The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:

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

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

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

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


The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John Steinbeck: A flawed genius

Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Twilight of the Equine Gods

The horse has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability. Our story resonates with an equine leitmotif – in our dreams, our fantasies, our histories, our literature, and our movies; in our aesthetics and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty.

Hey and away we go
Through the grass, across the snow,
Big brown beastie, big brown face,
I’d rather be with you than flying through space.
Mike Oldfield, On Horseback

Pastorale

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare

What is there not to love about a horse?

Its big, brown, doe eyes; its earthy, sweaty aroma from a land somewhere between babies and barnyards; the warmth of its neck on your palm; the rough feel of its mane in your fingers; the smell and the squeak of saddle leather; the jingle-bells of the bridle. The strength you sense through your thighs; an exhilaration that is close to fear as you kick his flanks into a trot, a canter, a gallop, and whoa! and you’re never one hundred percent sure she will obey you. And then, when it’s over, the radiated heat, the damp hide, the glow of sweat, almost a mist of equine energy as you dismount after the ride. You feel wired, alive, and at one with the horse, with the land, with nature.

I first rode a horse in the late seventies, on my first visit to Australia with my first wife. Her old man was a doctor on locum in Coolah, ‘beyond of the Black Stump’, which is to say, the back of beyond (and there really WAS a black stump on the outskirts of town, for the infrequent tourist to be photographed by in pre-selfie days). A local farmer had invited us out to ride his large property, and so we rode, in the heat haze of high summer, through wide, dry, open, paddocks, mobs of roos scattering as we approached, flocks of cockatoos roosting riotously in the branches of dead trees, and flies. Yes, I learned about the “Aussie salute” that summer. I fell in love with the Australian bush then and there, the “wide brown land” of Dorothea Mackelllar’s sunburnt country“. A few years later, as a newly arrived immigrant, I would go riding again, this time with country friends in the Dungog cattle country north of Sydney.

I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again.

Twopence & Trigger

That was a decades ago, but living in the bush, I still feel pleasure when I see horses in their paddocks. The sight, sound, and smell strike a melodious, atavistic chord that many would  recognize as distinctively Australian. How many Aussies of a certain age would not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough’.

In this centennial year of the Palestine Campaign of WWI and the gallop of the Australian Light Horse towards the strategic Beersheba wells – praised, inaccurately, as history’s last great cavalry charge, the Light Horseman and his hardy “Waler” (from New South Wales) have achieved iconic status in a media supercharged on “Anzackery”. Calmer voices have argued that on the scale of the carnage on the western front, where Diggers died in their thousands, and indeed the Gaza battle itself, where the Anzacs were a very small part of a very large army, it was really no big thing, But never let the facts get between a politician and a photo-opportunity. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

And it was always thus. As German academic and cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s tells us in his captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship: 

“Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.

Farewell to the horse

It is an easy segue from my Australian pastorale to Raulff’s illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride, a revelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days.

“The horse” Raulff begins, “has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant into which we have entered has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability”.

He then recounts how over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung. “For a century, the oat-powered engine was the universal and irreplaceable power unit of the forced mechanization of the world”. And then it was gone, replaced by the internal combustion engine. And yet, the term “horsepower” is to this day a measure of the performance of vehicle engines (although now mostly replaced by kilowatts) – a horse was the equivalent of seven men.

“The twilight of the equine gods”, as Raulff describes it, was a long goodbye indeed, and in the realm of myth, memory and metaphor, horses are with us still; or as he so lyrically expresses it: “ghosts of modernity” (echoes of Dylan, in my mind, at least) that “haunt the minds of a humanity that has turned away from them”.

Like its subject, Farewell to the Horse is a handsome, wide-ranging, beast. More elegy than epitaph, eclectic and imaginative in scope, viewing the horse as muse, as mount, and as metaphor, Raulff sings the song of the horse – and if ever there was a ‘horse opera’, this is it.

Eloquently and at times poetically translated, and generously illustrated with pictures from galleries, libraries, and photo archives, Raulff takes the reader through the many worlds of the relationship. On his academic home-turf of sociology and psychology, his references are primarily German, but straying from his academic stable, he ambles into a lush and diverse pastureland of history and mythology, politics and philosophy. economics and geography, industry and commerce, physics and biology, science and medicine, sport and recreation. And art and literature: how artists and writers brought their perspectives, personas and passions onto canvas, Kodak and the printed page. In many ways, its infinite variety reminded me of English historian Simon Schama’s fascinating Landscape and Memory.

Raulff has divided his book into four broad thematic sections, each with an evocative title – The Centauran Pact, A Phantom in the Library. The Living Metaphor, and The Forgotten Player – each exploring a particular aspect of the horse’s story. But he allows himself much extempore stream of consciousness as he periodically wanders off-script with childhood reminiscences and collected anecdotes, and dips into favourite paintings, books and films. And time-travels through six thousand years, and traverses the globe too in his long ride – from the Steppes of Eurasia to the Great Plains of America, from the cities of MittelEuropa to those of the Midwest, with side trips to the Middle East and Andalusia.

It was contagious. I too got to thinking beyond the page, recalling and contemplating a miscellany of ideas and images that came to mind whilst reading, and indeed, whilst writing this review, wandering down forgotten bridle-ways (literally, a horse riding path, or trail originally created for use by horses, but often now serving a range of travelers). And is this not what a good book should do?

The Song of the Horse

The horse, the intelligent mammal, the great vegetarian, a prey animal whose strength is in flight, who has no desire or need for confrontation or quarrel. It’s speed, its main asset, enabling it to flee its predators, is also what attracted it to the attention of man, with whom it entered into a long-lived, unequal devil’s bargain. “They were able to turn the inconspicuous potential energy of tough prairie grasses, inedible to almost all other animals into the spectacular energy of a fast endurance runner. Thanks to its natural properties as a converter of energy, the horse could bear kings, Knights, female lovers and rural doctors, draw carriages and cannons, transport hordes of workers and employees, and mobilize entire nations”. And indeed, Raulff takes us on a jaunt   through these tableaux.

He quotes historian Ann Hyland: “it was a small step, albeit a brave one, for man to mount a horse”, and writes: “The comparison with the moon landing is certainly not exaggerated. The moment when man began, by domestication and breeding, to connect his fate to the horse – not with a nutritional intention, but with a vectorial aim – may have been, before the invention of writing, the narrow gate through which man entered the realm of history”.

And lo, our story resonates with an equine leitmotif.

The horse is in our dreams and our fantasies, in our literature, and our movies, in our aesthetics, and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty. From the diverse mounts that conveyed Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury to that paragon of American folk culture, the cowboy. From the rambunctious centaurs of Disney’s’ Beethoven Fantasia to the gaunt quartet bearing the seer of Patmos’ horsemen of the Apocalypse. From the teenage innocence of National Velvet and Black Beauty to Thomas Hardy and Carey Mulligan’s sensual and photogenic jaunt in the recent remake of Far From the Madding Crowd. From the patriotic jingoism of Alfred J Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Rudyard Kipling’s East is East and West is West to Banjo Patterson’s blokey bush ballad The Man From Snowy River, which I have quoted above (and will reprise below). The horse has even entered into the invented worlds of science fiction, with Joss Whedon’s rollicking space-pirate adventure, Firefly, and more recently, Westworld with its Wild West theme park populated by lifelike android cowboys and Indians on their robot horses.

Westworld

[If I have one small quibble about Farewell to the Horse, it is in its Eurocentricity. The Land Down Under doesn’t rate a mention even though the horse has played an important role in the evolution of Australia’s perceived national identity – “perceived” because here too, we are captive to that “powerful myth” that Raulff believes subverts fact]

Whilst drawing cleverly on the arts – and the book is well-furnished with illustrations that are  well spoken to in the text – Raulff does not venture into poetry, where there are to be found many wonderful images. Take but a few examples drawn from just one poem, and marvel at the metaphors in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Boys Own’ tale of a young British officer tracking down a daring Pathan bandit:

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree”.

“It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go,
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove”.

“They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn”.

And, of course, there are the songs. There’s the doomed Texan troubadour Townes van Zandt’s enigmatic anti-hero:

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel,
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho and Lefty

And whilst Raulff includes a poignant picture of a lone, pedestrian cowboy carrying his saddle through the scrub like a mariner lost on the land, he doesn’t mention Leonard Cohen’s bereft and distraught cowpoke :

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
The Ballad of the Absent Mare

But more from St. Leonard of Montreal later…

Frederic Remington’s Bronco

A Phantom Limb

The horse’s glory days may be over, but the echoes of a long and fruitful relationship linger in our lines and in our language – in our idioms and our figures of speech: like, “getting back in the saddle”, “pulling the reins” and “taking the reins”, “champing at the bit”, “gaining the whip hand”, and the timeless put-down, “get off your high horse!” Phrases such as these are used everyday by people who have never been physically close to a horse let alone ridden one, and whose visual encounters are limited to country outings, circuses, televised equestrian events and westerns (in Australia, as in the US, we can still enjoy country fairs and carnivals that feature rodeos and endurance rides).

And note that these usages are somehow connected to power, control, and aggression – and often, casual, almost matter-of-fact violence (the idea of being “horse-whipped”) – violence inflicted not only on humans but on the animals too.

Raulff asks: Why is it that the most powerful visual images of horses are in their warrior role?  Does it not say more about ourselves than what was genetically a passive, docile, tame-able (we call it “breaking”) grazer?

Equestrian Statues

Salah ud Din al Ayubi, Damascus

The horse has a complex and varied curriculum vitae. For six millennia, it has been our dependable beast of burden, the bearer of people, packages and progress, shrinking distance and opening up new lands. But it has also been the agent of power, politics and pogroms. A bearer of great ideas, and also of great tyrants.

The horse has long been a living metaphor of power – the absolute political metaphor, indeed.

“The combination of horse and rider is a powerful symbol of domination, and one of the oldest in the book”. The caudillo, the martial “man on horseback” so beloved of painters and sculptors – and of putative dictators (although Stalin and Hitler, Raulff reminds us, despised horses). There’s Alexander the Great on Bucephalus, defeating Darius; David’s conquering Napoleon crossing the Alps; bodacious Boudicca reining in her chariot steeds on The Embankment. To be physically and violently unhorsed is to be taken down literally and figuratively. Hence Richard III’s anguished “my kingdom for a horse”, and George Armstrong Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry demountd and doomed on Last Stand Hill.

The rise of the horse changes the position of the people and along with it, their view of the world around them – what Raulff calls the ‘cavalier perspective’. It is rooted in an age-old fantasy of the fusion of man and beast, from centaur to chevalier. The unfortunate Aztecs believed the mounted conquistadors to be half man half beast. That dismissive rebuke “get off your high horse” echoes a primal fear of the mounted marauder, be he the Scythian archer, the Mongol warrior, the rogue knight or the Red Indian (“savage” he was called back in the day) of the Great Plains. Recall the Cossacks lining up on the snow-covered square, about to charge the defenseless marchers in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. Recall the Dothraki, screaming their war cries, thundering down on the doomed Lannister infantry. “We still see traces of horses’ archaic role as inspirers of terror when required to intimidate picketing workers or to drive rallies of protesters out of shopping precincts”.

Something wicked this way comes – Clive Owen’s Slav King Arthur

During his travels, Raulff visited Israel, where he chanced to observe ultra-orthodox Jews protesting against their youth being conscripted into the Israeli Defense Force. Jerusalem authorities mobilized mounted police officers against the recalcitrant religious. He indulges in pogrom projection, imagining the Haredim being intimated by a Cossack Shtetl flashback. Fanciful, perhaps, but as a young man during the Vietnam demonstrations in London’s Grosvenor Square, I learned that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of than a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching.

And yet, the use of the horse in this manner forces it to go against its nature, trained to stand its ground in dangerous circumstances when all its instincts are to flee danger. Ostensible police brutality in Grosvenor Square was juxtaposed by the reality that police horses were stabbed by banners and tripped and stoned with glass marbles. Several were so injured that they had to be euthanized.

Horse meets Haredim in Jerusalem

…and meanwhile, in the other side of town

 The Wide Open Spaces

The power bestowed upon men by horses is much more than such authoritarian, martial muscle. The horse enabled landsmen to conquer what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called “the tyranny of distance”. For Rudyard Kipling’s “fluttered folk and wild”, it ushered in a tyranny of a malevolent kind.

The horse-led conquests of European and Asian empires during the second millennium BCE by the chariots and later, cavalry of the horse-people disgorging from the steppes like some equestrian blitzkrieg, transformed world history. They brought their political structures, their warfare, their masculine, spiritual character – their “asabiyyeh” or, literally “muscle” as famed Arab historian Ibn Khaldun put it. The Eurasian nomadic warrior, “that ‘natural born’ combatant, who, as tough and austere as his resilient horse, emerged as the terror of the sedentary populations of Europe and the orient”. The same could be said of the warriors of Islam as they erupted out of their Arabian heartland and reached the walls of Constantinople and the frontiers of the Franks.

One powerful factor in these invasions was the horsemen’s speed. “In every contemporary account of the Mongols, great stress is laid on their speed: suddenly they were there, only to vanish and appear somewhere else even more suddenly”. The alliance between man, horse, and the arrow was likewise significant, providing the ability to kill from a distance, whilst moving, on horseback.

“Thanks to the horse, distant territories could be conquered and vast dominions could be established. The horse and its rider made the land they traversed tangible, recognizable, and able to be taken”. The horse became indispensable in terms of control of the land, subduing its inhabitants, and enabling Its exploration. In America, it brought the conquistadors, and in time, ensured that The West was won with catastrophic consequences for the native Americans with the loss their land and hunting grounds .

A Day at the Races

Our pact with the horse was much more up more than the power and the glory, the conquest and the trail-blazing. Horses’ fleetness, stamina and beauty satisfied other, more hedonistic yearnings, and today, their days on the field of battle long over, they serve to give us pleasure – and profit.

And they have always done thus – particularly in the antecedents and descendants of the Ancient Greek hippodrome (named thus for horses and the racing thereof). In the downtime between warring and raiding, hunting and horse and chariot racing attracted many a warrior’s energy and enthusiasm, and provided  less martial spectators with, vicarious thrills. We have been racing horses for as long as they have been our companions, and wagering on their speed and stamina. This passion fostered complementary endeavours in breeding, training, thieving, and gambling.

The racing carnival still exerts an atavistic, ofttimes addictive spell over riders, owners and punters alike. “The spectacle of race day echoes times and indeed conflicts past, the jockeys’ bright colours, representing a return of heraldry, a way of distinguishing otherwise indiscernible participants”.

It’s there you’ll see the jockeys and they’re mounted out so stately,
The pink, the blue, the orange and green, the emblem of our nation,
When the bell was rung for starting, all the horses seemed impatient,
I thought they never stood on ground their speed was so amazing
Galway Races (Ireland, traditional)

In horse racing, nothing and no one is hunted, only the shadows of time”, Raulff notes prosaicly.

American author EC Morgan is similarly lyrical: “Time is a horse you never have to whip”,

In That Howling Infinite recently published a review of Morgan’s masterwork The Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about an old Kentucky horse-breeding family. She displays an unerring instinct for metaphor and music. A horse’s neck shudders under its rider’s hands “like a dreaming dog”. Of the racehorses, she writes: “they exploded out of the gate like doves from a cote”; and, “now the school of horses swung round the turn as if caught in a sweep net”.

Raulff explains why horse racing was indeed ‘the sport of kings: Britain emerged as the world power of thoroughbred racing under the racIng-mad Stuart Kings who transformed the sleepy village of Newmarket into the Mecca of the turf, supplanting hunting with punting as the favourite pastime of the idle rich and the indolent upper classes. When Scots King James wasn’t corralling and coaxing the best minds in the land into producing his beautiful Bible, he was both patron and participant with a keen eye for quality horse-flesh.

Teenage Daydream

Did I mention that horses can be dangerous? They are large, high, broad, heavy, and for all their tameness in the hands of a seasoned rider, they can also be excitable, unpredictable, and wild.  When you take up the reins, you literally put your life in your hands. In My Early Life , his biography of his cavalry days, Winston Churchill wrote: “No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined by owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them, unless, of course, they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good way to die”.

But danger can come in other guises.

There was probably no way a cultural scientist trained in sociology and psychology could or would avoid how in its variegated pedigree, the horse has also figured as a sexual metaphor, conjuring up thoughts erotic with images of fair maids carried away by amorous riders. Raulff’s copious images include those famous abduction scenes beloved of renaissance painters, but there are many encounters in literature, art, cinema and song that are much less violent. It is as if the rider’s skill with his mount presages his prowess in the sack. There is titillation, there is temptation, and perhaps, surrender. Picture Ross Poldark cantering broodily across the Cornish clifftop, and lifting his Demelza up onto Seamus’ back (that is indeed his name).

True you ride the finest horse I’ve ever seen,
Standing sixteen one or two with eyes wild and green,
And you ride the horse so well, hands light to the touch.
I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to.
Jimmy McCarthy, Ride On (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Ross Poldark and Seamus

Ulrich gets into his stride, so to speak, when he commits to print his daydreams of the object of many a teenage baby boomers’ longing, the androgynous, pony-tailed cow-girl. He ponders also the puzzle of pubescent girls and horses – that tom-boy world, temporary “islands in the flowing river of time”: “Somewhere between a doll and a real-life partner, the horse is the ultimate sex toy. It’s the largest, most beautiful and final plaything before the transition from home and family to a new relationship with a sexual partner”.

Arwen Evenstar

Having raised the subject of women on horseback, there no ignoring the Amazons. Legend says that they were adept horse-women. As are the heroines of the literary canon who express their subversive sexuality in equestrian interludes – Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene. Each are subjected to the author’s affectionate attention. When JRR Tolkien wanted to present a strong and wilful heroine in his ostensibly homoerotic epic, he placed Éowyn on a horse, albeit incognito. But she was the exception to JRR’s macho rule. He would never have sent elf princess Arwen Evenstar out like that. But director Peter Jackson, sensing how well it would translate to film, substituted the luminous Liv Tyler for elf lord Glorfindel to confound the Nazgul riders at the ford of Bruinen.  Here is a Carey Mulligan in glamorous array as Bathsheba:

The Unequal Bargain

There are wealth of emotions associated with horses, such as pride and admiration, a desire for power, fear and joy, compassion, and companionship, and a lust for freedom. The pony is the cowboys’ closest pal. Western star and crooner Roy Rogers described it best:

Who carries your burden, who carries your load
On tumbleweed land or a long dusty road
Who asks you no questions, who tells you no lies
That four legged friend with the two honest eyes
A four legged friend, a four legged friend
He’ll never let you down
He’s honest and faithful right up to the end
That wonderful four legged friend
Roy Rogers, A Four Legged Friend (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Over two millennia  we have lavished depthless emotion, boundless affection and unlimited treasure upon horses. But we have also been capable of great cruelty both casual and calculated,  – from willful neglect and senseless whipping to silent sacrifice as expendable extras on battlefields and motion picture sets. Raulff documents in prose and picture the violence inflicted upon our “four legged friend”, and also how pathos and sympathy for the horses’ plight evolved into a worldwide movement for the prevention of cruelty to all creatures great and small.

That very same Banjo Paterson who gave us the Snowy Mountain man’s famous ride also glorifying the race track – and yet the annual Melbourne Cup,  Australia’s ‘race that stops a nation’, sees horses killed every year. we as a nation continue to praise and perpetuate what many see as animal cruelty. In Paterson’s day, horses were valuable and relied upon for transport and pleasure – theft was common – yet they were treated appallingly. Read The Man From Snowy River and reflect on the agony the hero inflicts upon his mount, which could barely move by the end of the ride and ‘was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur’. Yet Banjo, like apologists for the deaths on the track today – suggests that the horse was reveling in the chase.

But  horses’ iconic place in our hearts and souls are sealed by their status as mobile metaphors of speed, of grace, of the wind in one’s hair, of wild, exhilarating, uninhibited freedom: “Run wild, run free”, like the troubled teen and the wild blue-eyed white colt in the 1969 British film of that name.

And it is with this in mind that Raulff concludes his epic ride, for it  is one of the most poignant paradoxes that the idea of freedom and movement associated with horses and being on horseback, the image of the wild mustangs in The Misfits and Banjo Paterson’s Colt from Old Regret, is juxtaposed with the reality that this “creature of the wind”, as the Arabs described him, has surrendered her freedom and free will in the service of man.

Quoting the poet Albrecht Schaefer, Raulff tells of how “the horse knows that it would like to be free … but the burden is never ending, and it is rarely allowed to run and has to stand there even when it is frightened and when it is seized by the urge to return to its nature, to flee … It is trapped in eternal captivity, always overshadowed by an inescapable will to which it resigns itself without ever realizing”.

This magnificent animal, Raulff  writes, “held in perpetual captivity, is seen by us as the epitome of all in nature that embodies nobility and magnanimity, stature, pride, and courage”.

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare


 Epilogue

The Troubled Trail – an equine parable 

When the white man came into the new world, he brought his horses. He conquered the land and broke it – its ecology, its  pre-Colombian history, and its people.

In the early years, the horses of the conquistadors humbled and harried the Native Americans. In time, many horses scattered and ran wild, and on the open prairie grasslands, they prospered and multiplied. The free people of the plains captured and tamed those feral mustangs, and so mounted, were better able to travel over great distances to fresh pastures and to the wide grazing grounds of the vast herds of buffalo, a rich source of food and fashion.

The horse gave the Native Americans mobility and speed, and an economic asset of value. They began trading horses with their neighbours, and also horse stealing, whilst their mounts gave them the edge in their territorial vendettas with neighbouring tribes. They bought steel axes and knives From the white traders who ventured into their lands from the east, and also, firearms which augmented their already effective mounted archery. This gave them a tactical edge when they first came up against the mounted soldiers of the US Army.

They were a formidable foe, their speed and maneuverability and their skill with bow and rifle, were more than a match for the clumsy, old-school heavy cavalry, and these, indeed, were compelled to adjust their own style and tactics to match their guerrilla adversaries, taking up light weapons – carbines and revolvers – and fighting on foot as circumstances dictated.

The irony of the Battle of Little Big Horn is that George Armstrong Custer and his men rode on to a battlefield in which they were out-horsed, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by their numerically stronger foe. But the US Army exacted a terrible revenge for Little Big Horn. The days of the Plains Indian were numbered as the army and the hunters destroyed the buffalo herds that fed and clothed the tribes, and killed their horses, ending forever their wandering ways. As Neil Young was later to sing in Pocahontas:

They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin’ on the ground
But the firesticks and the wagons come
And the night falls on the setting sun

Frederic Remington’s Braves


The Ballad of the Absent Mare

Leonard Cohen 

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood
And the roads are awash
And the bridges break up
In the panic of loss.

And there’s nothing to follow
There’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer
Gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking
His heart with their song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong

Did he dream, was it she
Who went galloping past
And bent down the fern
Broke open the grass
And printed the mud with
The iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet
When he was the lord

And although she goes grazing
A minute away
He tracks her all night
He tracks her all day
Oh blind to her presence
Except to compare
His injury here
With her punishment there

Then at home on a branch
In the highest tree
A songbird sings out
So suddenly
Ah the sun is warm
And the soft winds ride
On the willow trees
By the river side

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky

And she comes to his hand
But she’s not really tame
She longs to be lost
He longs for the same
And she’ll bolt and she’ll plunge
Through the first open pass
To roll and to feed
In the sweet mountain grass

Or she’ll make a break
For the high plateau
Where there’s nothing above
And there’s nothing below
And it’s time for the burden
It’s time for the whip
Will she walk through the flame
Can he shoot from the hip

So he binds himself
To the galloping mare
And she binds herself
To the rider there
And there is no space
But there’s left and right
And there is no time
But there’s day and night

And he leans on her neck
And he whispers low
“Whither thou goest
I will go”
And they turn as one
And they head for the plain
No need for the whip
Ah, no need for the rein

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair

But my darling says
“Leonard, just let it go by
That old silhouette
On the great western sky”
So I pick out a tune
And they move right along
And they’re gone like the smoke
And they’re gone like this song

 

Grosvenor Square, London 1968

Poll Tax Riots, London 1990

Grosvenor Square 1968