year history of Russia itself—or at least Putin’s reading of it. At the bottom, Putin and the many right-leaning Russian officials, elites, and scholars who support him not only don’t want to be part of the West and its postwar liberal value system but believe their country’s destiny is to be a great-power bulwark against it.

Even if Putin is somehow ousted from power, the generals and security mandarins who surround him are just as vested in his aggression as he is. And already, Russia is almost as isolated economically as it was during the Soviet era.

Indeed, Putin may have been preparing for this moment longer than people realize: After the Russian leader annexed Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin’s longtime ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, wrote that it would mark “the end of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the cessation of repeated and fruitless attempts to become a part of Western civilization.” Surkov predicted that Russia would exist in geopolitical solitude for at least the next hundred years.

“Putin has no path back,” said Anna Ohanyan, a political scientist at Stonehill College and the author of several books on Russia. Like other Russia experts, Ohanyan believed at one point during Putin’s 20 years in power that he was seeking a way to wield Russian influence within the institutions of the international system while trying to build new, countervailing ones, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Now most of those initiatives have turned to ashes. “By challenging territorial norms, he’s throwing out the prospect of the path he’s been building,” she said.

Biden administration officials are still grappling with the implications of the new long-term struggle. To do so, they have already delayed publishing their new national security strategy slated for the spring. While the administration expects to maintain its Indo-Pacific focus, officials say Putin’s aggression is leading to much more intensive effort to pursue what was already one of U.S. President Joe Biden’s key goals: the revitalization of NATO and the Western alliance, especially the new militarization of major European Union nations such as Germany, which hitherto had been reluctant to play a leading defense role.

Ukraine became the touchstone of Putin’s anti-Western attitudes in large part because the Russian leader and his supporters saw their historical brother nation as the last red line in a long series of Western humiliations. Putin, in his speeches, has repeatedly called this the West’s “anti-Russia project.” These perceived humiliations go back a long, long way—not just in the 30 years since the Cold War ended, nor even in the 100 years since the Soviet Union was formed in 1922. They reach all the way back to the European Enlightenment of more than three centuries ago, which gave rise to liberty, democracy, and human rights. To Russian nationalists like Putin, these developments have gradually come to eclipse Russia’s distinct character as a civilization.

By his own account, Putin sees himself not as the heir to the Soviets but as a champion of Russian civilization and Moscow’s Eurasian empire, whose roots extend back to a much earlier Vladimir—St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kyiv from about 980 to 1015. St. Vladimir was ruler of what the Russians consider their first empire, the Slavic state known as Kievan Rus—based, of course, in Kyiv, the capital of what is now Ukraine. St. Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity in 988 later gave rise to the idea that Russia would be the “third Rome”—the heir to the fallen Roman and Byzantine Empires following the surrender of Constantinople to the Ottomans. It is why, like Putin, many Russians refer to Kievan Rus as “the cradle of Russian civilization” and Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities.”

Some scholars believe this obsession with long-ago history is why Putin, who during his two decades in power was often thought to be a wily and restrained tactician, made the biggest miscalculation of his career in invading Ukraine. In doing so, he united, in one reckless move, the Ukrainians and the Europeans as well as the rest of the world against him. “He didn’t realize that even most of the Russian-language speakers in eastern Ukraine see themselves now as Ukrainian—that over the past 30 years, the Ukrainians had formed their own country. He didn’t realize that their sense of identity had changed,” said Peter Eltsov, a professor at National Defense University and author of the new book The Long Telegram 2.0: A Neo-Kennanite Approach to Russia. “He also killed all the progress he was making in dividing Europe. Even Finland and Sweden, which had been neutral, are now talking about joining NATO. He achieved the 100 percent opposite result of what he wanted.”

Statue of Archangel Michael on the Lach Gates at Kyiv’s Independence Square

Ciao Pollo di Soho – the café at the end of the M1

Soho (needless to say)
I’m alone on your streets on a Friday evening
I’ve been here all of the day
I’m going nowhere with nowhere to go
Al Stewart, 1972

… it felt like we had one toe in the Mediterranean, even though it was January and our fingers were numb under our gloves …
Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Too Much

Sometimes, out of the blue, a message from the old country triggers happy memories and sends us wandering through “the foggy ruins of time”. An old friend from my London days emailed me the other day, recalling how back in the day, I’d frequent a cheap and cheerful Italian café in Soho – what was then “swinging” London’s seedy, sexy and infinitely interesting red-light, hip-boutique and cool restaurant mecca. She’d laid down one wintry English afternoon to relax with a novel, and to her surprise, two pages were dedicated to that very same café.

So, as often happens these days, I was son flicking through my back pages and  disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind.

Cut to 1967 and pictures of a gone world …

The café at the end of the M1

As I wrote in a recent trawl through my back pages (OK! Enough with the Bob Dylan already!):

.“… that motorway from Brum to London was a road well-traveled. In my final year at Moseley Grammar, I’d often hitch down to London for a weekend with pals who’d gone there before. We’d hang out at cheap and cheerful Pollo’s Italian restaurant in Old Compton Street in Soho and the Coach and Horses across the road, and go to Cousins folk and blues joint in a cellar in nearby Greek Street, and the 101 Jazz Club off Oxford Street. Bunjies folk cafè and Ronnie Scott’s jazz club were just around the corner. After a meal or a pint, I’d often catch the last tube to the end of the line closest to the M1. I can’t recall how many times I headed off into the night; and there were always drivers on the road at the witching hour. I guess many folks “get the urge for going”, as Joni sang back then, “and they had to go …” And in those generous times, people were happy to offer a lift to a wayfaring stranger – gentle souls who would not leave strays stranded by the dark wayside; lonesome folks seeking company and conversation in the dark night of the soul; curious people wondering why a young man would hitch the highways in the middle of the English night”.

Yes, Café Pollo was indeed a significant landmark of my London days.

I discovered Café Pollo in the Spring of 1966 when I’d first hitched to London with school friends to take part in a Campaign for Nuclear Disbarment march. From ‘66 through ‘71, I’d go there whenever I was in town, and regularly when I ended up living there – right up to my departure for Australia in 1978. When I was studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies, I’d go there for lunch after Friday classes with my best mate and soul brother Mike (we were born on the same day in the same year in a British city beginning with B).

So, for years and years I’d hung out at Pollo’s. Dined there, boozed there, courted there – almost always on spaghetti bolognese and Chianti with a sticky rum baba to follow. It was crowdy, noisy and smokey, and in winter, steamy and clammy – and “cheap as… “

Though I’d left Old England’s shores, I’d visit Pollo’s whenever I returned and catch up with old pals. When I became vegetarian, the bolognese was replaced with pesto pasta liguria or arrabbiata. When The Evening Standard and Time Out recommended it as an excellent “cheap eats”. I thought its glory days of low-key popularity were over. But it was always there, the same as it always was. The feature picture of this post was taken, I think, when Adèle and I were in England in 1987 – I still have that old Chinese denim jacket and use it for sitting around our bonfires in wintertime.

We continued to go there until 2005, when we were denied service as we just wanted a cup of coffee. The next time I popped by, in September 2008, it was gone. Indeed, it had closed soon after our disappointing coffee quest. Having served the impecunious for generations, it was, in the words of a classic London cafés blog, dismantled and dumped, to be born again as a classier, impersonal, cut-out trattoria – La Porchetta Pollo Bar.

But at least, the name and the memory live on …

Cheap, cheerful and unchanging …

Classic Cafés published an excellent obituary to this Soho icon. Here are some extracts:

“The Pollo, at 20 Old Compton Street, with its ox-blood booths, lapidus beanpole railings, contemporary ceiling, murals, top notch signage, and perfectly preserved light fittings always had hungry queues waiting outside. It remained the proverbial Soho institution for as long as anyone could remember. A proper bargain Italian with perfect ‘60s decor, friendly banter and a worryingly high turnover of chefs (there always seemed to be a ‘chef wanted’ sign in the window). “Cheap and cheerful” remains the operative term at the long-standing Italian café Pollo …

… The almost endless hand-written choice of pastas has now been typed up for easier interpretation, but otherwise the menu remains much the same as I remember it being 20 years back. The food is still hearty, the prices are laughable for central London, the coffee is rocket fuel – and the waitresses still insist on doubling you up in the booths with complete strangers …

… Plenty has changed in London. Fortunately, Pollo hasn’t … The Pollo often finds its way onto the ‘top cheap London eats’ lists, and it was the Evening Standard listing under budget eating that first nudged me in its direction a few years ago… It isn’t fancy. It is an Italian restaurant. The inside looks something like a truckers’ caff, with formica tables and little booths, and there is more room downstairs if it looks full. There isn’t a lot of space and the tables are packed in, but the food is good. The main courses consist of a variety (unsurprisingly) of pasta and pizza dishes, again the price range for these tends to be between £3 – £5. There are some risottos as well, and some meat dishes, such as chicken with rice or veal which are a bit more expensive”.

One toe in the Mediterranean …

As for the book my London friend was reading, which inspired her email and my jaunt down the rabbit hole (a pleasant one), The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy, here’s what the protagonist had to sat about about our café de coeur:

“In late January 1989, Jennifer and I were sitting in a cheap Italian restaurant called Pollo in Old Compton Street, Soho. It was always full of students from Saint Martin’s our school around the corner because it offered its loyal impoverished customers three courses for a fiver. Jennifer had introduced me to Pollo when we first met. Once we discover spaghetti vongole and penne arrabbiata, it felt like we had one toe in the Mediterranean, even though it was January and our fingers were numb under our  gloves … She devoured a plate of spaghetti bolgnese even though she was supposed to be a vegetarian. While she drank water,  I knocked back carafe of red wine and ordered another one …. it was warm inside Pollo. Everyone was smoking and shouting us the waiters thumped plates steaming pasta on the formica table. A young man with a blue mohican was stubbing his cigarette in the avocado that had arrive on a plate. it was stuffed with something pink’.

Al Stewart’s Soho (needless to say …)

Apropos the song quoted at the beginning of this memories, whenever I recall Soho in the sixties, I always think about British singer-songwriter and musician Al Stewart’s over-orchestrated debut album of 1967, Bedsitter Images.

Maybe it’s about what here in Australia that, borrowing from our indigenous compatriots, we might call “spirit of place” – the association with the streets within a hop, skip and an amble from Old Compton Street out into Shaftsbury Avenue and that bookshop in Charing Cross Road, the opening verse of the second track Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres, and that flat in Swiss Cottage, a suburb I used to frequent in the seventies. Maybe it’s the seedy, needy, greedy vibe of the priapic songs on Al’s follow up albums. An old friend and Al Stewart fanboy called them aural masturbation. Me and my flat mates were all fans of Al back then, and went to most of his gigs.

In the early seventies, when a girlfriend started going out with him, I actually got to know him for a brief while. Indeed, one time, when he played in Birmingham Town Hall, me and a couple of pals drove up to my old hometown to see him, and after the show, invited him back to my folks’ place for a late night fry up. My mom reckoned he need fattening up. And afterwards, she and Al sat in the kitchen for a couple of hours talking about pop music. “I love Cat Stevens”, mom said. “Oh, I much prefer the Incredible String Band”, said Al. “Oh, they’re very weird, but Paul like them!” She said. Then they got talking about Mick Jagger. And my dad, in the sitting room, said to us others gathered there, and referring to Al’s stature, said “there’s not much to him is there!”. Strange but nice how you recall these little things. The folks have both passed on …

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For more about London in In That Howling Infinite, see: Back in the Day – my journey, in song and poetry; A Window on a Gone World – London days; Song of the Road – my hitchhiking days; Something about London

 

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.

 

Song of the Road – my hitchhiking days

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
An old  Irish blessing

You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway
Joni Mitchell, Coyote

On the road

A recent story in Haaretz brought back memories of my hitchhiking days.

Whilst hitching has lost much of its allure in the west, it remains very popular in Israel. From my very first visit, There are always young people waiting by the roadside – it has always been so for young conscripts travelling home on leave, and motorists have traditionally been comfortable with picking up soldiers waiting with their rifles and kit bags (all non-Haredi or ultra orthodox Israelis must complete national service when they reach 18, and are required to carry their weapons with them at all times if these can’t be securely stored). It is also a popular mode of travel in the occupied West Bank where settlers regard hitching a ride as a political statement of sovereignty and freedom to travel through all of HaAretz, “the land”, and as an economical means of reaching scattered and often isolated (not to mention illegal under international law) settlements. Many drivers regard picking up fellow-settlers as a political and religious duty.


Hitching in the West Bank

This attachment to hitchhiking harbours a strong sense of community, but also, a delusion of safety –  it can and does have deadly consequences. For example, in June 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Hamas operatives at the bus/hitching stop at the Alon Shvut settlements in Gush Etzion and subsequently murdered. The atrocity precipitated Operation Protective Edge, an Israeli bombardment of Gaza which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, and the kidnap and murder of a Palestinian boy by Jewish extremists. But that is not what this story is about …

In the second decade of the 21st century, hitchhiking is widely viewed as an edgy, even dangerous, activity to be avoided by both a potential hitcher and a prospective motorist contemplating whether to pull over or to drive on. For some, it also carries undertones of bludging and of indigence, although in rural areas like where I live, during these straightened times with high youth unemployment and poor public transport, many young people hitch out of necessity.

But the practice flourished for several decades, particularly during the fifties and sixties when few people owned vehicles and catching a ride with a friendly stranger was means of adventure as well as a mode of travel. Hitchhikers did so for a variety of reasons – a combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive sense of invulnerability.

More than just a means of transportation, it was also about social interaction and the opportunity for conversations with strangers. Jack Kerouac, American beat poet and secular patron saint of hitchers. begged to differ. In his seminal On the Road, a book revered more than read, he whinged: “One of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to innumerable people, make them feel that they didn’t make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain when you are going all the way and don’t plan to stay in hotels”.

In his recent Roadside Americans – the rise and fall of hitchhiking in a changing nation, North Carolina historian Jack Reid writes: “The waning of hitchhiking in the 1980s was a result of social change, but the main reason was related to the economy and to engineering. The highways changed. At the exits from cities, there are now huge interchanges rather than simple junctions, where it was easy to stop a car. Added to that was a sense of alienation, a growing fear of strangers and a loss of intimacy. Another reason was that years of economic prosperity and a significant reduction in car prices enabled many young people to buy their own cars”.

Allons! the road is before us! 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Strong and content I travel the open road.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

I was thumbing lifts before I’d even heard of Jack Kerouac,  It seemed like the easiest and cheapest thing to do when cash was scarce  and modes of carriage were few, and the open road and the horizon beckoned.

.In the days gone by, when money was tight and adventure beckoned, I hitched all-over England – visiting friends in far-flung towns and villages, attending music festivals and anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations, and often, simply for the joy of travelling and exploration.

Looking back, my hitching was destination focused,  getting to where I wanted to go and the route that would take me there rather than exploring the highways and byways, the towns and village in between and the folk therein – although I would take in appreciatively the landscapes and cityscapes I would pass through. The roadside and the adjoining nature strip, were, on the other hand, a world of their own. Between rides, standing at a place I’d never been and to which I would not return, I’d note the micro-milieu – the grass and the wildflowers, the flotsam and jetsam, the discarded bottles and butt ends, the empty cigarette packets and the candy bar wrappers. Vehicles  whizzed by and I’d observe their type and frequency to calculate when I’d likely be picked up. And then, destination in mind’s eye, like stepping into a cold pool,or breaking into a run, I’d extend my arm and raise a thumb, gingerly at first and then with bravado.

Living on the northeastern edge of Birmingham,  close to the motorways heading north and south, I’d simply pack a bag, walk to the nearby roundabout, and put out my thumb. It was, after it own fashion, a kind of commuting between hometown domesticity and the great beyond.

When first I roved out, the M1 started on the outskirts of London at Watford, and ended between Coventry and Rugby. The Coventry Road in south west Birmingham was my launching pad. Watford Gap services was like a transit lounge, as was Newport Pagnell. The large road sign Hatfield and the North was a landmark on the road to home. Daytime, nighttime, the wee small hours, in spring and summer sunshine or winter rain, it didn’t really matter – the M1 never slept.

In time, the road system extended and the M1-M6 link lay just a hundred metres in front my family home. One summer, I worked on that section of the motorway as an “on the lump”  casual navvy. No workers comp,or occupational health and safety in those days. Helmets and gloves were optional. My blood, and that of many others, including some who clocked one fine summer morning and never clocked off, is in that  concrete.

As a sixth former, I’d often hitch to “swinging” London for the weekend, to explore the capital and visit folk and jazz clubs, kipping in shop door-ways and underground car parks under cardboard and napping wrapped in newspapers, and eating at Wimpy bars and Lyons teas houses.

A few years later, whilst at Reading University,  the M4 began near Maidenhead and finished at Chiswick, and every few weekends, I’d stand opposite the cemetery in eastern Reading and hitch a ride to London and back – for sit-ins, marches, happenings at The Roundhouse, free open-air concerts (including the famous Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park), and to hang with my London girlfriend.

                                                              The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm

When first I roved abroad, I thumbed my way from Budapest to Athens via Yugoslavia and thence back to Blighty, and the following year, on a side-step from the famous hippie trail, from Beirut to Aqaba and back via Petra and Wadi Rum. I slept a night in Petra itself – in those days, a deserted and un-restored hideaway for fugitive Palestinian  fedayeen after the Black September intifada. For reasons that I can not fully explain, I took my future first wife down the same road two years later, including sleeping out among Petra’s Nabatean tombs. And this was to be the end of my gypsy ways and hitching days. They lasted eight years. Thereafter, the famous “open road” was replaced by planes and trains, buses and cars – and one agonizingly crippled Ford transit van (to … an old saying, when life gives you a lemon, you’d wish you’d’ve been willing to spend more on a reliable motor).

If you’ve taken all you need from this post already, off you go … What follows now are an assortment of self-indulgent reminiscences of my hitchhiking days.

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Travellers’ Tales

Well I left my happy home
To see what I could find out
I left my folk and friends
With the aim to clear my mind out
Well I hit the rowdy road
And many kinds I met there
And many stories told me on the way to get there
So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out
So much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out
Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman

The toad road licked my wheels like a sabre. Marc Bolan

And what should they know of England …

There’s always a first time. We’d all like to daydream that we’d be picked up by Joni Mitchell, like she picked up that scallywag Coyote on her sublime Hejira album. Mine, alas, was as as stocky sixth former with long hair (long for those days) and horn-rims, heading down to London to meet meet up with school chums for the CND Easter March (that was a first too). Standing at the roundabout where the M1 and the world began, having already thumbed from the Coventry Road roundabout opposite the old Swan public house at Yardley, It wasn’t long before a Rolls Royce pulled up. “WTFl!” is what I’d say today A handsome bloke with shades and sideburns who looked like Englebert Humperdinck asked me where I was heading. “London”, I replied. “Of course – where else? Get in”, he said. It was all the way to Marble Arch with pop star Don Fardon – whom I’d never heard of at the time – he later entered the hit parade with a cover of John Loudermilk’s song Indian Reservation. Not a good song, I would say – with many similarly empathetic ballads, it is long on heartstring-pulling  and fucked on imagery and lyrics. If you want to listen to a good song, check out Bruce Cockburn’s evocative Indian Wars and the Australian Goanna Band’s anthemic Solid Rock.

Henceforward, that motorway from Brum to London was a road well-traveled. In my final year at Moseley Grammar, I’d often hitch down to London for a weekend with pals who’d gone there before. We’d hang out at cheap and cheerful Pollo’s Italian restaurant in Old Compton Street in Soho and the Coach and Horses right across the road, and go to Cousins folk and blues joint in a cellar in nearby Greek Street and the 101 Jazz Club off Oxford Street. Bunjies folk club and Ronnie Scott’s jazz Club were just around the corner. After a meal or a pint, I’d often catch the last tube to the end of the line closest to the M1. I can’t recall how many times I headed off into the night; and and there were always drivers on the road at the witching hour. I guess many folks “get the urge for going”, as Joni sang back then, “and they had to go …” And in those generous times, folks were willing to offer a lift to a wayfaring stranger – gentle souls who would not leave strays stranded by the dark wayside; lonesome folks seeking company and conversation in the dark night of the soul; curios people wondering why a young  man would hitch the highways in the middle of the night.

It is now early spring of 1968. I’d repeated my last year at Grammar School, and with assignments completed, an amenable headmaster let me take a week off to travel. This time, I headed northwest across Brum to Darkaston, near Walsall, and what was then the beginning of the M6 – it ended at Lancaster. Travelling through Lancashire, Cumbria and the Lowlands, I reached the outskirts of Glasgow by nighttime. Hitching across the city, I was picked up by a young couple who insisted that I spend the night at their place – they reckoned the green scarf I’d worn around my hat was a risky proposition in that part of sectarianist Glasgow. I loved that old brown fedora; it traveled with me all over England, to Greece and Yugoslavia, and the Middle East until it was stolen along with my harmonica at Wadi Musa, near Petra. Next morning, I was on the road to Edinburgh, crossed the silvery Tay of bad poet William McGonagall fame, transited the granite city of Aberdeen, and by nightfall, I was on the road into Inverness, where I slept by the roadside and woke up covered in snow. Next morning, I was on Culloden field, and thence, continued on my journey. It took me through the Great Glen where I’d caught a local bus that delivered the mail to isolated homesteads, a journey so slow that I was hallucinating mountains and braes for days, and thence to to Loch Lomond and beyond, southering homewards.


The brown fedora, Giza 1971

During my first year at the University of Reading, I kept on hitching – many more journeys to London and back and day trips to nearby Oxford and Windsor. In a cold and rainy April, with first year exams done, I headed east to London and north to the Humber and the port of Hull, to drop on a good friend who had dropped out of uni and to visit an former school chum. In a student share-house near the university, I took my first mescaline trip to the soundtrack of Roy Harper’s sang McGoohan’s Blues’, a twenty minute digression from the concept if not the plot of an iconic if indecipherable television series. “The Prisoner is taking his shoes off to walk in the rain”.  For 1,200 blissful seconds of cosmic consciousness, I found the meaning of life down that wonderful rabbit hole – and had forgotten what I’d found when I’d resurfaced the next morning. Peyote is a very colourful hallucinogenic. I still recall the Fantasia images that passed before my eyes as Roy sang:

Daffodil April petal hiding the game
Forests of restless chessmen life is the same
Tides in the sand sun lover watching us dream
Covered in stars and clover rainbows downstream …
Under the toadstool lover down by the dream
Everything flowing over rainbows downstream
Silver the turning water flying away
I’ll come to see you sooner I’m on my way

As I headed back down south, the wet and windy old weather changed and as I rode through rural Oxfordshire, all a sudden, the sun came out for behind dull English clouds and and Springtime came in verdant glory – as doomed young Robert Browning once declaimed

Oh to be in England now that April ’s there
And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

On arrival at my digs in Reading, there was a note from friends telling me that they’d headed off to Devon to spend a weekend with a fellow student’s farming family, and that me and my friend Jean should join them. So within minutes of arriving home, we were off into the west. Navigating Bristol where, I recall for no apparent reason, that on impulse. I’d bought a copy of The Beano comic) and Somerset. Late that night, we arrived in the tiny town Cullompton in the heart of rustic Devon. After some now forgotten but fun times, including a trip to the seaside and getting blotto on local cider, we hitched home. I don’t recall too much of the journey except that it took us through Basingstoke.

                                                                       Cullompton 1969

One glorious English summer I arranged to meet up with my late pal Dave Shaw in Cambridge, where he was attending a summer school at the University, and go to the celebrated Cambridge Folk Festival. I clocked off from my work on the motorway, got home, just ten minutes away – I said we were close! – showered and packed, and headed to the Clock Garage roundabout and put out my thumb. I took the M1 to London’s North Circular, and cut across to the A10 (there was no M11 in those days) and, And, my stars were alignment on this night ride, arrived at Dave’s digs in time for breakfast.I don’t remember much of the festival bill, but American folk diva Odetta was singing, and also, our idol, Roy Harper, England’s high priest of angst.

I had to leave Cambridge around Sunday lunchtime, after Roy’s last set, to return to Brum for work on Monday. Rather than head back down to London, to save time – a quixotic idea when you are hitching – I decided to cut cross-country to connect with the M1 at Newport Pagnell – in those days before GPS and route planners, a cheap, creased road map from WH Smith was the best we had, plus a good sense of direction, fair weather and loads of luck. And such are the movements of the cosmos, that my one and only only ride took me to, yes, what was then the bucolic village of Newport Pagnell. It was one of those summer evenings in England, when the days are long, the air warm and languorous, and the light, luminous. Birds were singing and church bells were ringing for evensong, and in my mind’s ear, I’d like to imagine that cows were lowing and sheep were bleating. One could almost feel an ode coming on. So there I was, once more, at the services on-ramp, hitching a ride to Birmingham , and hopping aboard an old Land Rover for what was the slowest and noisiest ride ever – which took me almost to my door.

… who only England know

The above header is the second half of Rudyard Kipling’s well known if oft misunderstood poem The English Flag, in which the old Imperialist exhorts his insular countrymen to go forth and conquer … In later and less jingoism times, it has been given a more benign slant, along the lines of the adages like “travel broadens the mind” to which I readily subscribe, or as Cat Stevens was to sing at the time “the road to find out”.

And so it was during the holidays before my final year at Grammar School that I tried my thumb on the Continent. With another school pal, I hopped across La Manche to Belgium with the idea of hitching to Amsterdam. Why we chose Belgium, I can’t recall, but my brother had been there shortly before and he reckoned it was a great place for art and architecture (that was his thing – he scored a rare First in architecture at Uni and went to become the chief architect for Nottingham City Council, designing the international ice rink in partnership with Jane Torvill of of skating icons Torvill and Dean fame). We did a lot of beer and chips and saw a lot of great art and architecture in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels – and we visited the Waterloo battlefield, as one would. As for the Netherlands, we got as far as Antwerp but gave up on Amsterdam after a long day of futile thumbing. We were, however, adopted by a young Belgian lass who took us home to meet her ma and pa. We enjoyed a  bucolic Sunday picnic on the banks of a tributary of the Scheldt before heading back to Oostende and England. In retrospect, I regretted that hadn’t turned south south and set a course for Paris, a  pleasure which would have to wait several more years.

My next “big hitch” was by happenstance in Eastern Europe. I’ve written of this before in In That Howling Infinite in Tanks for the Memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Therein, I recalled how I’d flown to Prague on the first anniversary of the Soviet Invasion for Czechoslovakia, only to have the flight diverted to Budapest in Hungary.

“Given the circumstances of our arrival, and the atmosphere prevailing in the Bloc on the anniversary of Prague invasion, the authorities had given me a visa for four days only. I had therefore to depart the country quick-smart. I had effectively two choices of non-Soviet countries –  westwards to Austria, or south to what was then Yugoslavia. In a split second decision, I took the road less traveled – south to Szeged and the Serbian border. Wondering through the rural outskirts of Novi Sad, I was taken home by a pair of Serbian boys. I spent my first evening with their most hospitable family and slept that night on a bed of furs. “Novi Sad, Beograd” the lads had chanted, and so, instead of setting my direction home, I hitch-hiked south to the ancient Danube city of Belgrade. In the Yugoslav capital, I resolved to keep going southwards. Over the next two weeks, I transited Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, where decided to continue with my southern odyssey – to Athens and the Greek Islands. At journeys end, I hitchhiked back the way I’d come, only this time, reaching Austria via the Croatian capital of Zagreb”.

My Balkan and Aegean adventures included that aforesaid sleepover in Novi Sad; sleeping by the highway south of Niš where I was awoken in the middle of the night by military police who reckoned I was a security risk; being propositioned – solicited more like – by a gypsy girl whose favours I forsook as she mustn’t have showered for a week; picked up by a Greek lorry-driver near the famous pass of Thermopylae who insisted we skinny-dip in the aquamarine Adriatic; and heading out of Thessaloniki on the road to Macedonia (the Slav one), I was picked by a bus load of frisky young Greek conscripts – I jumped out quicksmart into the night.

By the time I reached Zagreb, I’d had enough of the road and took the train to Vienna and thence to Calais and Albion. But, as I wrote in Tanks for the Memory, my southwards diversion to the Mediterranean fixed my gaze on other pastures and inspired  a lifetime interest in the Middle East. For that is where I roved next: “… the clear Hellenic sky and the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean, the parched hills and pine woods of the Peloponnese, the dazzling light and the warm sun on my body, and the ruins and bones of antiquity sang a siren’s song. As Jack Bruce warbled: You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, but you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun. And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids, and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses. My thoughts and dreams no longer ranged eastwards. My next journey took me back to the Mediterranean, and thence, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great – the golden hero of legend, not the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” destroyer – through the Middle East and on to the famous well-trodden Hippie Trail to India”.

I’d never intended to hit the Hippie Trail back then, in the northern summer of 1971. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed.

I’d just finished my final exams and graduated with a good degree, and after three exciting and formative years, it was as if everything had suddenly ground to a halt. Uni was over; a romantic relationship was on the rocks; I was footloose and free, floating and feeling the urge to escape elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere. I’d no idea at all what I would do next, other than an inchoate plan to undertake post-graduate study – guided by my tutor and mentor exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely, my academic interest was Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but that was to be down the track.

When the finals results came out, I spent the evening at the student union with friends, unwinding and getting pissed; and the very next day, I walked into the Student Travel office and booked a one-way air ticket to Athens, passage by steamer from Piraeus to Alexandria via Limassol, Cyprus, and from Egypt to Piraeus and thence to Tel Aviv, Israel, with no bookings for onward travel.

Seized by the idea of visiting the two principal antagonists of the almost recent Six Day War, I’d a naive and uninformed notion to view both sides of the Arab-Israeli puzzle. Within a few weeks, I’d bought a second-hand rucksack and sleeping bag, converted my savings to traveller’s cheques – there were still currency restrictions in the UK on how much cash you could take out of the country – packed a few things, and in the words of Cat Stevens, I was “on the road to find out”. That road took me through the Middle East, and on and on, until I reached Kolkata in Bengal. What was planned as but a two month holiday to “clear my mind out”, to quote Cat again, extended to over six months as the appetite grew with the eating.

And so I travelled through lands of which I knew little, picking up fragments of history and heritage, parables and politics as onwards I roamed

My final hitching hejiras were played out in the Levant – an Indian traveller I’d met in a Cairo youth hostel had told me that if I thought the slums of Cairo were bad – and to a naive Brummie, they were – I should see those in Kolkata. So that is what I resolved to do. Leaving Egypt, I found my way to Damascus by way of Beirut, with a side-trip to Israel via Cyprus, and on a quixotic notion, I resolved to visit Aqaba, and also Petra, the ancient “rose” city. Back then, I knew next to nothing about the Middle East. I’d recalled Aqaba from the film Lawrence of Arabia; and I’d been told that Petra was a “must see” by a fellow traveller in my Damascus hostel. So, I set off south, to Dara’a, a border town where Lawrence was allegedly captured and buggered by the Turks, and which was, in recent times, the spark that ignited the Syrian civil war.

The Jordanian border lay just beyond Dera’a, but all traffic thereto was forbidden – the Syrian and Jordanian army had just fought a desultory tank battle in one of the many ricochets of the latter’s suppression of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation after the failed Black September intifada the year before. The border checkpoints were still open, however, to traffic from Jordan only. So I walked across a kind of no man’s land, past tank tracks and the occasional military wreck. There was a large concrete marker at the actual borderline, with “welcome to jordan” on one side and “welcome to Syria” on the other. It was a surreal space. It’s was twilight and high summer. The air was hot and still and there was almost total silence. No birdsong, an imperceptible warm wind. And of a sudden, there was a buzzing of flies which which swarmed all about me and the marker. I walked on and before too long, passed through passport control with a tourist visa, and thumbed a ride to Amman, the capital.

I slept that night on the outskirts of Amman and continued on to Ma’an, the jump-off point for the village of Wadi Musa and Petra. Onwards then to Aqaba where, having paddled in the sea and walked about the town, I headed back straightaway the way I’d come, to Ma’an, Amman, Dera’a and Damascus – from whence I took the fabled Nairn Bus across the desert to Baghdad. From there, I traveled by bus through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and finally, by train, to Delhi and journey’s end, Kolkata, in the midst of a cholera epidemic and a refugee crisis that was a prelude to the Indo-Pakistan war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.

                                                      By the rivers of Babylon, August 1971
                                                              Agra September 1971
                                                                 Srinegar, October 1971
                                                                           Petra 1973

If you never go, you’ll never grow 

With that, I’ll conclude these travellers’ tales, observing in the present how in all my journeying, I never came to harm, whether by accident, misadventure or malignancy.

As noted in opening paragraphs, there was the “combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive sense of invulnerability” .

Back in the day, hitchhiking in Britain and on the continent was taken for granted and hitchers were commonplace, even if the practice was frowned upon by the straighteners and the fearful. In the Levant, it was a rare thing. Passers-by would often ask what I was doing, and why I traveled thus. Saving money, I’d reply, I was on a budget and had a long way to go – which was indeed the case in the days when credit cards had yet to be invented and the cash and travellers’ cheques in your body belt were all you had to get your thousands of miles. But you come from a rich country, they’d say, adding that there were cheap service-taxis and buses, and that it was dangerous and there were men out there who would rob you or do you harm. Yes, but I have a long way to go. A policeman in Jerash in northern Jordan served me Arab tea and cakes and sat me down on a bench outside the police station whilst he flagged down a driver he considered to be a decent man.

Like those Israelis hitching between towns and villages in Israel and between settlements in the Occupied Territories, we who traveled the world before jumbo jets and cruise ships understood that bad things could happen and that they sometimes did whether you journeyed by thumb, van, bus or train. In hotels and hostels from Beirut to Baghdad, Kabul to Kolkata, you’d pick up word-of-mouth “travel advisories”, warnings and “war stories”. In India, I’d been told of a chap who’d been robbed and stranded in Afghanistan, and I actually met him when I bunked down in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, on my way back to Britain.

So yes, there always was a risk; but if you think too much about it, you’d never go, and if you never go, you’ll never grow.

© Paul Hemphill 2021. All rights reserved.

Also in In That Howling Infinite, read: Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my lifeBack in the Day ; and A Window on a Gone World


Hitching in the West Bank

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The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories

Plots he has made, so ingenuous.
Dangerous follies and schemes
For he has stage-managed quite strenuous
Drunken prophecies, libels and dreams.
Lucifer, Paul Hemphill, after Shakespeare’s Richard II

Everybody who was alive when JF Kennedy was assassinated remembers where they were, just as we remember where we were when Neil Armstrong made that “great step for mankind”, and when we’d heard that the Twin Towers had been hit. And there is an almost universal consensus as to how, why and when these events occurred.

But many beg to differ, and cynical or suspicious, curious or just plan mischievous, they say “Ah, but …” and ascribe ulterior motives, describe oblique patterns, and maintain that they possess clear sight whilst the rest of us sport white sticks and dark glasses.

So, it was inevitable that some folk would some how find a link between COVID19, atmospheric chemtrails and the roll-out of the 5G telecommunications network. Before the coronavirus outbreak even began, 5G was being blamed for everything from cancer to infertility. Now, there are hints of deep state” plots and Illuminati plans to control population growth.

Many of the people spreading such theories are the same that share unfounded warnings about the dangers of vaccinations.​ indeed, folk who grasp conspiracy theories tend to go for the buy one, get five free deal – and the rest! Antivax, chem trails, JFK, 9/11, Apollo II, climate change, Illuminati, deep state, white replacement, the Rothschilds, George Soros, Satanic cults, black helicopters, Freemasons, Jews … Yes, it always come back to the Jews …

Although many common conspiracy theories flourished – some would say festered – in back streets and bedsits, the advent of social media has energized and amplified them. Facebook groups that act as petri dishes for new viral rumours to spread can be easily found by searching for ‘5G’ or ‘coronavirus’ on the social network.

Opportunistic political groups stir the pot, often for subversive and strategic ends. For example, RT, the Kremlin-backed broadcaster, has given a platform for 5G conspiracy theories long before coronavirus existed. The New York Times recently suggested that consistently reporting the “5G apocalypse” through its foreign media channels could all be part of a ploy to slow the roll-out of the technology so that Russia won’t be left behind.

Fear, suspicion, insecurity, resentment, powerlessness and a feeling that things are out of our control have much to do with it, rendering people of a bitter, misanthropic or nihilistic disposition – or a compendium of such traits – susceptible to unproven facts, untethered rumours, and in some cases, outright fantasy, and subscribing to alternative narratives, histories and universes.

In Contagion, a 2011 film about a deadly worldwide pandemic that has killed seventy million, a public health official retorts to a conspiracy theorist: “In order to get scared, all you have to do is come into contact with a rumour”.

Below, In That Howling Infinite provides links to three recent articles that endeavour to cast a light into the shadowy world of conspiracy theories and its inhabitants. But first, the irrepressible Sybil Fawlty’s excruciating exposition on fear and loathing:

“Old people are wonderful when they have so much life, aren’t they? Gives us all hope, doesn’t it? My mother on the other hand is a little bit of a trial, really. You know, it’s alright when they have the life force but Mother – well she’s got more of the death force really. She’s a worrier. She has these, well, morbid fears they are, really. Vans is one. Rats. Doorknobs. Birds. Heights. Open spaces. Confined spaces. It’s very difficult getting the space right for her really, you know. Footballs. Bicycles. Cows. And she’s always on about men following her, I don’t know what she thinks they’re going to do to her. Vomit on her, Basil says”.

Lies travel faster than facts

“Lies travel faster than facts and, perversely, efforts to debunk a conspiracy theory can end up reinforcing it …  Increasingly, authorities treat such misinformation contagion like their biological equivalent – proactively pushing out the right facts to inoculate people against unfounded theories or encouraging good information hygiene (such as checking sources) … such theories more as symptoms of a bigger problem, whether it be lack of transparency or a failure of communication … For most people, the more consistent and clear the messaging is from the people higher up, the better – even if that information is “we don’t know yet”.

How conspiracy theories about COVID-19 went viral, The Sydney Morning Herald

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

“Conspiracy theories aren’t fueled by facts; they are fueled by attention. Twitter in particular, as the platform of choice for many national journalists as well as Trump, has become the perfect vehicle for conspiracy theories, misinformation and racist screeds to find massive audiences; messages grow from a few viral tweets, to a trending topic, to news coverage … When you ask experts about ways to limit the reach of racism and conspiracy theories on platforms such as Twitter, they’ll tell you to watch how it’s amplified: Sharing a meme to condemn it is still a share. Retweeting a racist tweet to shame its writer still gives the tweet more eyeballs … Even though many journalists and media organisations have gotten better at realizing that trending hashtags are often more representative of the weaponization of attention rather than a reflection of popular opinion, trending hashtags are still an effective tactic for courting news coverage of fringe ideas – even if that coverage is intended to debunk it”.

A dangerous cycle of conspiracy theories circulate around Donald Trump, The Sydney Morning Herald

The internet’s dark spaces

Christopher French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London explains in a Scientific American article. “As a species, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to find meaningful patterns in the world around us and to make causal inferences. We sometimes, however, see patterns and causal connections that are not there, especially when we feel that events are beyond our control.”

Voting for Brexit and Trump was found to be associated with a wide range of conspiratorial beliefs, with researchers uncovering that these groups are more likely to believe climate change is a hoax, vaccines are harmful, and that Illuminati-style groups rule the world. They also found that 33 percent of British and French people believe their governments are obscuring the truth about immigration and that many also supported a theory known as “the great replacement” which posits that Muslim immigration is part of a plan to make Muslims the global majority …

… As is the case with the Holocaust and the Second World War, as time passes, truth and fact often become distorted and replaced with myth and alternative stories to support new, disruptive thought. Although many common conspiracy theories flourished – some would say festered – in back streets and bedsits, the advent of social media has energized and amplified them. In the dark recesses of the Internet, all amplified by the likes of QAnon and 8chan which are only loosely tethered to reality, and para-State organs like RT which have more subversive and strategic motives.

How moon landing conspiracy theories influenced the far-right, The Independent

Read other posts about politics in In That Howling InfiniteA Political World – Thoughts and Themes

How the ‘Lucky Country’ lost its mojo

A simple explanation  of seventeenth century physicist Robert Boyle’s Law is: the greater the external pressure, the greater the quantity of hot air. 

And none more so than in contemporary Australian politics. Commenting on the shameless political posturing and finger-pointing inflicted on us by our inadequate leaders during this fiery week, Australian journalist  Jacqueline Maley nailed it:

“Politicians like to talk sentimentally about how much Australians pull together in a crisis, putting aside differences to help out their neighbours. And of course they have during these bushfires. We always do, when it comes to natural disasters. It was the politicians who failed to. And they keep failing. Increasingly it feels the government, so keen to invoke its “quiet Australians”, is using the phrase as a gag on debate. “Quiet Australians” is a genius political term – mystical and impossible to disprove. If you self-nominate as one, you ain’t one. Strangely the quiet Australians’ biggest boosters in the media tend to be the loudest, un-drown-outable voices”.”

We know the system is broke. But how to fix it?

Author and onetime publisher Steve Harris offers some directions as he recalls the genesis of two seminal books on Australian history, politics and culture and examines their continuing relevance. It is a scathing commentary on the sad state of politics and governance in Australia today and of the wit and wisdom of our elected rulers in addressing the myriad problems confronting our country and indeed the wider world.

“Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” ­remain ironic.”

Harris writes of our need for a better understanding of our past, present and future We are “led”, he observes, by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councilors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies; and concludes that we have “so much “government”, so little­ good governance’.

“Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless point-scoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government. Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability”.

The result, he laments, is a re-run of issues revisited but not ­resolved, opportunities not seized, and challenges not confronted … “it is no surprise that the distance ­between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public­ interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement”.

On 16 the November, the Sydney Morning Herald’s economic commentator Jessica Irvine reported on the malaise described by Harris, quoting John Roskam, the director of conservative think tank The Institute of Public Affairs “Public policy in Australia is often made on the run, built on shabby foundations, motivated by short term political gain, and consequently having mediocre outcomes.”

On the same day, the Herald’s  political editor Peter Hartcher voiced similar sentiment. He was referring specifically to the politicians’ inability to unite to face a common foe – the devastating bush-fires raging through New South Wales and Queensland – but his diagnosis is much wider than this:

“Now we have to ask if we’re entering a new phase of over-politicization. Where each party is so intent on its own internal politics that they are incapable of coming together to deal with a parched country, running out of water, and burning as never before. This might be premature. The so-called leaders might yet discover leadership. Real leadership would bring the major parties, and governments federal and state, together to soberly deal with a national crisis. There is a much broader agenda than climate change alone, but it’s also hard to pretend that climate change is irrelevant.

And yet, he concludes, “The omens aren’t good. The Prime Minister refuses to meet former fire chiefs who’ve been seeking a meeting since April to warn of fire catastrophe. Refusing expert advice on a national crisis because it might not exactly suit your existing policies is hardly the stuff of leadership. Politics at its best is problem-solving. Guys, it’s your job. Don’t tell us “not now”.”

Veteran journalist Laura Tingle has summed up a widely felt frustration with our leaders: “For so many people, and so many communities, there have been days and nights of sleeplessness, exhausting anxiety, and fear of monstrous firestorms; and for some, the destruction they have caused. And now the oppressive knowledge that it is likely that this could go on for months. It has also been a week of catastrophic failure of our political dialogue. It’s easy to just express exasperation at the sniping of some of the statements made by politicians this week as they have tried to fight a culture war about climate change in the midst of such disastrous scenes. But there is actually something much more alarming going on here. If our political conversation really is at a point when these cultural weapons can’t be downed in the face of a crisis, we really are in a lot of trouble”.

When commentators and opinion-makers on all sides – even conservative platforms like The Australian and the IPA – are lamenting the (sclerotic?) condition of our body politic and the (toxic?) quality of much public debate, I am reminded of what an old Greek once said (or maybe didn’t say it quite like this): those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first render stupid.


For more on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see: Down Under

Bare Dinkum

A failure to create our own luck results in new tyranny

Steve Harris, The Weekend Australian, 2nd November 2019

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Dragon years are especially significant in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon being the only animal born of imagination, and dragons seen to be the world’s best leaders because of their traits of ambition, courage, tenacity, intelligence and risk-taking. And so it was in the dragon year of 1964, when the ­storyline of China was challenged by its own leadership and the ­storyline of Australia was challenged by three men with a different perspective.

In 1964, China exploded an atom bomb and Mao Zedong made his famous “China will take a giant stride forward” speech, declaring­ the country had to “not just follow the beaten track traversed by other countries … and trail behind them at a snail’s pace” but be unstoppable in showing that the East could best the West.

And three Australians took some bold strides: a young Rupert Murdoch bravely launched The Australian to start a global reshaping of media. A former newsboy and young historian, Geoffrey Blainey, accepted a commission that became The Tyranny of ­Distance, a bold and fresh perspective on the story of Australia. And journalist-editor Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, a ­courageous and challenging crit­ique of Australia’s capabilities.

In their own way, Mao, Murdoch, Blainey and Horne understood Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s sentiment of the 1950s, one Barack Obama also adapted in 2008 in his landmark “A more powerful union” speech that set him on the path to the presidency: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” All understood this, and ­wanted to impact our knowledge of the arc of history and its consequen­ces, and the capacity to bend it.

The three Australians reflected a view that conventional wisdom is more conventional than wisdom­, that status quo can be code for “not good enough”. Today The Australian is an integ­ral part of the ­national lexicon, so too ­“tyranny of distance” and “the lucky country”, and half a century on the ­potency of their thinking remains very alive.

In the final chapter of his study of Australia in the 1960s, Horne lamented that his country had ridden­ for too long the “luck” of its natural resources, weather, British ­antecedents and distance from problems elsewhere in the world. It had become manacled to its past, bogged in mediocrity and lacked imagination. “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by ­second rate people who share its luck. Although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curios­ity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

Blainey ambitiously elevated his commission to write a slim volume on the history of transport in Australia into a deeper explor­ation and explanation of how Australia’s remoteness and distance from the British “mother country”, and the enormous size of the continent, shaped so much of Australia’s history and thinking. He originally had two equal halves, The Tyranny of Distance and The Taming of Distance, and his first choice for the title was Distance and Destiny.

Blainey was somewhat hesitant about The Tyranny of Distance as the chosen title, and it did not initially sell well, stirring critics and resentment as much as Horne’s Lucky Country. But then the launch of new satellites transmitting images between hemispheres and the first reigning pope visit saw people boasting of a conquering of the “tyranny of ­distance”. It featured in the Split Enz masterpiece, Six Months in a Leaky Boat, and now, as perhaps the ultimate modernist cred, is the name of a vegan restaurant in Melbourne.

Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national­ and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” ­remain ironic.

A 2020 publisher might commission new versions called The Mucky Country and The Tyranny of Distraction, recognising that while Australia has come a good distance and been “lucky” in many respects, we have not made the most of our “lucky” assets and have “mucked about” on too many fronts.

Yes, we have seen notable examples of national ­ambition and outcomes but they are the ­exception. And, yes, there has been some taming of distance with the global transformation of transport, trade, communications and economics but it has also brought us closer to world forces of nationalism, terrorism, crime, social ­unrest, civil rights, people movement, pandemics and the environment.

Such authors might argue that we still have a poor understanding of the many forms, the tyrannies, of “distance”, that distance and proximity can swing between positive and negative. And that “luck” is a fragile companion. They might see new and different tyrannies of distance and more ­reportage evidencing a country limping along the same beaten tracks, unable to take “giant ­strides. They might challenge us to think whether it is due to a “she’ll be right” lethargy, insou­ciance and detachment. Or distraction. Or lack of imagination, ambition or competence.

We have the world’s oldest civilisation yet have not learned much from its people’s practices and powerful sense of “country” or “mob”. And still not closed the ­distance to full connectedness and acceptance.

On the driest continent on the planet, we still struggle to have ­national policies on how to optim­ally trap, maintain and use our rainwater and rivers. Government departments insist we are on “the leading edge” of water policy, yet urban rain and water flows into the sea, we recycle almost anything except water for drinking, our rivers have become ill-used and ill-managed, and we have a mirage of national drought, clim­ate, energy and environmental policies. Dorothy Mackellar’s “sunburnt country” has not seen us become a world technology epicentre.

A scheme that took 25 years, 100,000 people from all over the world to build 10 townships and 1600km of road and track in rough terrain to divert water for farms and energy sounds like a heroic engineering tale from 19th-century America or 21st-century China. Or a pipe dream in modern Australia. But this was the Snowy Mountains scheme just 70 years ago. Forget such ambition and commitment today: we muck around with decisions, let alone de­livery, of even modest ­infrastructure.

Australia’s colonies united in part to end rivalry and ineffic­iency. But it didn’t prevent passengers from Perth to Brisbane having to travel in six trains and Sydney-Melbourne passengers changing trains at Albury. A century on, we still have inefficient and disconnected systems in and between cities and towns.

We salute the self-sacrifice of so many of our military, the ethos of “mateship”, and ride on the shoulders and self-sacrifices of our parents and grandparents. We have talked about “a fair go” for our soldiers, young, aged, ­disadvantaged and ill since Federation, and every election features words about “the battlers” and “the forgotten”.

Yet today we have unresolved wounds among our vets and in Veterans Affairs management. An estimated 700,000-plus children live in poverty, 30 years after Bob Hawke’s prepared speech ­declared that “by 1990 no child need live in poverty”. About 600 children under the age of 14 are incarcerated­ and frequently held in solitary confinement, despite its condemnation as a form of mental torture. Our age of criminal ­responsibility remains at 10. Suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-24.

We see more intergenerational disadvantage, with diminished prospects and ambitions, more uncertain paths through education to meaningful employment. The “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” mantra, job security and training-skill balance are victims of globalisation, outsourcing, casualisation, contracting, ageism and wage theft.

A royal commission is demonstrating that our entire aged-care system, despite numerous past ­reviews, is on the point of collapse, yet there is no sense of urgency or action. Health systems are struggling and one’s wellbeing can depend on a postcode. Inquiries into corporate and financial malfeasance do not seem to preven­t new sins.

After decades of prosperity, the dream of home ownership has ­become unaffordable to many, and we build houses and apartment complexes that are unsafe and unsound in engineering and environmental terms. We celebrate our story as a ­nation of immigrants, and bristle at any charge of being racist.

Yet 70 years after the post-World War II rallying cry to “populate or perish” in the pursuit of econo­mic and military security, and despite­ all the economic and cultur­al up­sides of immigration and living in one of the most diverse­ populations in the world, with ­almost half the population being born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas, we lack meaningful policies and strategies on population and immigration. Half a century after the Whitlam government dismantled “White Australia” laws, we have not ­buried latent racism, inequal­ity and bigotry.

Colonial Irish and Catholic settlers­ were demonised, their ­religious leaders pressed to disown any troublesome members and avow “loyalty” to Australia. We now have multiple faiths but still slide into moral panic and ­demonisation when “different” religious and ethnic groups are seen to be threatening or un-Australian “them” rather than “us”.

The Cold War 1960s and “yellow­ peril” fear has been overtaken by the “luck” of our natural ­resources being fuel for China’s great strides, and the dollars from fee-paying students and tourists. Now we fret over China’s Belt and Road Initiative economic and military influence across the globe, including our South Pacific backyard.

We don’t know how Brexit and Trump nationalism will impact­ our longest-standing allies and alliances­. Closer to home, outside trade and economic pragmatism and holidays in Bali and South ­Pacific, few ­Australians could honestly say they have a real understanding of and/or trust with many of our nearest neighbours other than New Zealand.

Australia’s 43 universities ought to be unambiguously at the heart of curating our past and present knowledge and understanding, and underpinning ­nation-building. But too many pursue fee-paying students even if it means compromising standards and results; send conflicting signals­ about academic freedom and assaults on free speech, science­ and reason; opportunist­ically offer populist and profitable courses while reducing crucial ­engagement in Australian history, culture and literature.

The national need for a better understanding of our past, present and future is not for lack of government, reviews and regulations. Or perhaps the need is greater ­because of it. We are “led” by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councillors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies.

So much “government”, so little­ good governance. Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless pointscoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government.

Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, con­sumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability.

The result, predictably, is a re-run of issues revisited but not ­resolved, opportunities not seized, challenges not confronted. And it is no surprise that the distance ­between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public­ interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement.

There is something amiss in the national storyline when we have long had many more assets and opportunities than billions of others in the world, yet we have reached a point in our story where many Australians see too many tyrannies of distance in their lives, too many doubts about future “luck” and prosperity.

If we do not better see and ­respond to needs and opportunities then current distances will ­become greater, risking whether our destiny is one of our own ambition. One hopes we don’t have a future historian challenging us with a critique of a place called Lostralia, a land where “distance” and “luck” slayed the dragons.

Steve Harris is a former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age and Herald Sun, and author of three books on Australian history. His latest book is The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens, How the British Empire turned artful dodgers into child killers (Melbourne Books).

Living off the sheep’s back

 

 

 

 

That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen

In the last of our posts commemorating 1968, we pay tribute to author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck who died fifty years ago this month.

Back in the day, The Grapes of Wrath was included in our GCE A level curriculum, nearly thirty years after its publication and its iconic status. It was, to our formative minds, a pleasantly surprising choice. In the mid ‘sixties, before Vietnam became the quagmire that sapped America’s blood and treasure and trashed its post-war reputation as a force for good in the world, the land of the free and home of the brave was also was a beacon of bright consumerism, great movies, and pop music. The idea of an American novel in English Lit, so long the preserve of Britain’s literary canon, wonderful though it was, has a certain excitement to it. It gave to us a new literary language, a different sensibility, a fresh perspective.

But Steinbeck’s America was new to us, an America far removed from of the hope and glory that we’d been accustomed to in the years following what was seen as the US’ triumph in World War Two (the costly and critical contribution of the Soviet Union, now our ostensible foe, was singularly downplayed during these years). The Grapes of Wrath was a revelation, an eye-opener, a primer, indeed, for a youthful awareness and politicisation that would be further nurtured by the escalating war in Indochina and the rise and rise of the civil rights movement in the US.

The inevitable examination question in the summer 1967 was exactly that: why were studying an American novel? Any discerning reader taking in the opening pages of chapter one can answer this in a trice. The simple beauty, the lyrical and descriptive power, the gradual but relentlessly unfolding narrative is such that I can recite parts of it from memory over half a century later.

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

I have reproduced chapter one in full below. In a few short pages, it describes how the the last rains fell on Oklahoma’s cornfields and how the searing summer sun rendered the land to dust, creating the dust bowl so chillingly portrayed by filmmaker Ken Burns in his singular documentary of that name, and propelling tens of thousands of destitute ‘Okies’ “on the long, hard road of flight” (as Bob Dylan would describe it in Chimes of Freedom)  to California. As a literary record of an unfolding environmental disaster, it is without equal.  It is poetical, powerful, and profoundly unsettling, and there’s worse to follow.

There are few books that strike such a chord with me – books that I reread in whole or in part once in a while, often aloud, just for the verbal and lyrical thrill. Moby-Dick is such a one, Herman Melville’s classic treatise on seafaring, whales and obsession – from which this blog takes its name – particularly chapter forty one which brilliantly describes the demented and doomed sea captain’s descent into madness.

Whilst few writers can lay claim to have written the “great American novel”, Steinbeck and Melville cracked the code. My own personal contender would also be CE Morgan’s Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about a old Kentucky horse-breeding family – the “kings” of the title. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it is a harrowing journey through America’s dark soul. Morgan’s debt to Steinbeck  is transparent in her descriptive power.

Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth. 

Following the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, I republish an informative essay from The Independent with regard to a new biography of Steinbeck on the anniversary of his death. He was a gifted, complex and at times, unpleasant man. His stories of the lives of migrants and workers during US’ Great Depression, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, and his short stories Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, resonate today, prefiguring as they do the mass migration of populations due to climate changes, infrastructure collapse, the heartless hypocrisy of trickle-down economics, the reluctance and even refusal of the powers-that-be to help those cast by the wayside or onto the scarp-heap, and the demonisation of those are forced to take to the roads and oceans of the world in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their children.

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:

“People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California. They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

I recall Tom Joad’s parting words in the 1940 film adaptation when he leaves his family to fight for social and economic justice:

“You don’t aim to kill nobody, Tom?”
“No. I been thinkin’, long as I’m a outlaw anyways, maybe I could — Hell, I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. Don’ worry me now. Don’ worry me.”
They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”
Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one – an’ then -”
“Then what, Tom?”
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build –  why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

And now, let Steinbeck set the scene for why Tom Joad and his family abandon their farm, pile their possessions on on old truck and head into the west …


The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.

When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rainheads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up. The rainheads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.

A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.

The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.

When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.

In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning they knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break the children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.

After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the Watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves That no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the Day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and Little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.


John Steinbeck: A flawed genius

Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018

It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Steinbeck, who will be the subject of a new biography in 2019. The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath was a complicated and controversial man, explains Martin Chilton in The Independent 20th December 2018 

New light was shed on the writer when interviews given by his second wife were found in a loft in Wales last year

“I have left a lot of tracks in my life,” said John Steinbeck, a giant of 20th-century literature, who died on 20 December 1968 at the age of 66. Novels such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden made him world famous, yet some of the truth about his past has taken half a century to come to light. Steinbeck was a complicated and contradictory man – and weirder than you might have thought.

Mad at the World is the title of a new biography to be published in 2019, and there is little doubt that Steinbeck was an angry man. He was outraged by injustice, poverty and prejudice, as his books make clear. He was also capable of more personal animosities, whether that was towards Adolf Hitler, his second wife or even book reviewers (“what lice they are”).

The quirkiness of his character was evident at a young age. Steinbeck was already dreaming about becoming a professional writer when he enrolled as an English major at Stanford University at the age of 17. He tried to sign up for a practical course in how to dissect corpses. “I want to learn about human beings,” he told a clearly unimpressed dean of the medical school. His application was rejected. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in the novel category (1940), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the United States Medal of Freedom (1964).

Although he never got the chance to cut up bodies, he was to spend a lot of time in hospital, because illness and freakish accidents were a recurrent theme in his life. The pattern started at high school in Salinas, the Californian town where he was born on 27 February 1902. At age 16, Steinbeck contracted pleural pneumonia and came close to death. A doctor saved him by cutting through his rib cage to drain the fluid. Around a year later, he was seriously ill again and had to have his appendix removed.

Things were little better in adulthood. He had a serious kidney infection that required hospital treatment. He had an operation on a detached retina, an operation to remove varicose veins and another to repair a shattered knee cap after a balcony rail gave way on the second floor of his Manhattan home. In 1959 he suffered a stroke, in 1960 he had a suspected heart attack. At the end of his life, he was poleaxed by a back injury that required complicated surgery.

As fate would have it, an injury to a stranger was one of the decisive factors in pushing Steinbeck towards full-time writing. After leaving Stanford without graduating, he had spells working on farms and as a painter’s apprentice before moving to New York in the mid-1920s. In New York, he worked on a building site, ferrying wheelbarrows loaded with 100 pounds of cement, during the construction of Madison Square Garden. Six weeks into the job, a co-worker fell to a bloody death near where Steinbeck stood. The horrific sight made Steinbeck throw up. He quit his job that night.

His uncle helped him land a job as a reporter for the New York American, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper, but he quickly became disillusioned by journalism and returned to California. He worked as a tour guide and it was in that job he met his first wife Carol Henning. His wedding came shortly after the publication of his first novel, 1929’s Cup of Gold. It was the start of a career that would produce 16 novels and novellas, two sets of short stories, 11 non-fiction books, two plays, two screenplays and a large volume of letters.

Steinbeck sometimes played up to the image of a struggling writer whose upbringing was hard financially. Throughout the 1920s, however, Steinbeck was getting an allowance from his father, the treasurer of Monterey County, of $50 ($700 or £550 in today’s terms) a month. “Most people imagine that Steinbeck came from an impoverished background and was almost one of those workers in The Grapes of Wrath, but his family home in Salinas was a beautiful Victorian house with maids and servants,” said his biographer Jay Parini in 1994. “His was a self-conscious identification with working people, but he always travelled first-class and stayed in suites at the Dorchester in London and the Georges Cinq in Paris,” Parini added.

After a series of well-received novels, including 1935’s Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck won critical acclaim in 1937 for his novella Of Mice and Men, the moving portrait-in-miniature of 1930s California, seen through the friendship of oddball ranch workers George and Lennie. Two years later came The Grapes of Wrath, one of the defining novels of the 20th century, a work of rich descriptive power, in which Steinbeck showed his ability to summon poetry out of poverty in the lives of the “Okie” Joad family.

This deeply affecting story about the oppression of migrant workers, who were fleeing from the Dust Bowl states to California, struck a chord with an America reeling from the Great Depression. By February 1940, the novel was in its 11th printing, having sold nearly half a million copies. More than 15 million copies were bought in the next eight decades and around 50,000 copies are still bought in America every year.

The impact of Steinbeck’s work on the American people was momentous. When I met the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, he told me Steinbeck “was one of the people who turned my life around as a young man”, inspiring “a lifelong love of literature”. Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, “I can’t think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.”

The 1940 film adaptation of the novel, starring Henry Fonda, is considered a Hollywood classic. Only a bitter legal dispute over the writer’s estate (between Steinbeck’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga and his daughter-in-law Gail Steinbeck) prevented Steven Spielberg from going ahead with his proposed remake of the movie in 2017.

Steinbeck rarely gave interviews, but in 1952 he spoke to the radio network Voice of America about how he had been “filled with anger” at the ill-treatment of migrant workers. “People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California,” Steinbeck said. “They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

Many years later, it emerged that the FBI file had begun to keep files on the writer at this time, justifying it with claims that “many of Steinbeck’s writings portrayed an extremely sordid and poverty-stricken side of American life”. Thankfully, more enlightened minds than FBI director J Edgar Hoover were in positions of influence when Steinbeck won literature’s most illustrious award. It is notable that the Nobel committee praised his “keen social perception”.

The Grapes of Wrath was making Steinbeck world famous just as the 41-year-old began to fall for a 22-year-old nightclub singer called Gwyn Conger, whom he married in 1943. Three decades later, as a divorcee in her late fifties, Conger gave a series of interviews in Palm Springs to a show business writer called Douglas Brown. These interviews remained unpublished for more than four decades, until they were discovered in a loft in Wales in 2017.

After they had two children together – Thomas, born in 1944, and John Steinbeck IV, born in 1946 – the acrimony became unbearable and she divorced him in 1948. “The impulse of the American woman is to geld her husband and castrate her sons,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend shortly after his marriage ended. “American married life is the doormat to the whorehouse.” He would exact his revenge a few years later when he based Cathy, the wicked alcoholic character in East of Eden, on Conger. He would also fight her in court throughout the next decade to avoid paying child support.

Steinbeck, a heavy drinker, was not blind to his own failings and mood swings. “I know of no sadder people than those who believe their own publicity,” he said. Steinbeck had suffered from bouts of depression in the 1940s and even after meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine Scott, he was frequently brought low by what he called his “what-the-hell blues”. Steinbeck said he “hit the bottom” in October 1953, a year after the publication of East of Eden, when he was treated at Lenox Hill Hospital by psychologist Gertrudis Brenner. “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ,” he remarked.

In this period of mental health problems, he produced some of the strangest work of his career. In 1955, he published a short story called The Affair at 7 Rue de M, a horror-like tale about a child who is unable to get rid of a piece of bubble gum. Wherever he puts it, the gum keeps finding its way back into the boy’s mouth. In desperation, the father cements the gum to a dining table and it takes a week for the piece of gum to die. Steinbeck later burned dozens of stories from this period. He also abandoned a novel about a man who watches one too many westerns on television and then puts on a cowboy hat and heads out to be an urban vigilante.

Poet Ezra Pound once dismissed accounts of a writer’s life as a mere “laundry list” and Steinbeck shared this disdain for focusing on the personal life of an author. Perhaps he has a point. What can we ultimately conclude from the knowledge that Steinbeck preferred writing with pencils (using up to 60 in a day), that he liked jazz, enjoyed playing the harmonica, laughed at jokes by Bob Hope, preferred smoking small cigars and regularly snacked on tuna-covered crackers, washed down by red wine?

“The fact that I have housemaid’s knees or fear yellow gloves has little to do with the books I write,” he said. He derided the public’s need to “create a Steinbeck out of its own imagination” and insisted there were more important matters on which to focus. In 1938, for example, shocked by reports of the Nazi looting and burning of Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany, he was among a small band of writers, including Dorothy Parker, who sent a telegram to President Franklin D Roosevelt urging him to cut all ties with Hitler. Steinbeck became a war correspondent for The New York Herald during the subsequent conflict, reporting from England, North Africa and Italy.

Steinbeck was certainly a progressive in a backward era of race relations. He asked for his name to be taken off the screenplay for the wartime Alfred Hitchcock film The Lifeboat, because he was furious that the “dignified and purposeful” black character he had created had been “distorted”. He wrote to 20th Century Fox to complain about the addition of “a stock comedy negro”, blaming them for “strange and sly obliquities”. Not only did the Fox bosses deny his request, they actively stepped up a publicity campaign that highlighted Steinbeck as the screenwriter. The Oscar nomination he received simply added salt to the wound.

Despite these laudable actions, he was not above his own dirty tactics. In 1958, he was asked by Adlai Stevenson’s fixer, William McCormick Blair Jr, to write a novel that featured a corrupt version of presidential candidate Richard M Nixon. Steinbeck rejected the idea and instead suggested attacks on Nixon’s character, “kidney punch” zingers as he called them, such as starting rumours about Nixon and wife-beating. “All of these are dirty, but as I said, the man who tries Queensberry against gutter fighting is going to get the hell kicked out of him,” Steinbeck wrote to Blair.

John Updike said that for most Americans in the post-war era, Steinbeck’s reputation was as “a best-seller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent”, but during the 1960s Steinbeck’s politics moved away from the liberalism that had earned him a reputation as America’s social conscience. He became friends with President Johnson (helping him to write his acceptance speech) and reported sympathetically on the Vietnam war from late 1966 to early 1967.

Observers in Vietnam noted Steinbeck’s fascination for American weaponry, especially the Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It could fire a hundred rounds of 50-calibre bullets every second. The writer loved going target practice shooting with the same type of M16 rifle the troops carried. He even manned a US army outpost during a night of sporadic fire.

His sons Thomas and John were on active duty in the US army at the time of his visit. John later became a fierce opponent of the war, a stance that put him at odds with Steinbeck, who wrote publicly about how Vietnam peace protesters gave him “a shiver of shame”. Steinbeck derided the hippie demonstrators for their “dirty clothes, dirty minds and their shuffling drag-ass protests”.

It is a characteristically odd twist that the 64-year-old who was able to survive a night taking on the Vietcong – and an attack on a helicopter in which he was a passenger – did himself irreparable harm with the innocuous action of lifting some beer. In Hong Kong, travelling back from Vietnam with his wife Elaine, he helped a Chinese delivery man. As he lifted the case of beer, he ruptured a spinal disc. Six months later, still in agonising pain, he had a five-hour operation on his back. The last few months before his death from a heart attack at his East 72nd Street home in New York were deeply miserable.

Biographers Jackson Benson (1984) and Jay Parini (1995) have previously battled with the character of Steinbeck and that challenge has now been taken up by William Souder, whose biography Mad at the World: John Steinbeck and the American Century will be published by WW Norton & Company in 2019.

There is no shortage of fascinating material for Pulitzer finalist Souder to re-examine. As well as Steinbeck’s writing (the prize-winning novels and less-well known masterpieces such as Cannery Row, The Pearl and Sweet Thursday), there is his sometimes madcap life, such as his drunken treasure-hunting escapades in the Bahamas. Even his friend, the noted psychological novelist Sherwood Anderson, admitted that he couldn’t “figure out Steinbeck”.

With Steinbeck, the unexpected was the norm. When his New York house was burgled in 1963, for example, the police report listed the stolen items as “a television set and six rifles”. The writer enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of humans. When he was asked for his “rules for life” by a friend in Vietnam, Steinbeck replied with his four mottos: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage. Always find out when the bar opens.”

Souder says he is excited by the challenge of writing about such a complex figure. “One of the things that attracted me to Steinbeck is that he was far from perfect – as a man, a husband, a writer, he had issues,” Souder told the website Steinbeck Now. “He had a permanent chip on his shoulder. He got side-tracked by ideas that were a waste of his time and talent. Some of his work is brilliant and some of it is awful. That’s what you want in a subject – a hero with flaws. Steinbeck was a literary giant who wouldn’t play along with the idea that he was important. I love that. He was mad at the world because it seemed somehow mad at him.”

Steinbeck wasn’t always mad at the world, though. Ten years before his death, this conflicted genius wrote a memorable letter to Thomas Steinbeck (the full version is available here), after his 14-year-old son revealed he had fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan.

“There are several kinds of love,” he wrote, signing the letter as “Fa”. “One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had … don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

These tender and optimistic words of advice remain, like Steinbeck’s best writing, an absolute joy, despite the flaws of the man.


Here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to 1968:  Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold;  Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Phil Och’s Chicago Blues ; and Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life

And the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rockWindow on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club