Sawt al Hurriya – remembering the Arab Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sawt al Hurriya – Egypt’s slow-burning fuse

In That Howling Infinite, 9th October 2019

Déjà vu

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

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

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

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

The Voice of Freedom

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

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

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

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

Remembering Tahrir Square

The self-immolation in December 20111 of young Tunisian Muhammed Bouazizi was the catalyst for the pent-up popular outrage that led to the heady days of January and February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East.

The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality; for a society in which there were jobs and a decent living, where you could save up enough money to get married, where you didn’t have to bribe corrupt officials for everything from traffic fines to court decisions to business permits to jobs, where you could be arbitrarily arrested and/or beaten up or worse for speaking out against the government, the system, or just…speaking out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The great unravelling

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

This was transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter., and eight years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.

And they led to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, extending southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

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

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

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

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

 The voice of freedom

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

Sawt al Hurriya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our innovative youth
Have turned autumn into spring.

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

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

The voice of freedom is calling.

(Translated by Egyptian Seed Mariam Bazeed.)

Sout al-Hurriya
صوت الحرية

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

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

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

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

sela7na kan a7lamna
سلحنا كان احلامنا
Our weapon was our dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over the sea to Skye

Many’s the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.

There are many folk songs that we are convinced are authentically “traditional”, composed in the days gone by an unknown hand and passed down to us by word of mouth and then, perhaps, by broadsheets and handbills, rustic kitchens and Victorian parlours, until finally pressed into vinyl during the mid-twentieth century folk revival. And yet many such songs were indeed written by poets and songwriters of variable fame. One such is The Skye Boat Song. 

This famous song is one of many inspired by the Scottish Jacobite Rising against Protestant England’s rule in 1745. It recalls the journey of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonny Prince Charlie”, from Benbecula to the Isle of Skye as he evaded capture by government troops after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Jacobite Rebellion was sparked by many political, cultural and economic factors. but essentially, it was a dynastic civil war. 

He was aided in his flight by minor aristocrat Flora MacDonald who was subsequently arrested for her role and consigned to the Tower of London, but later amnestied. She married an army captain also named McDonald, and they later emigrated to the American colonies. Her captain served with the British forces during the American War of Independence, and as a result, their property was confiscated. They relocated to Canada and soon, after, returned to Scotland.

Flora and Charlie

Songwriter and philanthropist Sir Harold Boulton, 2nd Baronet composed the lyrics to an air collected by Anne Campbelle MacLeod in the 1870s. According to Andrew Kuntz, a collector of folk music lore, MacLeod was on a trip to the isle of Skye and was being rowed over Loch Coruisk (Coire Uisg, the “Cauldron of Waters”) when the rowers broke into a Gaelic rowing song “Cuachag nan Craobh” (“The Cuckoo in the Grove”). MacLeod set down what she remembered of the air, with the intention of using it later in a book she was to co-author with Boulton.

It was first published in 1884 Around 1885 the famed author Robert Louis Stevenson, considering Boulton’s lyrics words “ unworthy”, composed verses “more in harmony with the plaintive tune”. Purged of Jacobite content, these mentioned neither Charlie nor Culloden.

Boulton’s is the one that endured, along with the sentimental perspective Bonny Prince Charlie

Charles Stuart was the “Young Pretender” to the Protestant Hanoverian English throne that once belonged to the Roman Catholic Stuart clan, who after the bloody failure of the ’45 rebellion, fled into exile in France. And that’s where he remained, although his last resting place is in the crypt of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome – an ironic ending for this could’ve been champion of Catholic hopes.

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

But historical fact has never dimmed the popularity of the song. It is often played as a slow lullaby or waltz in many and varied contexts including soundtracks (including Highlander), pipe bands and weddings. It entered into the modern folk canon in the twentieth century with renderings by singers as diverse and indeed betimes idiosyncratic as Paul RobesonTom Jones, Rod Stewart,  Esther & Abi OfarimThe Corries and Tori Amos. James Galway and The Chieftains recorded an instrumental version, as did The Shadows, whilst Roger Whittaker whistled it as comedic crooner Des O’Connor sang.

We much prefer the version presnted below sung by the Choral Scholars of University College, Dublin, an amateur, mostly acapella bunch of Irish students. These young folk formally audition for a scholarship with the ensemble. There is little glamour or artifice, no fireworks or vocal gymnastics. Plainly dressed, they look like folk you would pass on the streets of Dublin or Galway.

Below that is a link to British film-maker Peter Watkins’ acclaimed film  Culloden (1964).

See also in In That Howling Infinite, a discussion about another famous Jacobite song:  Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. This song is presented below.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.

Many’s the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.

Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.

Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

 

The agony and extinction of Blinky Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald 6th February 2021

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

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

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

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

In spring 2019, the fires started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Eddie Jim.

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

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

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

Koalas rescued from bushfires returned to their native habitat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dashcam Captures Speed Of Bushfire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tangled 2 – Libya’s bloody circus rolls on

UN-sponsored talks have produced a new interim government for Libya aimed at resolving a decade of chaos, division and violence by holding national elections later this year. But with myriad factions loathe to surrender influence they already hold, and with foreign powers invested in local allies, the new government may rapidly come under pressure. The appointment of a new government may also do little to change the balance of military power on the ground, where armed groups rule the streets and factions remain split between east and west along a fortified front-line.  

Some Libyans have been critical of a process which they view as being managed from abroad and which they fear will allow existing power-brokers to cling to their influence. “It’s just a painkiller to portray Libya as stable for a while. But war and tension will certainly come back sooner or later so long as militias have power,” said Abdulatif al-Zorgani, a 45-year-old state employee in Tripoli.

“Déjà vu all over again”

A year ago, In That Howling Infinite published Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East Back then, Libya held poll position for its multitude of active players and, to use that Shakespearean script note, “voices off”. A year on, borrowing again from the Bard, there are continuing “alarums and excursions”. 

Libya has long been a jigsaw puzzle of competing interests –  tribal versus urban, Islamist versus secularist, revolutionary versus old-regime, localist and regional players, Middle Eastern and European – all prepared to tear the country apart for in pursuit of their own political and economic interests – which include, as is often the case, oil and gas. Their contortions get more and more torturous. 

It was reported year last year that that more than 1400 Russian mercenaries had been were deployed in 2019 by the Wagner company, a Russian military outfit headed by a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had deployed in Libya to assist warlord Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army in its push against Libya ostensibly internationally recognized government. It was joining troops hired by Haftar’s backers, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and included mercenaries from Sudan’s brutal Jamjaweed militia – aided and abetted by several EU members and French, Italian and sundry other arms suppliers. 

Wagner’s sell-swords included a good number of Syrians – sundry rebels and jihadis left high, dry and unemployed by the Syrian regime’s ongoing ‘reconquista’ – which is, as we know, bolstered by the Russian military – including Wagner’s fighting men, who include in their number many Muslim Chechens from Russia’s subservient neighbour. 

When Haftar’s offensive stalled outside Tripoli, Libya’s capitol, last June, it was reported that more than a thousand of the Russian and Syrian mercenaries had been  pulled back from the front lines and taken planes to who knows where. This “retreat” was precipitated by a Turkish military intervention that has helped block an assault on the capital. 

The Turkish contingent is comprised of numerous specialists and advisers, artillery and aircraft, and a contingent of, surprise surprise, hirelings drawn from the same battered battlefields of northern Syria. Those same jihadis and rebels in Wagner’s pay. 

Many Syrians sell their services because it is the only way they can feed their families in the war-battered economy of the regime’s Syria, and the besieged enclaves of the disparate rebel forces. It reported that these mercenaries, zealous and reluctant alike, have also been deployed in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh during the recent brief but bloody war between Russian-backed Armenia and Turkish-supported Azerbaijan. Recruits on both sides in both conflicts are reportedly complaining that they are not being paid what they were promised nor on time. 

Haftar spend time late last year in Egypt conferring with his patron and mentor, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, over possible next moves. There is speculation now that whilst Haftar’s backers are becoming increasingly disillusioned with his martial abilities, they are reluctant to relinquish their influence in this politically and economically strategically area leaving the field to an ambitious Erdogan. They may, indeed, be surreptitiously looking around for a new dance-partner. 

As COVID-19 infections continued to rise, and as Turkey and Russia vied for influence in this strategically important corner of the Mediterranean, there were incoherent mumblings that the that the USA might be about to throw its MAGA cap into the crowded ring, This did not however eventuate, and there are indications that the new administration may be reluctant to involve itself in torturous proxy wars involving disreputable Arab and other despots. 

Nevertheless, Libya’s nightmare continues. As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.

In That Howling Infinite, see also; Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East and A Middle East Miscellany

Here is a good  analysis of this unwinnable civil war:  The citizens of Libya are suffering – All sides have to take the blame for this bloody stalemate

© Paul Hemphill 2021.  All rights reserved

That was the year that was – a year of living dangerously

Last December, when we wrote our review of the year that was ending, fires were ravaging Eastern Australia, and civil unrest had broken out across the world, from Hong to Chile, Beirut to Bolivia. Calling it The End of the Beginning, we wrote:

“We enter a new decade with an American election that will focus our attention; Britain’s long farewell to Europe; an end, maybe, to Syria’s agony (accompanied by renewed repression and victor’s revenge); the rise and rise of China and the geopolitical challenge it presents to the senescent “Old World”. And that is just a few things we have to look forward to”.

As they say, “be careful what you wish for”, or more prosaically, when men make plans, god laughs.

This was a year unlike any other in my, dare I say it and invite the evil eye, long lifetime. It started so well with the abatement of our smoky, fiery Black Summer, and then the rains came. This was the year optimists hoped would be one of 20/20 vision: progress on tackling climate change, perhaps, and end to the entertaining but scary presidency of Donald Trump, a cure for … well everything.

But it was to be the year of the virus. By year’s end nearly eight million people will have been infected and almost two million will have perished, with the US recording more than any other country – by New Years Day, its death-toll will very likely exceed its dead in World War II. Economies have been shattered, livelihoods threatened or destroyed, borders closed, cities, towns and homes closed, locked-down and isolated.

In its turbulent and divisive election year, the death of George Floyd at the hands of – or more specifically under the knee of a policeman, painted a brutal portrait of the implacable indifference to black life that defines American policing. It reopened America’s long-festering wounds of racial and social injustice, white racism and vigilante violence. Rather than douse the flames with water and retardant, The White House reached for a can of petrol. The Black Lives Matter Movement, like #MeToo in recent years, an incendiary spark ignited protests around the world, showing that police violence, injustice and inequality do not belong to the USA alone.

Armed protesters on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses

Whilst most of the world had entered into a kind of limbo, awaiting the vaccine that will end our travails and reopen our countries and indeed, the wide world, others dropped down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that alternatively deny that the pandemic exists or that it had been deliberately created and spread by mysterious and malevolent cabal that seeks total control, like some villain from an old James Bond film or an Avengers movie. Social media has enabled a veritable eBay of ideas and explanations where the isolated and excluded who do their own research and follow the breadcrumbs into the Matrix can buy one and get four free.

On a saner but nonetheless destabilizing level, denizens of the so-called “cancel culture” had a field day exercising its democratic right to be easily offended by demanding the deplatforming, defenestration and demolition of persons, ideas, careers, and monuments. Long-dead slavers, imperialists and generals bit the dust; JK Rowling and Nick Cave got a serve, the latter for devaluing that “cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society”; and an episode of Fawlty Towers was temporarily committed to the naughty corner. 

In the cold-blooded, brutal real world, there was no abatement in the wars and insurgencies that have been grinding on years now in Africa and the Middle East, whilst an old conflict over blood and soil broke out anew between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Donald Trump’s much touted “deal of the century” that would reconcile Israelis and Palestinians was revealed to be no more than a shifty and shitty bribe, whilst US-brokered “peace” deals with a bunch of autocracies who had never gone to war against Israel are but smoke and mirrors that like Kushner’s Peace to Prosperity plan throw the unfortunate Palestinians under the bus. It is as if there is, beyond the planets COVID, Conspiracy and Cancel, a parallel universe of misery and carnage, power games and proxy wars.

Meanwhile, China, or more precisely, the Chinese Communist Party, having let loose the virus, has taken advantage of the world’s distraction and confusion by pressing forward in its quest its political, military and economic predominance. Uighurs, Mongolians and Tibetans face cultural extinction whilst in Hong Kong, the flame of freedom flickered and went out. Sooner or later, something is going to give – what some pundits perceive as President Xi’s impatient recklessness will be followed by a reckoning.

Michelle Griffin, World Editor with the Sydney Morning Herald provides a brief but excellent run down of 2020: The 2020 Pandemic – our year of living dangerously. And on 2020 as the year of “cancel culture”, the reflex response of the easily offended, here is 2020, the year we finally broke our culture. Both are well worth a read.

Time during 2020 has been elastic and confused. On 21st December, The Guardian asked readers to sum up how they felt about 2020 in one word – and likewise their feelings for 2021. As of Xmas Eve, the standout words were respectively (a) shit, fucked and challenging and (b) hopeful and better. My poll responses were “fascinating” and “unpredictable”.

The year ahead?

Our year in review

And so to our review of what In That Howling Infinite published during the plague year. Curiously, deliberately or by mere circumstances, nothing about the plague.

The year began with the fires and smoke abating here on our Mid North Coast, though raging still in southern New South Wales and eastern Victoria. Inspired by an early Cat Stevens song, we opened with a light, nostalgic history of the first the schools of the Tarkeeth, where we live.

Before we knew it, Australian Day was upon us. Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we were perhaps too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words. Elizabeth Farrelly asked what it means to be Australian: “As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up” … It was Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid.

February saw the first of several cynical and futile attempts by the international community to resolve the morass of the Libyan civil war. In Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East, we pointed out that Libya was not the only quagmire of outside powers and their local proxies. Then there the Trump administration’s “deal of the century”. Intended to end half a century of conflict between Israel and Palestine, it was the beginning, dead in the water: Clouded Vision – no peace, no plan, no Palestine, no point.

The unfortunate Palestinians were viewed more sympathetically in a retrospective of the life and work of one of Palestine’s most celebrated artists: Visualizing the Palestinian Return – The art of Ismail Shammout.

The ominous drumbeats of the novel coronavirus we now know as COVID19 drew close and closer during January and February, and by mid March, it was all on for young and old. A tiny but loud minority protested that all a cod. It was to misapply Bob Dylan, “just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme babe that sucks you into feeling like this”.  With enough being written about the pandemic on mainstream and social media, we took the pasty now very well traveled with The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories.

The onward March of the “Conspiratualists” merged by midyear with anti-lockdown protests in otherwise rational western democracies, the violence on America’s streets following the death of George Floyd, and the anticipation of open war between rival militia in the Land of the fearful – home of the heavily armed. As the US descended into a social and political division as contagious as the coronavirus, the calls to right historical wrongs led to the demands that statues of morally dubious long-dead white be torn down led to Arguments of a Monumental Proportions.

It was time for In That Howling Infinite to retreat into history, with The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming, a sequel to an earlier piece on America’s historical fascination with William Shakespeare. The lockdowns and self-isolation of the pandemic’s first wave saw people going out less, homeschooling, drinking more (and sadly, in many instances, beating each other up more. But many of us were also avidly FaceBooking, Tweeting and Zooming; and also binge-watching Netflix and Scandi-noir and reading large books.

In Bad Company – how Britain conquered India, we reviewed The Anarchy, the latest in a long list of excellent histories of the sub-continent by Scottish scholar and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple – the daunting and depressing story of the rise and fall of the British East India Company, a quasi-military industrial complex that earned the misleading sobriquet The Honourable Company.

Flashman in the Great Game

Just in time for the lock-down, Hilary Mantel gave us the finale of her magisterial and magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy – The Light and the Mirror. In That Howling Infinite took up two themes that threaded through all three books. We know how the story ends, but are fascinated with how Mantel takes us there. Taking as it theme the golden bird-boy flying too close to the sun, Beyond Wolf Hall (2) – Icarus ascending asks the question “could Thomas Cromwell have avoided his doom?” Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road reviews Cromwell’s legacy, the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of English (and British) history.

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

Fast forward from the life and dangerous times of Henry VIII to the present, and Netflix’ release in November of the third season of The Crown, a sumptuous soap that beguiles even ardent republicans. The latest serve, highlighting the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher and the salacious pas de trois of Charles, Diana and Camilla, is deliciously seditious. And there was an entertaining Australian interlude, as described in The Crown – the view from Down Under  even if it was actually filmed in Spain.

In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki rippled the heart out of Lebanon’s capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared  videos of songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people. O Beirut – songs for a wounded city presents Fairuz’ songs, and also Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s famous O Beirut, Mistress of the World, and Khalil Gibran’s iconic Pity the Nation.

And finally, as this strangest of years was ending, we published a frolic that has been several years a’making. A cowboy key – how the west was sung takes us on a leisurely jaunt through some of those grand old songs, films and musicals that have shaped our more pleasant perceptions of America.

Happy New Year.

Our reviews of previous years: 2019, 201820172016; 2015

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

A cowboy key – how the west was sung

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze,
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don’t fence me in.
Cole Porter and lyrics by Robert Fletcher and Cole Porter.

Outlaw songs and cowboy gothic

“An old cowpoke went riding by one dark and windy day …”

In his informative and entertaining Way Out West series, in The Immortal Jukebox, British blogger and music chronicler Thom Hickey reminds us that the Western Writers of America declared Ghost Riders In The Sky the greatest of all Western songs.  I’m totally with Thom  here. Written and recorded in 1948 by Sons of The Pioneers alumni Stan Jones, it is probably the best of a glorious herd. The lyrics echo the Seer of Patmos’ four horsemen of the apocalypse …

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

It’s as far way from “Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little dogies” as Kansas is from Oz.

Stan Jones also wrote the haunting and evocative theme for John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers. It is a quixotically existential song

What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away, ride away, ride away

The Searchers is regarded by many to be the best ever western, and many modern filmmakers pay visual homage to it – recall Kill Bill and Westworld. I would argue that it is the second best, after Clint Eastwood’s redemptive avenger saga The Outlaw Josie Wales –  which also had a memorable song, the corny Rose of Alabama, which would not be in Thom’s or anyone’s else’s cowboy song pantheon.

The Searchers and Kill Bill

And there’s Marty Robbins’ fatal fight for the affections of flirtatious Feleena at Rosa’s cantina in the West Texas town of El Paso. Yes, El Paso of 1959 is up there near the summit. It’s a crowded peak, with these songs tussling for space alongside a swag of worthy contenders.

Western movies provided irresistible opportunities for city songwriters to try their hands at moralistic cowboy carols. These included the Tin Pan Alley ring-in written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung so well by Gene Pitney: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Those who tamed the wild west had cleaved to an ambivalent moral code …

But the point of a gun
Was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last
A law book was no good

From the moment a girl gets to be full grown
The very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other
Only one returns

The cowboy hero faced many challenges in his lonesome quest – none more so than Marshall Will Kane in Stanley Kramer’s showdown classic High Noon (1952) with its iconic theme song written by Ukrainian-born Dimitri Tiomkin and sung by the Chicago son of Sicilian immigrants Francesco Paolo LoVecchio – known to us as crooner Frankie Laine.

Oh, to be torn ‘tweenst love and duty
Supposin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty
Look at that big hand move along
Nearin’ high noon

The song is iconic. But rather than platy it here, here is something completely different – the Ukrainian version performed by a shadowy, iconoclastic Australian combo:

Frankie Laine became a master of the genre with a swag of hits, including Gunfight at the OK Corral, Mule Train, The Hanging Tree, Cool Water, and Rawhide.

And on the subject of films, let’s never  forget the luminous, numinous, pulchritudinous Jane Fonda as Cat Balou on that “hangin’ day in Wolf City, Wyoming”, serenaded outside her death cell by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kayes as celluloid Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs.

 Pancho was a bandit, boys –  outlaw chic

There is a multitude of latter day tributes to the genre. Many have tried their hand, and many have given us songs that endure. One is most certainly the mysteriously poignant, mariachi fever-dream Pancho and Lefty by the doomed Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt, a song that has been covered by Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan. Townes later said that when writing the song, he had in mind President Nixon – figure that one out (as Neil Young did when he declaimed in The Old Campaigner that “even Richard Nixon has got soul …”).

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

“Dying outlaw’ ballads are a breed of their own, ranging from the maudlin and admonitory “take a warning from me” Streets of Laredo, to the syrupy Seven Spanish Angels sung so beautifully by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson:

There were seven Spanish angels at the altar of the sun
They were praying for the lovers in the valley of the gun
When the battle stopped and the smoke cleared
There was thunder from the throne
And seven Spanish angels took another angel home.
Troy Seals and Eddie Setser

Bob Dylan gave us an outlaw Romeo and Juliet on with Romance in Durango, not one of Desire’s outstanding tracks, but what a grand chorus.

No llores, mi querida, Dios nos vigila
Soon the horse will take us to Durango
Agarrame, mi vida, Soon the desert will be gone
Soon you will be dancing the fandango

El Paso, Pancho, Durango, those attendant Spanish angels it is passing paradox that notwithstanding America’s ambivalent relationship with its Latino demographic, a Hispanic mystic permeates so many gorgeous songs!

Cocaine canyon bad-boy Warren Zevon, never lost for a cowboy and rebel riff in his outstanding gothic oeuvre (think, his ingenue Frank and Jessie James and his ruinous Play It All Night Long), and his ballad of how two-timing Jeannie needed “a shooter, a shooter on her side”.

Neither songs’ protagonist came out alive. But not all our trigger-happy troubadours end up with a bullet or a noose. The Everly Brothers sent a Message to Mary from a cold cell where the failed stage-coach robber was doing a long stretch, advising Mary that she ought to court a better beau; and Marty Robbins’ would be lucky enough to be spared at The Hanging Tree.

Bob Dylan’s wonderful Blood on the Tracks included the cowboy-noir ballad Rosemary, Lily and the Jack of Hearts, a characters-driven saloon story of payback and pay-dirt which would not be out of place in decadent Deadwood and wired Westworld.

And, of course, there are the songs to the cowboy’s best pal, his Four Legged Friend. Roy Rogers blazed this equine trail, with that very song about his photogenic palomino Trigger. St. Leonard of Montreal, who had aspirations once upon a time to join a cowboy band, has given us his lyrically gorgeous paean to the pony and its desolate rider with the Ballad of the Absent Mare:

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

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s Lyle Lovett calling up both Roy and Trigger and singing of how “… we could all together go out on the ocean, me upon my pony on my boat”.

And Lee Hazelwood, “the wayward guru of cowboy psychedelia” and onetime mentor of Nancy Sinatra (yes, he wrote The Boots Were Made For Walking – all over you), with his Great Plains drawl and his hankering for the outlaw Bad Girl who’d “took my silver spurs, a dollar and a dime, and left me cravin’ for more Summer Wine” with its “strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring”. He was the inspiration for a kind of cowboy gothic that saw urban roustabout cos-play with Wild West dress-ups and bad-boy cowboy noir that found its apotheosis in the cover of the Eagles’s Desperado.

Emmylou Harris’ beau, Carolina coast-born Gram Parsons, who brought the Byrds eight miles down to the Sweetheart of the Rodeo,  pioneered “country rock”, Hes went on to muster Keith Richards into the rockabilly ambiance of the Rolling Stones’s Devils Banquet, and on the brink of stardom, he exited on an overdose at the Jericho Tree Motel, close to the primeval vegetation that provided the title for Irish band U2’s excellent album – but that is not part of this story.

As big as all outdoors

Lost my heart in the Black Hills
The Black Hills of Dakota
Where the pines are so high
That they kiss the sky above
Sammy Fain, and Paul Francis Webster

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,
An’ it looks like its climbin’ clear up to the sky.
Oh what a beautiful morning, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

It was inevitable that cowboys should infiltrate that most American of theatrical excess, the musical. And the contributions of the great musical songwriters – many of them urban Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – have endured with countless outings on screen and stage. Oklahoma gave us songs  “as big as all outdoors” with the title song, its standout ballad Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, and the hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’ The Farmer and the Cow Man  (“Territory Folks should stick together”). Seven Brides For Seven Brothers brought the backwoods to the city with its retelling of the old tale of “the sobbin’ women who lived in the Roman days (“… least that’s what Plutarch said!”) and songs like Wonderful, Wonderful Day, Bless Your Beautiful Hide, and Goin’ Courtin’. The rags to rodeo soapie Annie Get Your Gun gave us Doin’ What Comes Naturally and Anything You can Do. As they say, “there’s no business like show business”, and any excuse for a barn dance, shindig, hoedown or hootenanny.

My personal favourite is Calamity Jane. Doris Day could not be further from Robin Weigert’s foul-mouthed, drunk of Deadwood, but boy, could she “whip crack away” as she drove the Deadwood Stage into town. And didn’t we all yearn for “the Black Hills and the beautiful Indian country that I love” – notwithstanding the brutal irony that the seizure of that Indian country was the prelude to the annihilation of the Plains Indians.

Musical movies give film stars with terrible voices a chance to let it all hang out. Paint Your Wagon, was brought painfully and rib-ticklingly to life on the big screen by Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, who were not, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s word, “born with the gift of the golden voice”. Gruff Rod Steiger’s darkish Poor Judd is Daid  in Oklahoma gave Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris license to break out in dubious song in Man of La Mancha and Camelot. There is something evocative and timeless about Lee’s croaky I Was Born Under a Wondering Star: “wheels were mean for rollin’, mules were mad to pack; I never saw a sight that don’t look better lookin’ back”. One can’t help but like it.

And whilst we’re breaking out the corn that sometimes is “as high as an elephant’s eye”, I have to admit that I have also always had an inexplicable affection for Tony Orlando’s melodramatic, latter-day revenger tragedy and El Paso clone I Did What I Did For Maria, and the overblown, whip-crackin’ Legend of Xanadu by that peculiar British band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch (the video is below – very cowboy cosplay and “all a bit Zorro”). Which brings us ineluctably – to the irreverently awful, bowdlerized Rawhide by the strange Scottish The Chaps (as in blokes or cowboy leg coverings?) and Sting’s eminently forgettable Cowboy Song. Here’s Tony grooving it with the dolly-birds during the decade that fashion forgot. And we never did find out “what he did to Maria”.

My cowboy days

How many Aussies of a certain age did 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.

Though I was immigrant and a townie, I had my ‘cowboy’ days. 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. See In That Howling Infinite‘s The Twilight of the Equine Gods.

My riding days are over, but as this post will aver, I am still into westerns, and as a onetime musician myself, I have, in days gone by, penned songs in a cowboy key.

The Ballad of The Drover’s Dog is twin to iconic Australian poet Henry Lawson’s Harry Dale The Drover, that wistful if overwrought tragedy of the homeward bound stock-man who, along with his faithful hound, comes to grief in the flooded creek. Playing at a pub in Pontadawe, in South Wales, we sang the story of Bluey, the brave blue cattle dog. As ever, the audience took the song seriously albeit sardonically. But this time it was different – knowing smile flickered across many faces. Afterwards, folk came up to us and asked if we heard of Swansea Jack. Read the notes that accompany the song. Greater love hath no dog. Inspired by Henry, this story references council by-laws governing Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach.

From The Ballad of The Drovers Dog, it is only a hop, step, and a boot scoot to that song that dares not mention its name, a rollicking cross between The Man From Snowy River and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, It is likewise loosely based on a true story, as is Capricorn Cowboy. We were doing a gig in cairns, in the tropical far north of Australia, against a backdrop of frogs and cicadas, street noise and broken and breaking glasses. One of the floor singers was Henry, a wannabe country & western singer. And country music of the cowboy variety is a thread that runs through most of these songs and stories. Three quarter time, regardless of the subject matter. I Still Call Mongolia Home, notwithstanding its title and subject matter, is a cowboy song through and through, dedicated as it is to The Duke himself. And Summer Is The Time, a Viking saga that meanders all over the map , resolves into a finale that would not be out of place in Oklahoma! Well, sort of. Listen to it and also the story of Henry below.

My Cowboy Days with Twopence & Trigger

Postscript – a cowboy like me

Americans love their outlaws and really love them running wild, and if that means going out in a blaze of glory, so much the better. We recall the closing camera pan of Bonny and Clyde, and the fade to sepia freeze-frame ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In part, this is because the world’s most powerful country, and indeed, as recent history has shown, most libertarian, cleaves to its foundational “don’t tread on me” and “us against them” identities. In the American noir series Justified, an inept backwoods criminal declaims “he who is not with us – is not with us!”

But it is not only America, the land of the free and the Boogaloo Bois. England has its perennial and ageless Robin Hood – “age cannot wither nor custom stale” his infinite screen resurrections (there’s another on the way in 2021). And aren’t we still fascinated by those East End bully boys, the Kray Twins, DownUnder, the ghost of Ned Kelly haunts our ethos still, alongside those our famed and favoured bushrangers Captain Lightfoot and Ben Hall.

But the fascination with the cowboy is much more than outlaw chic. It is a deep and colourful repository of folk memories and foundation myths where fact and fiction coexist. 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 cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse, “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”.  [See: The Twilight of the Equine Gods]

The sad irony is that even as these songs, films and musicals were being created, the world of the cowboy was fast disappearing. Films such as The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid saw its protagonists exit in a blaze of bloody glory. But the reality was more poignant: a slo-mo and allegorical lone rider heading into the sunset for one last time, an American archetype that is lost forever, as country singer Ed Bruce tells us in The Last Cowboy Song, the end of a hundred year waltz”, the video illustrated with a fine gallery of old photographs that recall Frederic Remington’s iconic paintings.

An Oklahoman friend reminded me of the famous Chisholm Trail, the rout for arduous cattle drives that traversed her state from Texas to Kansas. And there it is in Ed Bruce’s song too, together with references to Lewis & Clark, The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand and other American epics. I had visions of visions of Rawhide and a young Clint Eastwood, but I also recalled our own  Long Paddock, the “travelling stock routes” where stockmen would walk their cattle to market over hundreds of miles exist today largely as tourist drives. Like the cowboy, our “drover” is a precious but passing of artefact of historical iconography.

We all get that cowboy vibe, the idea of a life lived on the edge. Though long “civilized” and sedentary, we harbour atavistic folk memories of running wild and free – from the law, from the tax man, from ‘civilization and its discontents‘. Even Taylor Swift has got the drift – albeit as image rather than actual.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

 

For more posts on matters America in In That Howling Infinite, see My Country ’tis of thee, and on music, Soul Food- music and musicians.

O Beirut – songs for a wounded city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemplating Ya Beirut, I was reminded of Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s famous poem, Pity the Nation, published posthumously after his death in 1931, a sardonic and incisive commentary on the politics of his time and his homeland. It is chilling in its prescience with regard to contemporary politics in the Middle East and indeed, much, much closer to home in our liberal democracies wherein ‘populism and post-truth, allegations of ‘alternative facts’ and fake news’ are ubiquitous and duplicitous, and where, in a milieu of fear, anger and loathing, intolerance and ignorance appear to be on the rise. See In That Howling Infinite‘s Pity the Nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion. It came as no surprise that in the Age of Trump, onetime beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s clone, also titled Pity The Nation, was circulating widely in anxious progressive circles.

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

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

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

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

 يا بيروت
يا ست الدنيا

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

Pity The Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)

رحم على الامة

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

To Beirut
Fairuz

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

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

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

 يا بيروت

فيروز

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

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

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

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

Tell me, tell me about my country
Fairuz

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

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

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

احكيلي احكيلي عن بلدي

فيروز

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

My City In  Ruins

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

مدينتي في اخراب
بروس سبرينغستين

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Crown – the view from Down Under

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacqueline Maley, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 November 20207

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road

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

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

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

German artiist Hans Holbein The Younger’s portrait of Cromwell

The Hand of the King

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

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

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

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

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

Henry VIIII and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors

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

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

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

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

James Frain as Cromwell in The Tudors

The rift with Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dissolution Of the Monasteries

The harrowing of the shires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let England shake

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

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

The rest, as they say, is our history.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

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

A Man It Would  Be Unwise To Cross

Stephen Alford, London Review of Books November 8th 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Cromwell, by Diarmaid MacCulloch – What Mantel left out

Jessie Childs, The Guardian, 22nd September 2018

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

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

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

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

The Dissolution Of the Monasteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Thomas Cromwell: A Life is published by Allen Lane. To order a copy for £25.80 (RRP £30) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Beyond Wolf Hall (2) – Icarus ascending

          Wild Bill Hickok: You know the sound of thunder, don’t you, Mrs. Garrett?
          Alma Garrett: Of course.
Wild Bill:  Can you imagine that sound if I asked you to?
Alma: Yes I can, Mr. Hickok
Wild Bill: Your husband and me had this talk, and I told him to head home to avoid a dark result. But I didn’t say it in thunder. Ma’am, listen to the thunder.
Deadwood (Series 1, Episode 4. Here was a Man. HBO

We know how it ends. It’s how we get there that matters.

There is a scene in the superlative western noir, Deadwood, where the madame of the Bella Union hotel and whore house, Joanie Stubbs, mentors the young and conniving con-artist Flora on survival in a hard world:  “ … mostly, you can steer it, sweetheart”, she says, “and when it’s going to get to where you can’t, you get just a little notice, just a couple of seconds, before the one thing turns into the other.  It’s like a funny smell comes into the air. And then you know, there’s no more steering and get the hell out of the way”. Flora, overconfident and full of herself, is deaf to th sound of thunder, and ignoring Joanie’s advice, proceeds to a brutal and bloody doom.

Towards the end of The Mirror and the Light,the final volume in Hilary Mantel‘s acclaimed Tudor trilogy, Thomas Cromwell, disgraced and imprisoned in the Tower of London in the very room he’d placed the doomed Anne Boleyn, contemplates the old Greek legend of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, the builder of the famous Minotaur’s labyrinth. There was a point at which headstrong Icarus could have changed course – but the temptation to fly higher and higher was irresistible: Thomas “reads the book of Erasmus, Preparation Until Death, written only five, six years back, under the patronage of Thomas Boleyn. It tires his eyes; he would rather look at the pictures. He lays the book side and turns the pages of his engravings. He sees Icarus, his wings melting, plummeting into the waves. It was Daedalus who invented the wings and made the first flight, he more circumspect and circumspect than his son: scraping above the Labyrinth bobbing over walls, skimming the oceans so low his feet were wet. But then as he rose on the breeze, peasants gaping upwards, supposing they were seeing gods or giant moths; and as he gained height there must have been an instant when the artificer knew, in his pulse and in his bones, This is going to work. And that instant was worth the rest of his life”.

Poet WH Auden recreated this scene decades before Hilary Mantel in his visit to Paris’ Musée des Beaux Arts. On the one hand, the poet might appear to be commenting our indifference to others’ misfortune and suffering, but on the other, the message is more mundane: whilst bad things happen to someone, life goes on around them. The multitude is not necessarily indifferent but rather, unaware, uninformed, and physically or emotionally distant. He writes:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

Thomas senses that “ funny smell” that Joanie mentioned well before his fall comes inevitable. Like Icarus ascending, he could have changed course. He senses it some two thirds into Hilary Mantel’s house brick of a literary masterpiece. When Queen Jane perishes soon after giving birth to the future Edward VI, King Henry having now got his male heir, needs a spare to ensure the survival of his dynasty and charges Cromwell with the chore of securing him a new bride. Things have already been getting dicey for the bold  Chancellor.

He is the public face of the king’s split with Rome and the spiritual and temporal authority of the Pope. The perennially cash-strapped Henry is hooked on the riches and the lands that accrue to the crown and its cronies with the dissolution of the great abbeys and monastic houses. Cromwell himself has his hand in the till, enriching himself and his family.

On the one hand, he is loathed by the common people who yearn for the old, familiar ways, the “bells and smells”, the bits of dead saints’ bones and the shreds of their shrouds, and having risen up in rebellion against the new order, have been put down mercilessly with sword and rope. On the other, there’s the ancient noble families who whilst also being enriched by the plundering of the abbeys and the appropriation of the church’s expansive landholdings, harbour hatred for Cromwell the commoner, the blacksmith’s son, who has risen so high – too high – in the kings favour. The king too is a parvenu beneath their contempt. As Mantel writes, “the grandees of England’s claim descent from emperors and angels. To them, Henry Tudor is the son of Welsh horse thieves: a parvenu, a usurper, a man to whom oaths may be broken”.

Thomas is only too aware of all this. The tide is turning, and not in his favour. And yet in his self confidence and overweening faith in his capacities, his sense of obligation to his family and friends who would almost certainly fall with him, he resolves to “manage it through” as we say today in management-speak, knowing that “he who rides the tiger never can dismount”. “We are living on borrowed time” he tells a clerical friend and Protestant, “in small rooms, a bag always packed, an ear always alert (we sleep lightly and some nights hardly at all … If the king can burn this man, he can burn us’.

James Frain as Cromwell in The Tudors

Should he have quit whilst he was ahead?

That would have been back at the end of Wolf Hall, the first volume in this outstanding trilogy. Tom, the blacksmith’s son, former street urchin, soldier, mercenary, kitchen hand, clerk, accountant, banker, dealer and merchant had risen high in the services of Henry’s first chief councillor Cardinal Wolsey. When the prelate falls in the wake of his failure to resolve the king’s “great matter”, his divorce from the first if his six wives, Katarina of Aragon, “the Spanish Princess”, Cromwell emerges unscathed and indispensable. He engineers the disgrace and death of Wolsey’s successor, Thomas More, the righteous and ruthless scourge of heretics, and fosters Henry’s affair and marriage to the vivacious and opportunistic Anne Boleyn.

Thomas finds solace at the Seymour family’s Thames-side ancestral pile, the eponymous Wolf Hall. Plain Janes sweet, and young, and though he does not quite admit it at this point in the narrative – it is one of the ‘reveals’ of book three – he’d like to make her his second missus (the first died from plague along with his two little girls, and all three haunt him throughout his odyssey).

Thomas could have pulled out of his ascent then and retired to a modest but, for his time and circumstances, quite comfortable fortune. But no. The devil drives, and his political, economic, social and spiritual ambitions, and, yes, his pride and his greed got the better of him.

His Protestant beliefs, fostered during his sojourn in the heretical Low Countries, impelled his rejection of the Roman faith with its corruption and its confidence tricks, its profiteering and its hypocrisy, its fabricated sinecures and sacraments, its relics and its indulgence.  His pure hatred and contempt for the whole shaky edifice is force-fed by the prospects of divesting the English church of its immense power, wealth and influence, of filling the impecunious crown’s coffers, and diverting a goodly portion to Thomas Cromwell and his nearest and dearest.

His hatred for the old families was undisguised – his dismissive contempt for their interests and pretensions, their precious noble lineages and pride therein. To his mind, they were all the heirs and successors of barbarians, bandits and warlords, unfettered, unlettered, and unappreciative and unworthy of his grand project

The hatred was mutual. They abhorred the Cromwell the commoner, and resented the Boleyn ascendancy – for when Anne rose, so did the boats of Cromwell, and of Anne’s father and brother and their kin – parvenus all in England’s heraldic hierarchy and tainted with French blood.  And yet, as is the manner of the English aristocracy, they are all interconnected, through marriage or the outcome of illicit liaisons, and run with hare and hunt with the hounds. Nor more so than the noble (in the aristocratic rather than the moral sense as morality doesn’t come into it) and pugnacious Duke of Norfolk. He is Cromwell’s erstwhile ally and nemesis; he fosters sad Anne’s marriage to the king, observes her fall from grace, presides over her trial and its preordained verdict, and attends her execution; and then, when the opportunity presents itself with Henry’s rejection of his fourth wife, Princess Anna of Cleves, handpicked by Thomas from a lineup of eligible, royal and strategic European beauties, goes after the matchmaker, the low-born, ambitious and avaricious Cromwell.

Add to Thomas’ reformational fervour, his ambition and greed, and a major misstep with regard to Anna, the original “sad eyed lady of the lowlands”, his justified pride in his prodigious talent and intellect, and his hubris. Too clever by half, we’d say today. He knew he was the nobles’ intellectual superior and never failed to flaunt it with friends and foe alike. And the latter, when it all came down to it, were more numerous and strategically placed.

And finally, his “doom”, to talk in Tolkien terms, was that he misjudged King Henry – his vanity, his pride, and his obsessions, his hopes and his fears. Thomas had convinced himself that he knew the king and could control – no, guide him, anticipate his desires, and his wishes. In the quiet after-hours, he was writing “The Book of Henry”, an anthology of Cromwellian ruminations on the essence of kingship. It is a theme that Mantel returns to often in this doorstep of a book. Henry is indeed “The Mirror and the Light of all other kings and princes in Christendom”. The Book Of Henry is a guide to kingship modeled on Machiavelli’s contemporary treatise “The Prince” (arguably the most quoted, misquoted and never read political tract ever published –  up there with Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Lenin’s What is to be done? and Mao’s Little Red Book – not to mention Thomas Hobbes who wrote about life being “nasty brutish and short” during the English Civil War a century after Cromwell and Henry were rendered to dust – a confrontation with the monarchy precipitated by Thomas Cromwell’s nephew’s great grandson Oliver. History sometimes works like that – that which goes around comes around.

And, yet, whilst Cromwell reckons he can “read” the king, he acknowledges throughout that when it all comes down to it, Henry is actually unpredictable, quixotic, eccentric, capricious, narcissistic, and unknowable. And dangerously so. To repeat, “If the king can burn this man, he can burn us”. Which he does, although sparing him the fire that consumes heretics and the hanging, drawing and quartering that awaits traitors; both charges having been laid against him, “the kings mercy” consigned him the headsman’s axe. Not the beautiful, scripture inscribed French long-sword that dispatches Anne of the Thousand Days, the first of the “light and the Mirror ” motifs reprised in this story, but an easily blunted English broad axe wielded by an allegedly intoxicated executioner (histrorians maintain that this story is apocryphal).

As we said, we know how it ends, but it’s how we got there that matters. And I’d long wondered how Hilary Mantel would take us there – before I’d read the final installment and whilst I was reading it.

And how do you drop the final curtain when you are in essence the narrator?

“The pain is a acute, raw stinging, and ripping, a throb. He can taste his death: slow, metallic, not come yet. It is terror he tries to obey his father, but his hands cannot get a purchase, nor can he crawl. He is an eel, he is a worm on the hook, his strength has ebbed and leaked away beneath him and it seems a long time ago now since he gave his permission to be dead; no one has told his heart, and he feels it writhe in his chest, trying to beat. His cheek rests on nothing, it rests on red … He is very cold. people imagine the cold comes after but it is now. He thinks, winter is here …  I flail my arms in angel shape, but now I am crystal, I am ice and sinking deep: now I am water. Beneath him, the ground upheaves. The river tugs him; he looks for the quick-moving pattern, for the flitting liquid scarlet. Between a pulse-beat and the next he shifts, going out on crimson with the tide of his inner sea. He is far from England now, far from these islands, from the water salt and fresh. He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall”.

“He is far from England now, far from these islands, from the water salt and fresh. He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall”.

Thomas Cromwell was executed on Tower Hill on 28th July 1540. he had sent many to their fate there, including Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn’s alleged paramours. He was buried in the Tower of London’s  Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Interred there are also Anne Boleyn herself, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and the last the Plantagenet line – their doom was Cromwell’s’ doing – and nineteen year old Catherine Howard who became Henry’s fifth wife on the day Cromwell died, and, condemned for adultery, went to the block less than two years later.

The Tower of London’s chapel,, St Peter ad Vincula

This whole story has been about England, it’s legends and it’s legacies, it’s rythmns and rhymes, it’s history past, present, and future. And he, Thomas Cromwell, has made England shake. But it’s all over now, and the saints are indeed are coming through, and the sky is folding under him. Everything is moving; there are no stepping stones. Icarus has reached ignition point, and the rest, “the rest is silence”.

But Cromwell’s revolution endured. Frail Edward endeavoured to anchor it. Bloody Mary strove with fire and sword to unmake it.  And Queen Elizabeth set it in a concrete so strong that Scottish James  and his unfortunate son could not crack it’s foundations. The rest, as they say, is our history.
© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved
[This article is the second of two published In That Howling Infinite discussing Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell. Read Beyond Wolf Hall – Revolution Road  here.
For other posts in In That Howling Infinite on matters historical, see Foggy Ruins of Time –  history’s pages

Base Fortune, now I see, that in thy wheel
There is a point, to which when men aspire,
They tumble headlong down: that point I touch’d,
And, seeing there was no place to mount up higher,
Why shall I grieve at my declining fall?
Farewell, fair queen. Weep not for Mortimer,
That scorns the world, and, as a traveller,
Goes to discover countries yet unknown.”
Young Mortimer, in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II

A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea, like me, she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
Joni Mitchell, Amelia.

 

German artiist Hans Holbein The Younger’s portrait of Cromwell