The ride of the psychotic Valkyries – Apocalypse Now Redux

Photographs of guns and flame
Scarlet skull and distant game
Bayonet and jungle grin
Nightmares dreamed by bleeding men
Lookouts tremble on the shore
But no man can find the war
Tim Buckley 1976

Our recently departed friend Tim Page was the central character in the 1992 ABC miniseries Frankie’s House, the story of the celebrated, inebriated Vietnamese home-away-from home and party house in Saigon for transiting newsmen – a decadent, dissolute, de facto foreign correspondents club. Tim was portrayed by Scottish actor Iain Glen, famous nowadays for his role as Ser Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones. This was not Tim’s first first portrayal in film. Denis Hopper’s strung-out photojournalist in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now was said to have been inspired by Tim’s Vietnam adventures. This was referred to many times in the many media tributes that followed his passing and at his farewell in August last year.

Rewatching the film recently, for the first time in decades, I thought Hopper’s over the top, incongruous and unexplained character bears little resemblance to the Tim Page we knew. And yet, as Tim and his partner Mau were later to point out to me, Hopper’s cracked and crazed camera cowboy illustrated exactly what the soldiers at ground zero experienced in America’s war, a war that has since been defined as chaos without compass.

The film is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, set in a dark and deadly Belgium-ravaged Congo. A special forces officer is sent on a mission to assassinate a rogue officer who has established a quasi-kingdom in the heart of the Jungle. With poetic and creative license Francis Ford Coppola created a psychedelic fever dream somewhere up the crazy river on a journey through a war that had already been lost while the powers that be had concealed the fact to the American public and to the world at large.

The Vietnam War’s echoes reverberate to this day. In the United States, it has taken more than 50 years for such a traumatic defeat to fade. The deepest scars, inevitably, belong to those who suffered most. Author and Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo in the preface to his memoir A Rumor of War  wrote:

“I came home from the war with the curious feeling that I had grown older than my father, who was then 51,” writes. “A man saw the heights and depths of human behaviour in Vietnam, all manner of violence and horrors so grotesque that they evoked more fascination than disgust. Once I had seen pigs eating napalm-charred corpses – a memorable sight, pigs eating roast people.”

The scars on Vietnam itself were much much deeper and long lasting – on its politics, still a authoritarian communist regime; its people – millions died, were wounded or suffered long term psychological and genetic damage; and its environment – the effects of broad-acre defoliants and the damage and debris of war.

Two seminal scenes in the film encapsulate the carnage wrought in a country the US government wanted to “bomb back into the stone-age”.

Ou first introduction is where “little spots on the horizon, into gunships grow”, to borrow from Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn, as a squadron of US helicopters approach a tropical shore and attack a Vietcong camp in an idyllic seaside village to the exhilarating accompaniment of Richard Wagner’s rollicking The Ride of the Valkyries. Amidst the rattle of machine guns, the explosions and the flames, the American crews are portrayed as gung-ho and dispassionate participants in a real-time video game. The Vietnamese men, women and children are tiny black-garbed figures running around in panic like a disturbed ant’s nest, falling, flailing and flying through the air. Yet you know that this is no computer game. These helpless and doomed people are merely targets with nowhere to run to.

The second scene is set towards the end of the film, up that crazy river. The assassin, Willard, is about to slay his target, Colonel Kurtz – but not before Kurtz, filmed in a flame-lit semi-darkness, declares that he wants to die as a soldier and “not like some poor, crazed rag-assed renegade”. He then delivers his final testament on a war that has been all for nothing, and on why it has been lost:

“I’ve seen horrors … horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that … but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face … and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember … I … I … I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized … like I was shot … like I was shot with a diamond … a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God … the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men … trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love … but they had the strength … the strength … to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral … and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling … without passion … without judgment … without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us”.

The film itself is much better than I recall it first time around. Perhaps it is because I now know substantially more about the Vietnam War than I did then. But also, because the 2001 directors cut, Apocalypse Now Redux has nearly an hour of footage that never reached the original cinema release, much of it quite crucial to an understanding of how pointless and crazy the war became.

The film contains several changes, mostly subtle, and two entirely new scenes, both of which enhance and serve to illustrate just how inchoate and crazy the war had become by the end of the sixties. By the time Richard Nixon was elected president in November 1968 with a promise to end the war and “bring the boys home”, it had almost seven years still to run.

One of the new scenes is set on the tiny US Navy river boat taking Willard up-country, Earlier in the story, the famous Penthouse Playmates arrive at a rear-base to entertain the troops. We now meet  them again at a neglected and run-down forward fire base further up the river. It is a bizarre scene with an equally bizarre script in which two stranded and befuddled beauties struggle with the surreal setting and its drug and combat addled garrison. The other has Captain Willard and the team encounter a family of well-armed holdout French colonists on their remote rubber plantation. Here we have the film’s the only solid explication of the origins and inevitable outcome of the Indochina conflict. Having denounced his country’s folly in being surrounded and defeated in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which precipitated the end of French colonial rule and the beginning of US involvement in Indochina, patriarch Hubert de Marais declares: “You are fighting for the biggest nothing in history”.

© Paul Hemphill 2023 All rights reserved

Read more about the Vietnam War in In That Howling Infinite: The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy; Tim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam journey; Journey’s end – photographer Tim Page’s wild ride; Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited 

Colonel Kurtz’s “Horror” monologue from Apocalypse Now,  performed by Marlon Brando

Lost in the rain with no direction home – Dylan’s poem for Woody

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

The words of America’s national bard came to me as I read for the first time this very morning Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, written by Bob Dylan in honour of his idol Woody Guthrie, who at the time was dying from Huntington’s disease.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, wrote Walt Whitman, setting song lines for a young nation, and what was seen at the time as its promise and its bold, independent identity. He reflected his country’s growing up and coming of age to his own personal awakening and awareness, in his seeing and being enlightened. Dylan was to become the young voice of an older but not wiser nation that seemed very much like it was not busy being born, but, rather, under the weight of its myriad contradictions – of the old and the new, the youth and their elders, of war and peace,  black and white. Dylan heard the his country’s song in the turbulent, transformed and transforming sixties declaiming that he’d know my song well before I start singing.

In 1855, when Whitman published his first incarnation of Leaves of Grass, no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of this self- proclaimed “American”.  And the same could be said of the young Bob Dylan when he broke out from the pack that had gathered in the folk cafés and clubs of New York City in the early years of the nineteen sixties, an enigmatic poetic figure whose songs spotlighted the chaos and division that have long defined what it meant to be an American. It is no wonder that in later years,  Dylan would acknowledge his debt to Whitman in I Contain Multitudes – unoriginal and some would argue, pretentious, but then Bob has always borrowed, be it from the Anthology of American Folk Music, the British folk tradition, the avant guard poets of Europe, and the great books of the western literary canon.

Dylan read his poem for Woody aloud once only, reciting it at New York City’s Town Hall on April 12th 1963.

Introducing the poem, he told the audience he’d been asked to “write something about Woody … what does Woody Guthrie mean to you in twenty-five words,” for an upcoming book on the icon left wing singer-songwriter. He explained that he “couldn’t do it – I wrote out five pages, and, I have it here, have it here by accident, actually.” What followed was not a simple eulogy, but a lengthy, 1705 word stream of consciousness treatise on the importance of hope.

Dylan sets the scene by describing the stresses and strains of everyday life and challenging choices we have to make as we navigate it. He describes how these can cause us to feel alone, lost, and without direction. He then explains the need for hope and how we need something to give our lives meaning. He concludes by suggesting that, for him, Woody Guthrie is as much a source of hope and beauty in the world as God or religion.

Reading it for the first time ever this morning, I could hear words, lines and themes from songs that were yet to be written, songs that have followed me down these past sixty years, from those early albums of anger and introspection, protest and perception, through to My Rough And Rowdy Ways.

The recitation was recorded, but was not officially released until 1991, on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991, after circulating on bootleg releases for years. The poem is published in full below. The images in the video that follows it are clichéd and distracting; just shut your eyes and listen to the words. I prefer just reading and recalling all those uncounted ballads, songs and snatches and the improbable ‘echoes’ of things to come. I have added a gallery of favourite pictures of the man himself. Enjoy.

More on Bob Dylan in In That Howling InfiniteWhat’s Bob got to do with it?; Legends, bibles, plagues – Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture; Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana; Cross the Green Mountain – Bob Dylan’s Americana; Still tangled up in Bob

In That Howling Infinite, read also, I hear America singing – happy birthday, Walt Whitman; The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad, and The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “great American novel”

Bob and Woody

Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie

When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When yer laggin’ behind an’ losin’ yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl of life’s busy race
No matter what yer doing if you start givin’ up
If the wine don’t come to the top of yer cup
If the wind’s got you sideways with with one hand holdin’ on
And the other starts slipping and the feeling is gone
And yer train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it
And the wood’s easy findin’ but yer lazy to fetch it
And yer sidewalk starts curlin’ and the street gets too long
And you start walkin’ backwards though you know its wrong
And lonesome comes up as down goes the day
And tomorrow’s mornin’ seems so far away
And you feel the reins from yer pony are slippin’
And yer rope is a-slidin’ ’cause yer hands are a-drippin’
And yer sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys
Turn to broken down slums and trash-can alleys
And yer sky cries water and yer drain pipe’s a-pourin’
And the lightnin’s a-flashing and the thunder’s a-crashin’
And the windows are rattlin’ and breakin’ and the roof tops a-shakin’
And yer whole world’s a-slammin’ and bangin’
And yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
And to yourself you sometimes say
“I never knew it was gonna be this way
Why didn’t they tell me the day I was born”
And you start gettin’ chills and yer jumping from sweat
And you’re lookin’ for somethin’ you ain’t quite found yet
And yer knee-deep in the dark water with yer hands in the air
And the whole world’s a-watchin’ with a window peek stare
And yer good gal leaves and she’s long gone a-flying
And yer heart feels sick like fish when they’re fryin’
And yer jackhammer falls from yer hand to yer feet
And you need it badly but it lays on the street
And yer bell’s bangin’ loudly but you can’t hear its beat
And you think yer ears might a been hurt
Or yer eyes’ve turned filthy from the sight-blindin’ dirt
And you figured you failed in yesterdays rush
When you were faked out an’ fooled while facing a four flush
And all the time you were holdin’ three queens
And it’s makin you mad, it’s makin’ you mean
Like in the middle of Life magazine
Bouncin’ around a pinball machine
And there’s something on yer mind you wanna be saying
That somebody someplace oughta be hearin’
But it’s trapped on yer tongue and sealed in yer head
And it bothers you badly when your layin’ in bed
And no matter how you try you just can’t say it
And yer scared to yer soul you just might forget it
And yer eyes get swimmy from the tears in yer head
And yer pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead
And the lion’s mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth
And his jaws start closin with you underneath
And yer flat on your belly with yer hands tied behind
And you wish you’d never taken that last detour sign
And you say to yourself just what am I doin’
On this road I’m walkin’, on this trail I’m turnin’
On this curve I’m hanging
On this pathway I’m strolling, in the space I’m taking
In this air I’m inhaling
Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard
Why am I walking, where am I running
What am I saying, what am I knowing
On this guitar I’m playing, on this banjo I’m frailin’
On this mandolin I’m strummin’, in the song I’m singin’
In the tune I’m hummin’, in the words I’m writin’
In the words that I’m thinkin’
In this ocean of hours I’m all the time drinkin’
Who am I helping, what am I breaking
What am I giving, what am I taking
But you try with your whole soul best
Never to think these thoughts and never to let
Them kind of thoughts gain ground
Or make yer heart pound
But then again you know why they’re around
Just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down
“Cause sometimes you hear’em when the night times comes creeping
And you fear that they might catch you a-sleeping
And you jump from yer bed, from yer last chapter of dreamin’
And you can’t remember for the best of yer thinking
If that was you in the dream that was screaming
And you know that it’s something special you’re needin’
And you know that there’s no drug that’ll do for the healin’
And no liquor in the land to stop yer brain from bleeding
And you need something special
Yeah, you need something special all right
You need a fast flyin’ train on a tornado track
To shoot you someplace and shoot you back
You need a cyclone wind on a stream engine howler
That’s been banging and booming and blowing forever
That knows yer troubles a hundred times over
You need a Greyhound bus that don’t bar no race
That won’t laugh at yer looks
Your voice or your face
And by any number of bets in the book
Will be rollin’ long after the bubblegum craze
You need something to open up a new door
To show you something you seen before
But overlooked a hundred times or more
You need something to open your eyes
You need something to make it known
That it’s you and no one else that owns
That spot that yer standing, that space that you’re sitting
That the world ain’t got you beat
That it ain’t got you licked
It can’t get you crazy no matter how many
Times you might get kicked
You need something special all right
You need something special to give you hope
But hope’s just a word
That maybe you said or maybe you heard
On some windy corner ’round a wide-angled curve
But that’s what you need man, and you need it bad
And yer trouble is you know it too good
“Cause you look an’ you start getting the chills
“Cause you can’t find it on a dollar bill
And it ain’t on Macy’s window sill
And it ain’t on no rich kid’s road map
And it ain’t in no fat kid’s fraternity house
And it ain’t made in no Hollywood wheat germ
And it ain’t on that dimlit stage
With that half-wit comedian on it
Ranting and raving and taking yer money
And you thinks it’s funny
No you can’t find it in no night club or no yacht club
And it ain’t in the seats of a supper club
And sure as hell you’re bound to tell
That no matter how hard you rub
You just ain’t a-gonna find it on yer ticket stub
No, and it ain’t in the rumors people’re tellin’ you
And it ain’t in the pimple-lotion people are sellin’ you
And it ain’t in no cardboard-box house
Or down any movie star’s blouse
And you can’t find it on the golf course
And Uncle Remus can’t tell you and neither can Santa Claus
And it ain’t in the cream puff hair-do or cotton candy clothes
And it ain’t in the dime store dummies or bubblegum goons
And it ain’t in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knockin’ and tappin’ in Christmas wrappin’
Sayin’ ain’t I pretty and ain’t I cute and look at my skin
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry
When you can’t even sense if they got any insides
These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows
No you’ll not now or no other day
Find it on the doorsteps made out-a paper mache¥
And inside it the people made of molasses
That every other day buy a new pair of sunglasses
And it ain’t in the fifty-star generals and flipped-out phonies
Who’d turn yuh in for a tenth of a penny
Who breathe and burp and bend and crack
And before you can count from one to ten
Do it all over again but this time behind yer back
My friend
The ones that wheel and deal and whirl and twirl
And play games with each other in their sand-box world
And you can’t find it either in the no-talent fools
That run around gallant
And make all rules for the ones that got talent
And it ain’t in the ones that ain’t got any talent but think they do
And think they’re foolin’ you
The ones who jump on the wagon
Just for a while ’cause they know it’s in style
To get their kicks, get out of it quick
And make all kinds of money and chicks
And you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat
Sayin’, “Christ do I gotta be like that
Ain’t there no one here that knows where I’m at
Ain’t there no one here that knows how I feel
Good God Almighty
THAT STUFF AIN’T REAL”
No but that ain’t yer game, it ain’t even yer race
You can’t hear yer name, you can’t see yer face
You gotta look some other place
And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin’
Where do you look for this lamp that’s a-burnin’
Where do you look for this oil well gushin’
Where do you look for this candle that’s glowin’
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

Bringin’ it all back home …

Bob and Sara

Bob and Joan

Bob and Alan Ginsberg at the grave of Jack Kerouac

21st Century Bob – the Never Ending Tour

That was the year that was – don’t stop (thinking about tomorrow)

The prophet’s lantern is out
And gone the boundary stone
Cold the heart and cold the stove
Ice condenses on the bone
Winter completes an age
WH Auden, For the Time Being – a Christmas Oratorio, 1941

I considered using a line from the above as the title of this retrospective of 2022.  It was written during 1941 and 1942, though published in 1947, when the poet was in self-exile in the United States and viewing the war in Europe from afar – although the long poem from which it has been extracted does not in itself reflect such pessimism. A more fitting title could be taken from another long poem that was published in another (very) long poem published in 1947 – Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and of foreboding for the impending armed peace that we now look back on as the Cold War, with its oft-repeated mantra: “many have perished, and more most surely will”.

The year just gone was indeed a gloomy one, meriting a dismal heading. There are few indications of where it might take us in ‘23 and beyond, and my crystal ball is broken. Pundits reached for convenient comparisons. Some propounded that it was like the 1930s all over again when Europe constantly teetered on the brink of war. Others recalled 1989 with the fall of the aneroid Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, beware of false analogies. In 2022, things were more confused. The tides of history have often resembled swirling cross-currents.

Things, of course, might have been worse. There are, as I’ve noted in successive posts on my own Facebook page, many qualified “reasons to be cheerful”. The  year could have ended with Ukraine under Russian control. An emboldened China might have been encouraged to launch an assault on Taiwan. A red wave in the midterms would have buoyed Trump. And here in Australia, Scott Morrison might have secured another “miracle” election victory. The West could have retreated on all fronts.

Instead, therefore, I have selected a title that hedges its bets, because, to paraphrase the old Chinese adage, and the title of an earlier retrospective, we certainly live in interesting times and in 2023, and a lot of energy will be spent endeavouring to make sense of them – or, to borrow from Bob:

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn that he not busy being born
Is busy dying

B Dylan

The year in review 

Christine McVie, longtime and founder member of Fleetwood Mac departed the planet on 30th November this year. And contemplating this year’s posts in In That Howling Infinite, I could not help thinking about one her most famous songs. I recalled that it featured on newsreels of the revolution that ousted the Shah of Iran in 1979.

Why not think about times to come?
And not about the things that you’ve done
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here
It’ll be better than before
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone

The song seemed quite apposite as the soundtrack of a revolution that had overthrown one of America’s many friendly autocrats. At the time, no one could predict what would happen, but, as with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was a time optimistic expectation. And yet its shock waves have reverberated and ricocheted in ways unimagined at the time.

As 2022 ends, with blood flowing on the streets of Iran and in the mullahs’s torture cells as young people rise up against a hypocritically brutal theocratic tyranny, we see again and again how that which goes around comes around.

Women, Freedom, Life

If the malign hand of history has literally reached out and gripped Iran’s young women and girls by their hair, it has also endeavoured to strangle the thousand year old Ukrainian nation in the name of an atavistic irredentism. Russian troops invaded the Ukraine on February 24, causing what has since become the largest conflict in Europe since World War II. Out if the spotlight of the world’s easily distracted attention. intractable conflicts lumbered mercilessly on – in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, the Congo and many other “far away  places with strange sounding names”.  

On the far side of the world, the USA continued to struggle with the reverberations of January 6th 2021. Donald Trump, like Dracula, has not gone away, and whilst his 2024 presidential run is looking increasingly shaky, he continues to poison the atmosphere like radioactive dust. The unfortunate folk of the United Kingdom endured three prime ministers during the year, including the shortest ever in the history of the office, and after two years of pandemic, are facing a bleak economic winter as well as a frigid actual one.

In Australia, it was the year of the teal – at least according to those who study the evolution of language, the year we lost a queen, our long-serving foreign head of state, and a king of spin, the down-fallen and disgraced Scott Morrison. And a sodden La Nina saw incessant rain drown large swathes of eastern Australia, visiting misery on thousands. COVID-19 mutated, the Omicron variant surging from beginning of the year, ensuring no end to the pandemic – today, it seems like everyone we know has had it, including ourselves (and we were soooo careful for a full two years!). As restrictions were cautiously lifted, we as a nation are learning to live with it. 

Politically, it’s been a grand year for the Australian Labor Party. With our stunning Federal election win in May and in Victoria in November, the Albanese government’s star is on the ascendant and it’s legislative record in six months has out run nine years of Tory stagnation on climate, integrity and equality – a neglect that saw the rise of a new political force in the shape of a proto-party, the aforementioned “teal”, named for the colour of the candidates’ tee shirts. The opposition has been reduced to a bickering and carping crew, and whilst Labor continues to ride high in the polls, the Coalition bounces along the bottom of the pond.

Lismore, northern NSW, March 2023

Flooded house aflame, Lismore March 2022

Christine McVie was just one of many music icons who checked out this past year. The coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn, crooned her last, as did rock ‘n roll bad boy Jerry Lee Lewis and Ronnie “the Hawk” Hawkins, who gave the boys in The Band their big break. Rock heavyweight (literally) Meatloaf took off like his bat out of hell and keyboard evangelist Vangelis boarded his chariot of fire.

Acclaimed British author Hilary Mantel, whose Wolf Hall trilogy inspired back to back posts in In That Howling Infinite in 2020 found “a place of greater safety”, and French author Dominique Lapierre also joined the choir invisible. I had first learned about Israel’s war of independence and the Palestinians’ al Nakba in his O Jerusalem, and about the bloody tragedy that accompanied the birth of India and Pakistan, in Freedom at Midnight, both books featuring in past posts. 

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

One could argue that the most significant departure was that of Britain’s longest serving monarch. Queen Elizabeth II had been on the throne for almost all of my life, as has the now King Charles III who was born four months before me, and of whom, as a nipper, I was jealous. I recall how I watched the queen’s coronation on a tiny black and white television in the crowded and smokey parlour of the boarding house run by a friend of our family. By happenstance, Netflix served up two over the top regal sagas to binge on: the penultimate season of The Crown, which whilst entertaining, was a disappointment in comparison with earlier seasons, and Harry and Meghan which was whilst excruciatingly cringe-worthy, was nevertheless addictive viewing. The passing of Her Maj reminded me that in my lifetime, I have witnessed three monarchs and eighteen British prime ministers (and incidentally, eighteen Australian prime ministers).  The public outpouring of grief for the Queen’s ascent to the choir invisible was unprecedented – the picture below demonstrates what the Poms do best …

The Queue along the Thames to pay respect to Her Maj

There were farewells much closer to home. My mediation colleague, aspiring author and friend John Rosley, and Beau Tindall, the son of my oldest Bellingen friend Warren, took off on the same day in May. Peter Setterington, my oldest friend in England – we first met in 1972 – died suddenly in London in March, and our friend and forest neighbour, the world-famous war photographer Tim Page, in August, after a short but nasty illness. Pete is memorialized in When an Old Cricketer Leave His Crease whilst Journey’s end – Tim Page’s wild ride,is an adaptation of the eulogy I gave for Tim in September, one of many on that sunny afternoon day in Fernmount. It is a coda to Tim Page’s  War – a photographer’s  Vietnam journey, a story we published a year ago.

Tim Page by Joanne Booker

What we wrote in 2022

The ongoing Ukraine War has dominated our perception of 2022, from the morning (Australian time) we watched it begin on CNN as the first Russian missiles struck Kyiv, to the aerial assault on infrastructure that has left Ukrainians sheltering through a cold, dark winter. Two posts in In That Howling Infinite examined the historical origins of the conflict: Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism and The Roots and Fruits of Putin’s Irridentism. “Because of …” Iran’s voice of freedom looks at the song that has become the rising’s anthem. None can predict the outcome – whether it will be a doomed intifada, the Arabic word that literally means a shaking off – historically of oppression – and figuratively, a rising up, like that in Ireland in 1798 and 1916, Warsaw in 1943 and 1945, and Hungary in 1956, or an Inqilab, another Arabic word meaning literally change or transformation, overturning or revolution.

The run up to May’s Australian elections inspired Teal independents – false reality in a fog of moralism.; and Australia votes – the decline and fall of the flimflam man. 

More distant history featured in Menzie’s Excellent Suez Adventure, the story of the Suez crisis of 1956 that historians argue augured the end of the British imperium, and the role played therein by longtime Australian prime minister Sir Robert Menzies. Johnny Clegg and the Washing of the Spears is a tribute to the late South African singer, dancer and songwriter, and a brief history of the war that destroyed the great Zulu nation, setting the scene for the modern history of South Africa. And journeying further back in time to sixteenth century Ireland, there is O’Donnell Abú – the Red Earl and history in a song, a discussion of the origins of a famous and favorite rebel song.

Then there are the semi-biographical “micro-histories” in In That Howling Infinite’s Tall tales, small stories, obituaries and epiphanies. In 2023, these included: Folksong Au Lapin Agile, the evening we visited Montmarte’s famous folk cabaret; Ciao Pollo di Soho – the café at the end of the M1, the story of a café that played a minor part in my London days, as described in detail in an earlier travelogue, Song of the Road – my hitchhiking days; Better read than dead – the joy of public libraries; The quiet tea time of the soul, an ode in prose to a favourite beverage; and The work, the working, the working life recalling the many jobs I took on in the sixties to keep myself in music, books, travel and sundry vices. 

We cannot pass a year without something literary. We celebrated the centenary of three iconic literary classics in The year that changed literature, and with the release of The Rings of Power, the controversial prequel to The Lord of the Rings, we published a retrospective on the influence of JRR Tolkien. One ring to rule us all – does Tolkien matter? – a personal perspective with an opinion piece by English historian Dominic Sandbrook, an informative and entertaining chronicler of postwar British history and society which featured, in Unherd, an online e-zine that became a “must read” in 2022. A Son Goes To War – the grief of Rudyard Kipling recalls the death in battle on the Western Front in 1917 of the poet’s only son, it’s influence upon his subsequent work, whilst Muzaffar al Nawab, poet of revolutions and sorrow is an obituary for another poet, who seen a lifetime speaking truth to power.

And that was that for what was in so man ways a sad year. Meanwhile, In That Howling Infinite already has several works in progress, including a review of historian Anthony Beevor’s Russia – Revolution and Civil War, what King Herod really thought about the birth of baby Jesus, and the story of a famous and favourite British army marching song.

Best wishes for 2023 …

Death of a Son

That was the year that was – retrospectives

Life in Wartime – images of Ukraine

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 in the Sixties

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. [Author’s note: he eventually gave the truck to a friend up the valley and it saw service as a water carrier during the devastating wildfires of our 2019-20 Black Summer]

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 (1) – 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