Reviewing 2017, I am reminded of Game of Thrones‘ Mance Rayder’s valedictory: “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come”.
On the international and the domestic front, it appeared as if we were condemned to an infernal and exasperating ‘Groundhog Day’.
Last November, we welcomed Donald Trump to the White House with bated breath and gritted teeth, and his first year as POTUS did not disappoint. From race-relations to healthcare to tax reform to The Middle East, South Asia and North Korea, we view his bizarro administration with a mix of amusement and trepidation. Rhetorical questions just keep coming. Will the Donald be impeached? Are we heading for World War 3? How will declining America make itself “great again” in a multipolar world set to be dominated by Russia Redux and resurgent China. Against the advice of his security gurus, and every apparently sane and sensible government on the globe (including China and Russia, but not King Bibi of Iz), his Trumpfulness recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Jerusalem. Sure, we all know that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel – but we are not supposed to shout it out loud in case it unleashed all manner of mayhem on the easily irritated Muslim street. Hopefully, as with many of Trump’s isolationist initiatives, like climate change, trade, and Iran, less immoderate nations will take no notice and carry on regardless. The year closes in, and so does the Mueller Commission’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election and the Trumpistas’ connivance and complicity – yes, “complicit”, online Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year, introduced to us in her husky breathlessness by the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson in a spoof perfume ad that parodies Ivanka Trump’s merchandizing.
Britain continues to lumber towards the Brexit cliff, its unfortunate and ill-starred prime minister marked down as “dead girl walking”. Negotiations for the divorce settlement stutter on, gridlocked by the humongous cost, the fate of Europeans in Britain and Brits abroad, and the matter of the Irish border, which portends a return to “the troubles” – that quintessentially Irish term for the communal bloodletting that dominated the latter half of the last century. The May Government’s hamfistedness is such that at Year End, many pundits are saying that the public have forgotten the incompetence of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and predict that against all odds, his missus could soon be measuring up for curtains in Number Ten.
Beset by devilish twins of Trump and Brexit, a European Union written-off as a dysfunctional, divided bureaucratic juggernaut, appears to have found hidden reserves of unity and purpose, playing hardball with Britain, dismissing the claims of Catalonia and Kurdistan, rebuking an isolationist America, and seeing-off resurgent extreme right-wing parties that threaten to fracture it with their nationalist and anti-immigration agendas. Yet, whilst Marine Le Pen and Gert Wilders came up short in the French and Dutch elections, and centrists Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel hold the moderate middle, atavistic, autocratic and proto-fascist parties have risen to prominence and influence in formerly unfree Eastern Europe, driven by fear of a non-existent flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa (these are headed for the more pleasant economic climes of Germany, Britain and Scandinavia), and perhaps, their historically authoritarian DNA. Already confronted with the Russian ascendency in the east, and the prospects of the Ukrainian – Donetsk conflict firing up in the near future, the EU’s next big challenge is likely to be reacquainting itself with its original raisin d’etre – the European Project that sought to put an end to a century of European wars – and addressing the potential expulsion of parvenu, opportunistic member states who fail to uphold the union’s democratic values. As a hillbilly villain in that great series Justifed declaimed, “he who is not with is not with us”.
The frail, overcrowded boats still bob dangerously on Mediterranean and Aegean waters, and the hopeful of Africa and Asia die hopelessly and helplessly. Young people, from east and west Africa flee poverty, unemployment, and civil war, to wind up in Calais or in pop-up slave markets in free but failed Libya. In the Middle East the carnage continues. Da’ish might be finished on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, with the number of civilian casualties far exceeding that of dead jihadis. But its reach has extended to the streets of Western Europe – dominating headlines and filling social media with colourful profile pictures and “I am (insert latest outrage)” slogans. Meanwhile, tens, scores, hundreds die as bombs explode in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with no such outpourings of empathy – as if it’s all too much, too many, too far away.
Bad as 2017 and years prior were for this sad segment of our planet, next year will probably not be much better. The autocrats are firmly back in the saddle from anarchic Libya and repressed Egypt to Gulf monarchs and Iranian theocrats. There will be the wars of the ISIS succession as regional rivals compete with each other for dominance. Although it’s ship of state is taking in water, Saudi Arabia will continue its quixotic and perverse adventures in the Gulf and the Levant. At play in the fields of his Lord, VP Pence declared to US troops in December that victory was nigh, the Taliban and IS continue to make advances in poor, benighted Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Africa will continue to bleed, with ongoing wars across the Sahel, from West and Central Africa through to South Sudan, ethnic tensions in the fragile nations of the Rift Valley, and further unrest in newly ‘liberated’ Zimbabwe as its people realize that the military coup is yet another case what The Who called “meet the old boss, same as the new boss”.
This Syrian mother and her child were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.
In our Land Down Under, we endured the longest, most boring election campaign in living memory, and got more of the same: a lacklustre Tory government, and a depressingly dysfunctional and adversarial political system. Politicians of all parties, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Rome burns. All this only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with their representatives, warps their perception of the value and values of “democracy”, and drives the frustrated, disgruntled, fearful and alienated towards the political extremes – and particularly the Right where ambitious but frustrated once, present and future Tory politicians aspire to greatness as big fishes in little ponds of omniphobia.
Conservative Christian politicians imposed upon us an expensive, unnecessary and bitterly divisive plebiscite on same-sex marriage which took forever. And yet, the non-compulsory vote produced a turnout much greater than the U.K. and US elections and the Brexit referendum, and in the end, over sixty percent of registered voters said Yes. Whilst constituencies with a high proportion of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Chinese cleaved to the concept that marriage was only for man and women, the country, urban and rural, cities and states voted otherwise. The conservatives’ much-touted “silent majority” was not their “moral majority” after all. Our parliamentarians then insisted on dragging the whole sorry business out for a fortnight whilst they passed the legislation through both Houses of Parliament in an agonizingly ponderous pantomime of emotion, self-righteousness and grandstanding. The people might have spoken, but the pollies just had to have the last word. Thanks be to God they are all now off on their summer hols! And same-sex couples can marry in the eyes of God and the state from January 9th 2018.
Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we are still “going up against chaos”, to quote Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, as the last, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it continues to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn for the long, hot summer, but will return in 2018, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.
And finally, on a light note, a brief summary of what we were watching during the year. There were the latest seasons of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. The former was brilliant, and the latter left us wondering why we are still watching this tedious and messy “Lost in Zombieland”. Westworld was a delight with its fabulous locations and cinematography, a script that kept us backtracking to listen again to what was said and to keep up with its many ethical arcs and literary revenues. and a cavalcade of well cast, well-written and original characters. Westworld scored a post of its own on this blog – see below. The Hand Maid’s Tale wove a dystopian tale all the more rendered all the more harrowing by the dual reality that there are a lot of men in the world who would like to see women in servitude, and that our society has the technology to do it. To celebrate a triumphant return, our festive present to ourselves were tee-shirts proclaiming: “‘ave a merry f@#kin’ Christmas by order of the Peaky Blinders”. And on Boxing Day, Peter Capaldi bade farewell as the twelfth and second-best Doctor Who (David Tennant bears the crown), and we said hello to the first female Doctor, with a brief but chirpy Yorkshire “Aw, brilliant!” sign-on from Jodie Whittaker.
Whilst in Sydney, we made two visits to the cinema (tow more than average) to enjoy the big-screen experience of the prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien and the long-awaited sequel to our all-time favourite film Blade Runner. Sadly, the former, Alien: Covenant, was a disappointment, incoherent and poorly written. The latter, whilst not as original, eye-catching and exhilarating as its parent, was nevertheless a cinematic masterpiece. It bombed at the box office, just like the original, but Blade Runner 2049 will doubtless become like it a cult classic.
This then was the backdrop to In That Howling Infinite’s 2017 – an electic collection covering politics, history, music, poetry, books, and dispatches from the Shire.
On politics generally, we couldn’t get through the year without featuring Donald Trump. In The Ricochet of Trump’s Counterrevolution, Australian commentator Paul Kelly argues that to a certain degree, Donald Trump’s rise and rise was attributable to what he and other commentators and academics describe as a backlash in the wider electorate against identity and grievance politics. Then there is the reblog of New York author Joseph Suglia’s original comparison between Donald Trump’s White House and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But our particular favourite isDeep in the Heart of Texas, a review of an article in The New Yorker by Lawrence Wright. His piece is a cracker – a must-read for political junkies and all who are fascinated and frightened by the absurdities of recent US politics.
Our continuing forest fight saw us return to Tolkien’s Tarkeeth, focusing this time around on fires that recalled Robert Plant’s lyrics in Ramble On: In the darkest depths of Mordor. The trial in Coffs Harbour ofthe Tarkeeth Three and the acquittal of two of our activists were chronicled on a series of interviews recorded by Bellingen’s Radio 2bbb, whilst other interviews were presented in The Tarkeeth Tapes. On a lighter note, we revisited our tribute to the wildlife on our rural retreat in the bucolic The Country Life.
It refers to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”, a magnificent study in mania and obsession:
“But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!” Chapter 23
In a figurative sense, it speaks to me of the themes and schemes that are addressed in the thoughts, ideas, songs, poems and stories that will feature in this blog.
Other memorable quotations follow:
“For long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched out in one hammock as his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another, and so interfusing, made him mad”. Chapter 41
“Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow — Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” Chapter 36
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago”. Chapter 135
And it’s oh, what a beautiful, Oh, Oh Lord, what a beautiful city Twelve gates to the city, hallelujah!
Reverend Gary Davis
We all have a city or, if we are fortunate, cities of our heart. A place you see for the first time and say “I am home”. It is intangible – a feeling, a sense of you belonging to it, and it belonging to you. You might call it a “spirit of place”. And whenever you return to your city of the heart, you feel that you’ve never been gone, that the years that have passed since your last visit, and the changes time has wrought on it and on yourself mean nought.
I felt this spirit the first time entered London with a bunch of Birmingham school mates on a spree. When I first saw Paris. And when I first crossed the Jebal ash-Sharqi from Lebanon and descended to the oasis that was Damascus.
And so too when first I set eyes on the Old City of Jerusalem, and walked through the Damascus Gate. This ancient gate was the portal to a city that has forever danced on the edge of my consciousness (for that it what these cities do).
I fear that I will not see Damascus again. Back in the day, I was drawn to it again and again. When i spent months in Jordan, I would travel by “service” taxi once a week to Damascus just to BE there. To eat bouza ice cream at Bakdash in the Souk al Hamidiyye. To sit quietly in al Takiyya al-Sulaymaniyya, the most beautiful little mosque I have ever visited. To walk into history along The Street Called Straight. The guards on both sides of the border knew me by name.
Damascus is beyond my reach today. but there is still Jerusalem, Yrushahlahyim, al Quds. the Holy, the Golden, the magical…
Back in the day, I would roll down from Ramallah or Mount Scopus to Jerusalem and stand before it’s faux mediaeval walls. I would walk through the Damascus Gate into the Old City, grab a felafel sandwich, some figs, or a plate of kanafah, depending on the time of day, and amble contentedly through the alleyways and souks down to the Via Dolarosa, and then up Daoud Street to Omar Ibn al Khatab Square and the Jaffa Gate beyond. Traveling back from West Jerusalem, I would retrace my steps, and always with the same sense of wonder and delight.
It was a journey of the senses – the call of the muezzin and the peal of church bells, the cacophony of the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, the colours of the markets and shops, the aromas of spices, sweets, and cooking meats, the infinite variety of dress and custom of the many faiths, tribes and communities that dwelt therein or, like me, were passing through. If I had time on my hands, I would sit for a while in the gardens atop the Haram ash-Sharif, or wander into the Dome of the Rock or al Aqsa to sit and ponder awhile, or else progress through ecstatic clamour of the Escher edifice that is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The Occupation was relatively new then. I was not oblivious to it, but rather, very aware of its manifestations. I had crossed from Jordan, via the famous Allenby Bridge, and had watched my fellow bus passengers, Palestinians, endure the humiliating searches and questions of the border police, whilst armed military patrols were commonplace. None expected it to endure, ossify, and drag on for fifty years. There was bitterness, shame, and anger, for the memory of an-Naksa of 1967 was fresh, and the wounds livid, but not the frustration and hopelessness and the latent and actual violence that prevails today.
But, let’s return to the Damascus Gate.
Damascus Gate Thursday
It has been in the news a a lot of late. The recent and still ongoing Intifada Saki-niyeh – the Knife Intifada – has brought this venerable and famous gate into the world’s focus. It has been the site of many violent confrontations of between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security since October 2015. Many Palestinians have been killed and wounded in the act of attempting to stab Israelis, and several Israeli police men and women and civilians have been killed or injured.
In recent years, whenever the Israeli authorities, fearing unrest, prohibit access to the Haram ash Sharif for men under fifty years of age, the Gate has become a de facto place of worship as scores of Muslims pray in the open spaces in front of a gate that has now acquired nationalist and religious significance – most recently, the stand-offin July 2017.
Nazmi Jubeh, a professor at Birzeit University notes that the gate “has become a symbol for the Palestinian national struggle because of its accessibility to Palestinians and the main connecting point for both worshippers and for markets.” See Daoud Khuttab’s articlein the Middle East newsletter al Monitor – the piece which inspired me to write this post.
Kuttab quotes Azzam Soud, a well-known Palestinian writer whose stories are often set in Jerusalem. The Damascus Gate, he says, is a recurring feature of Palestinian novels and short stories.
It is the Old City’s biggest, oldest, and most important gate, and the beginning of all roads to the north. Today, it stands beside the bus station that services East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and is the most direct access to the al Aqsa Mosque and the Khan Ezzat souk. Before 1948 and the division of Jerusalem, the gate competed with the Jaffa Gate which was the primary entry point for pilgrims. With the partition line running in front of it, the Jaffa Gate was unusable, but since 1967, has been the portal for tourists, pilgrims, and Jewish worshippers visiting the Kotel. The Damascus Gate remains the main entry for Palestinians.
And it will remain, at least for the foreseeable future, a focus and a locus for Palestinian expressions of faith, identity and resistance.
But as with most things in the Holy City, the Gate has a long historical pedigree that is worth recalling.
Damascus Gate in 1856
In antiquity, there were twelve gates to the city. These were destroyed when the Bablylonians razed the walls and the Temple of Solomon.in 587 BCE. Named for the twelve tribes of Israel, these are now best remembered in Revelations and in the Reverend Gary Davis’ song.
The gate we see today was built in 1537 during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. But its existence is very much older than that, as reflected in its Arabic name, Bab al ‘a-mu-d, the Gate of the Column. That refers to a victory column erected by the Romans in honour of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century. It was Hadrian who ordered the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a Roman city in the wake of the city’s destruction by Titus’ legions in 70CE, during the Great Revolt that saw the razing of the temple and the expulsion of most of the Jewish population. The remains of the Roman gates have now been excavated, and we pass under the lintel of that gate, this being inscribed with the name the Romans gave to Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina.
The gate is situated in the northwest wall where the road leads to Nablus, and thence, in days long past, all the way to Damascus in Syria. Hence its name in Hebrew, Sha’ar Shkhem or Nablus Gate, and in English, Damascus Gate. Imagine, travelers of old on foot or horseback and caravans of traders passing under that Roman lintel. And even before Hadrian, pilgrims like the biblical Jesus and his comrades would have entered Jerusalem the Golden through this gate to sacrifice at Herod’s massive and magnificent new temple, having journeyed from Galilee and places north. Saul of Tarsus would have set out from this portal on the fateful journey to Damascus that was to transform him into Paul of Tarsus, Christianity’s first and most celebrated missionary, and the catalyst who transmuted a breakaway Jewish sect into a world- wide religion.
The Roman gate was preserved and built upon during the Byzantine, Muslim, and Crusader occupations of Jerusalem, and was given its present form when under Suleiman’s orders, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt and seven of the eight gates used today were constructed. The eighth, the New Gate, was constructed in the mid nineteenth century to give Christian pilgrims swifter access to their Holy Places.
Imagine also then, Guy de Lausignan and Reynald de Chatilon at the head of twenty thousand crusaders setting out for their doomed rendezvous with Salah ad Din on the parched Horns of Hattin. Or Christian pilgrims and holy men walking the long miles through Anatolia and Syria to the Holy Places. Or Kaiser Wilhelm on his grand tour through the Sultan’s domain from Istanbul to Damascus and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, the authorities opened the wall next to the Jaffa Gate so that he could ride through in state. In Damascus, he visited the tomb of Salah ad Din and considering it a little shabby, donated a new improved model. It is still there, in all its gaudy emptiness , alongside the real deal.
In an earlier post, I recounted the history of the Jaffa Gate, the westernmost of the Holy City’s eight gates. Over millennia, this was the pilgrims’ gate, the entry point for the faithful – for Jews come to worship and make sacrifice at the Temple of Solomon and later of that of Herod; and for Christians to walk in the footsteps of the Christ, and to worship at the oft-rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the many other Holy Places that have drawn pilgrims to Jerusalem over the centuries. It is named for the port at which so many of these pilgrims disembarked. See my posts Amazing Grace: There’s Magic in the Air,The Grand Old New Imperial Hotel,and Messianic Carpet Rides.
Here is a brief description of each of the eight gates of Jerusalem, counter-clockwise from south to west:
The Zion Gate: Bearing Jerusalem’s earliest biblical name in Hebrew and English, this gate’s Arabic name is the Gate of the Prophet David, as the Tomb of King David on nearby Mount Zion, is but a short distance away. This gate leads directly to the Armenian and Jewish Quarters. It is also known as “the Hurt Gate”, a reference to the damage it sustained during a vicious firefight in 1948 when Hagannah soldiers fought and failed to lift the Arab Legion’s siege of the Jewish Quarter. The Quarter was razed to the ground and its inhabitants expelled, and was rebuilt when the Old City was taken by Israel in 1967.
The Zion or “Hurt” Gate
The Dung Gate: Its name derives from the refuse dumped here in olden days where the prevailing winds would carry odors away. Nehemiah 2:13 mentions a Dung Gate that was probably near this one. The gate leads directly to the Kotel, the famous Western Wall, and the Southern Wall Archaeological Park.
The Gate of Mercy: This gate, in the eastern wall of the Haram ash Sharif or Temple Mount is also called the Golden Gate or the Eastern Gate, and has been blocked for centuries. It is said that when Christ returns in glory, and the dead are resurrected, this gate will be miraculously opened.
The Golden Gate, viewed from Gethsemene
The Lion’s Gate: This is named for the pair of ferocious looking carvings that flank it. They are tigers, the heraldic sigil of the blonde, blue-eyed, Albanian 13th Century Sultan Beybars. It is also called St. Stephen’s Gate, after the first Christian martyr, who tradition says was stoned nearby. Lion’s Gate, which leads to the Pools of Bethesda and the Via Dolorosa became famous during the Six Day War when the IDF stormed through en route to the Haram.
Herod’s Gate: Notwithstanding the name, the infamous Judean King, builder and all-round bad boy had nothing to do with this gate. In Arabic and Hebrew this north-facing gate, which leads to the Old City markets, is called the Gate of Flowers. It is said that the name derives from a rosette carved over it. The north facing gate leads to the Old City markets, and is at the southern end of Salah ad Din Street, the main shopping strip of Arab east Jerusalem.
And finally, The Damascus, New Gate, and Jaffa Gates all which are described in this post.
Faces in the Street – images of the Damascus Gate and the ancient Muslim Quarter
The great and the good, the wise and the weary, have all offered a definition of ‘history’. To Napoleon, it was “a myth that men agree to believe”. Historian Marc Bloch observed that it was “an endeavour towards better understanding”. His Nazi killers disagreed – their’s was a less nuanced, more zero-sum approach. Abba Eban, long time Israeli foreign minister, wrote that it “teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. Aldous Huxley wrote “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” And channeling Mark Twain and Karl Marx, Buffy Summers remarked, “You know what they say. Those of us who fail history are, doomed to repeat it in summer school”. But best is John Banville’s admission in The Sea that “the past beats inside me like a second heart”. Simply put, we like to see some pattern, some sense of order to it all. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. commented: “The passion for tidiness is the historian’s occupational disease”. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have ever been, and shall ever be, animated by the same passions. And thus they necessarily have the same results”. And yet, whilst seeking patterns, we cannot really use them to predict outcomes. And it is impossible to know what really happened. The past is another country and all that. All we can say for sure is that in the end, history will remember where we end up much more than how we got there. And, history takes time. All the time in the world.
As Mark Twain remarked sardonically, “history doesn’t repeat itself. A best, it sometimes rhymes”. A recent rhyme was evident when an opulent exhibition on the life and legacy of Alexander The Great of Macedon was brought from ‘old world’ St.Petersburg, the twice renamed city of Peter The Great of Russia, to ‘ new world’ Sydney, Australia. For all his ‘greatness’, young Alexander was, like Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, but with murderous psycho mixed in. In his ‘Inferno’, Dante had him standing in the river of boiling blood, along with war-mongers and murderers. Why don’t these people just stay at home! Well, what would you think? You are minding your own business down beside the rivers of Babylon, and then suddenly, there’s an army of 50,000 Greeks on the other bank intent on doing damage. Or there you are, beside the sacred Indus, just about to tuck into your chicken vindaloo, when a rampaging horde of homesick Greeks come charging over the horizon. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been massacred or enslaved by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” And there you are on the banks of the Tigris, minding your own business, and keeping out of the way of the Mukhabarat, when over the horizon in a cloud of dust and disco sweeps a column of armoured vehicles and hordes of ka-firi-n with rifles and ray-bans. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been bombed or strafed by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. Nothing much has changed, really.
Which brings us back perhaps, to what Basil Fawlty called ‘the bleeding obvious”. Beyond the scholars’ passion for patterns, and the dry dialectics of cause and effect, there is the personal dimension. Who were the actual inhabitants of ‘history’? What did they think and feel? The thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past. We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past. Simply put, people who lived ‘then’ are not at all the same as we who live ’now’.
Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote:”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”. And so we do, for one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say, in Arabic, as indeed in all tongues, times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “once upon an time”.
So, let us walk down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history”, beginning with, yes, the usual suspects: power and pride, greed, and aggrandizement, and as accessories after the fact, dolour, devastation, and death.
Time: Year Zero of the Christian era. Place: The Mediterranean littoral
Often, with overwhelming political and military power and economic wealth come arrogance, decadence, and complacency. And with lean and hungry barbarians on the borderland, the geographical interface between the desert and the sown, and soon hanging around the gates, so the seeds of decline and destruction are scattered and germinate. The Pharaohs conquered and ruled over much of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Indeed, the first historical record of a ‘formal’ set piece battle between two armies took place in 1468 BCE at Meggido, just south east of Haifa in present day Israel – some five thousand Egyptians took on and bested two thousand Canaanite soldiers of local city states. But Egypt was to fall to the ascendant and ambitious Greeks and Persians, and later, the Romans. And down went these mighty successors. Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Rome, Carthage, Byzantium, Constantinople. Grand names, but now bones, bones, dry bones. The Bard of Avon declaimed “The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve”. As Percy B Shelley intoned: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”.
It was the English historian Toynbee who suggested that “civilizations die from suicide, not murder”. They lose their “mojo”. The 14th Century Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, called it “assabiyah” – in short, they lose their élan, their sense of direction and their minds. His point was that the moribund Byzantine and Sassanian empires were broke and militarily overstretched, corrupt, venal and soft, and hence no match for the desert hardened, combat keen, tribally cohesive, spiritually zealous warriors of the one true faith.
At the dawn of the Christian era, the known world was divided up between the those Romans and Persians, who themselves had subjugated and subsumed the Greeks and Phoenician Carthaginians, and Hittites and Assyrians respectively (in the east, the Chinese and Indians boasted powerful, prosperous civilizations as old as The Pharaohs, but this is not their story). Anyhow, the Romans, who morphed into the Byzantines with the loss of the western empire (to nomadic rovers from out of the east) in the third and fourth centuries, and the Persians, were over extended and overspent, slave societies living off the land and labour of conquered peoples. Until they were challenged and defeated by another ascendant power. Those Arabs of Arabia and of the imperial marches.
For generations this lot had served as mercenaries and satraps of both empires, and fired up by the energy and unity of a new but hybrid faith, and muscled up with a martial spirit built upon generations of mercenary employment and privateering, stormed the sclerotic empires from within and without, and in the space of fifty years after the prophet’s death, built a domain that extended from Spain to Afghanistan. Modern genetic analysis has shown that the bloodline of these desert conquerors is as much a mosaic as most other overlords. Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, Persian, Egyptian, Nubian, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Arabian, Hebrew. And whoever else may have been passing through. Many races came and settled, and many too were invaded and scattered. The ruins and artefacts endure still to remind us of their passage.
And this genetic calabash was stirred some more with the Arab conquests. As they surged eastwards and westwards, slaves were sent homewards as plunder and labour. This was the modus operandi of carnivorous empires throughout history. The Babylonians did it; the Romans too. They conquered and controlled though mass death and deportation, dragging their broken subjects in tens and hundreds of thousands across the known world. So too with the Arabs, therefore, as hundreds of thousands of souls from afar afield as the Pyrenees and the Hindu Kush ended their days in Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. Blue eyed blondes and redheads, sallow skinned Turkic and Chinese. You see their heirs today in Homs and Aleppo, Gaza and Hebron. In a fascinating post-classical irony, the European empires were likewise catalysts for ethic trans-migration. The suburbs of Paris and Marseilles, Birmingham and Bradford reflect the colours, cuisines, and conflicts of once-upon-a-homeland.
It is the view of some revisionist historians that whilst Mohammad and his revelations provided the impetus for the Arab “surge”, the religion that we know as Islam was actually retrofitted to the Arab adventurers’ ethos, a kind of ex post facto justification for what was in reality an old fashioned smash and grab. They suggest, therefore, that Islam and the role of Mohammad within it as the messenger and final word were cleverly constructed one to two hundred years after his death by Arab dynasties seeking legitimacy and heavenly sanction for their own aggrandizement. But then, wasn’t it always thus? As Jarred Dimond and others have written, this pandering to invisible friends and post-mortem insurance is part of our genetic baggage. It goes back to way back, to Neanderthals, and before them, to chimpanzees, our closest relatives).
Notwithstanding this, these parvenus ushered in the flowering of Arab culture in the arts, architecture, literature, and science as caliphs encouraged intellectual inquiry, and invited polymaths from across the known world to abide in their domains. Indeed, much of the work of the Greek and Roman philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors and scientists was translated into Arabic and preserved for posterity when the Roman Empire was overrun by waves of barbarians, the beginning of what are called The Dark Ages.
One other ‘safe house’ for these tracts during these dire days was Ireland, in the monasteries of the far west, where monks would meticulously copy rare texts, often embellishing them with their own, ‘Celtic’ art work. The Book of Kells owes a stylistic debt to the monasteries of the Byzantine Levant. And whilst we digress on the subject of books, it is believed by some scholars that The Quran was not actually written in Mecca or Medina, but most likely in Baghdad, which did not exist whilst Mohammad breathed. Learned iconoclasts also purport that it was originally written in Aramaic, the language of the Levant at the time of Jesus, and that Arabic has not yet evolved as a written language. The Torah, the basis of Jewish law and custom, and of The Bible, was written in Babylon and not Jerusalem. And The New Testament? Well. that was assembled all over the shop: in cosmopolitan Athens, Rome, the desert solitudes of Syria and the Sinai. The Quran itself drew on both of these. Such is the power of foundation myths. There are always issues surrounding the literal ‘Word of God’.
Contrary to popular assumptions, these centuries were not that dark at all. The Islam tide was turned at Tours by the Frankish forces of Charles ‘the Hammer’’ Martel, named nostalgically for the Israelite rebel who defied and defeated the Seleucid Greeks in the Maccabee Revolt in the second century BCE. Charlemagne founded the French monarchy which endured until the unfortunate Louis the Last lost his head to the French revolutionaries in 1793. The Western Christian church established many fundamentals of law, politics and theology that endure to this day. There was, nevertheless, a lot of fighting, most of it between squabbling European potentates, and a major doctrinal rift in the Christian Church that saw it bifurcate, often with accompanying bloodshed, into the Catholic Church of Rome, and the Eastern Church of Constantinople. Between the Christian ‘West’ and the Muslim ‘East” however, there endured an armed peace interspersed with occasional warfare until the eleventh century. The Byzantine heirs of Constantine were reasonably content to maintain a kind of Cold War with the many fractious emirs who ruled the lands to their east, and to sustain their power and influence through canny diplomacy, alliances, mercenaries, and proxies (It is testament to the ‘byzantine’ skills of these emperors and their servants that the empire endured for a thousand years as a powerful political, economic, and military force until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453).
Things changed utterly for east-west relations towards the end of the eleventh century. The heirs to the Roman Empire in the west, the Franks and the Normans, descendants of those nomadic marauders who broke the power of Rome, fired up with religious zeal and the prospects of material gain, embarked upon a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land, the paths that Jesus trode, from the heathen Mohammedan. But do not for a moment dismiss the power of religious fervour in those far-off days. The promise of a full remission of all sins and a place in paradise was a powerful motivator. Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, conveniently colluded with another new power, out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out of the steppes of central Asia, having conquered the ancient Chinese empire, and once again, the nomads were on the move as the sons and heirs of Genghis Khan sought khanates and kingdoms of their own in the west. And when they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and collaborated with the Franks against the Saracens. History is never black and white – the crusaders also did deals with Muslim warlords if it suited their common interests. In their politics as well as their lifestyles, many ‘went native’.
It was always thus. The barbarians, usually horsemen originating from central Asia, surge in from the wild lands, devastate the settled lands, and take the cities. In Eastern as well as Western Europe, and the Middle East, they came, they saw, they conquered, and they moved in. Settled down, intermingled, and developing a taste for the good life, and gave up their roving, rampaging ways. We are their heirs and successors, us descendants of Celts and Saxons, Goths and Vikings, Vandals and Huns, as are French people, Italians, Spaniards, Turks, and Arabs.
Vaslily Grossman encapsulated all this poignantly and succinctly in An Armenian Sketchbook: “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings, and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces .Throughout the centuries and millennia, victors have spent the night in the homes of those whom they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passion of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet”.
The story of the Vandals is an epic in itself. From out of what we now call Sweden they came, ethnic kin to the Norsemen and Vikings. Scouring through the Baltic lands, and present day Poland, Germany, and France, they settled in Spain. Andalusia is Arabic for ‘Land of the Vandals’. And eventually they established a kingdom in Libya, challenging and then paying tribute to the ascendant Roman Empire.
But the Norsemen were not quite finished with the east. On a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica in Istanbul, there is some graffiti carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. One commander of this guard was Harald Hardrada, who, as King of Norway, died in Yorkshire at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the first of two kings to die during the English summer of 1066. Whilst specifically the imperial bodyguard, the Varangarians fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. How Harald came to Mickelgard, or Great City, as the Norsemen called Contantinople, is a story in itself, but the sagas say that he even travelled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword. One further Scandinavian digression: in 1110, Sigurd, the teenage King of Norway, having fought his way around the Mediterranean with a sixty ship fleet massacring infidels as he went, landed at Acre in Palestine and wintered in what the Norsemen called Jorsalaberg (See Harald Went a ‘Viking).
“If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem!” The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’. It was deemed sacred from pre-history. Those aforementioned iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. A city of the mind as much as of this earth, it haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.
Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old
The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted a hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing, and have haunted the Arab historical memory to this day. The Arabic word for foreigner, ‘faranjiye’ is derived from Frank (or maybe not – it is also said that Varangarian derived from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a placename or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank). They fell to the Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ad Din Ibn Ayyubi, and were restored to the House of Islam. But even this renowned soldier and schemer could not escape the assassin’s poison forever (it may have been just typhoid, but why spoil a good yarn?). He was supplanted by other despots, not the least, the famed one-time slave, the blonde, blue-eyed Mameluk Barbars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. And then, out of the east, came the aforementioned Mongols, and these brought the house down. They conquered, settled, assimilated, and then weakened and fell as they, in their turn, were supplanted by, yes, another nomad band, this time the Turkic Ottomans (and again, out of central Asia). That’s how assabiyeh works. Once you have it, you have to work on it. Lose it and you are done.
The Ottoman Empire inherited the Arab, Islamic patrimony and assumed the caliphate as the official ‘Deputy of God’. The Ottoman Caliphate, successor to the famed Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad, endured until its abolition in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey. It was restored in 2014 as ad Dawlet al Islamiye fi Iraq w ash Sham or Da’esh. We will get to that later, but meantime, the wars and plagues and famines that beset the Middle East brought an end to the golden age of Arab civilization, with all its ecumenical, martial, intellectual, artistic, and scientific adventurousness (the same wars, plagues, and famines scoured the western world too, but these had less far to fall). And so, time stood still for Islam and the Arab world, as the outlying, often neglected provinces of the ascendant Ottoman Empire. It is said of old, that before the advent of the Mongol lord, Hulagu, a cockerel could graze from Baghdad to Basra without alighting to earth, such was the fertility and prosperity of the Land of the Two Rivers. In the wake of the Mongol, with his mass slaughter and the destruction of the long-lasting irrigation systems, came the Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia.” The place never recovered, although the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq endured through all of this until the present, when their way of life was finally destroyed by Saddam.
Meanwhile, the focus of our story shifts westwards with the crusader armies returning home, bringing with them a taste for the luxuries of the east, and scientific and philosophical ideas and inventions lost to the west during the Dark Ages (what they didn’t take home, however, was a tolerance for folk of different colours and creeds). The Islamic world settled into the backward looking atrophy that we see today. And in time, came the rise of the great European powers. To Western Europe came the social and economic upheavals of war and plague, and the social and intellectual unravelling that was to lead to the age of discovery. Came the power of the papacy, the questioning of that power, the end of the feudal system and the rise of absolute monarchy, and the invention of the printing press and with it, the dissemination of knowledge. All this set the stage for the next act.
Enter the Spanish and Portuguese, resource poor and priest-ridden, astutely patronizing the adventurers, and hence, made wealthy and powerful on the riches that then flowed in from the New World. Enter the inquisition and the straighteners of religious conformity, the bedrock of imperial power. And enter also, the mercantile nations who challenged their claim to the Americas (sanctioned and sanctified as it was by Alexander, the Borgia Pope) and papal supremacy: England, France, and Holland. The era of world empires thus began against a backdrop of trade and religious wars that would set the stage for the very gradual evolution of what would become democratic institutions. But that was way, way down the bloody track.
The wars of religion, between Catholicism and Protestantism morphed into great powers’ wars by proxy (for there is nothing new under the sun). These endured some two hundred years, giving us the renaissance and the reformation, and many, many people perished. And amidst the scramble for colonies and resources, and the ever-widening scope of scientific and intellectual inquiry, there ensued interminable blood-letting. Folk got much too close to the fire, literally and figuratively. Many were dragged there, and many were eager pyromaniacs. The Thirty Years War wasn’t called that for nothing, and unlike The Hundred Years War between France and England before that, which enjoyed a few time-outs between bouts, this was an interminable danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery. ‘Full on’ is the term we use today. It is said that it staggered to an end in 1648 because the combatants just collapsed with exhaustion.
And in its shattered wake, came the decline of the Spanish and the Portuguese, and the ascendency of the English, the French, and the Dutch. Germany and Italy were still a profusion of principalities and oppressed satellites, Russia had yet to emerge out of an anarchic fog, and the USA had not even been thought of. Meanwhile, in the most populous parts of the planet, the Chinese and Indian empires carried on ever, in splendid isolation, narcissistic and ethnocentric, though not above trading profitably with the occident. The potentates that is – the lower orders were, and in many in many ways remain, in a state of repression and submission.
So came an era of religious and intellectual ferment and the mass movement of peoples across the known world and beyond it, to the Americas. Innovation in transport, communications, industry and warfare, and the trans-global transit of armies and of international commerce in goods and in humanity literally changed the face of the planet. Eleven million slaves crossed the Atlantic in four centuries. Over forty million migrants “went west” in less than one. The inscription on Our Lady Of The Harbour, a gift from the Old World to the New, still says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door”. And so indeed did folk travel, fleeing poverty and pogroms, powerlessness and persecution, seeking “a new home in the sun”. From the glens of the Gael, from the shtetl and the steppe, from Old Europe and Old Asia. The Great American Dreaming. Today, some 1,300 airplanes a day cross ‘the pond” (475,000 transits a year).
And the printing press and the bible in the vernacular changed the way men thought. Merchants and missionaries and military men, seekers and makers of fortunes, slavers and saviours, prophets and potentates, philosophers and pamphleteers, poets and painters. Enlightenment, revolution, and war. And in America, the creation of democratic institutions.
Royal France was a midwife to this American Revolution, and endured the ironic blowback when French armies returned home harbouring the virus of republicanism and the concepts of liberty and equality. Be careful what you wish for, for liberty wields a two-edged sword as the revolution devours its children. Mounting the scaffold, the doomed Girondin Manon Roland exclaimed “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” The redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk noted that freedom and liberty often had to crawl over broken glass.
And thence, the Nineteenth Century and the Age of Revolutions – political, industrial, and ideological, bountiful and bloody. And the rise of new empires – Russia, Germany, and the USA, competing with the old, and all extending their power and influence throughout the world, conquering and colonizing the oldest – India, China, and the Ottomans – and spanning the globe. The Americas, Africa, Asia, Australasia, no place was beyond the reach of the empire’s military and mercantile power, and no indigene was safe from the depredations of these latter-day Medes and Assyrians. Diamond again: it was all down to “guns, germs, and steel”. The ‘discovered’ world was ripe for plunder. For land, for minerals, for food. And if the natives got fractious, we had machine guns and gun boats to back us up. For this was the era of militant and muscular Christianity and gunboat diplomacy, synergized in a divine plan to render the world a holier and happier place. Rudyard Kipling said it best: “Take up the White Man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed. Go bind your sons to exile to serve your captives’ need”. A new age of Empire had arrived wherein competing white countries seeking economic and political aggrandizement, sent their boys to die far away from home. The West, it seemed, had got its mojo back!
So far away from home
A little known facet of that century’s history is that contemporaneous to the western expansion of ‘These United States” and the spread of British red across the globe, Imperial Russia was moving eastwards. One outstanding volume of George McDonald Fraser’s rollicking, picaresque and quite political incorrect Flashman series sees the eponymous anti-hero fleeing eastwards out of The Crimea having precipitated the disastrous Charge Of the Light Brigade (Captain Nolan was fitted up), and making his way through the vast Asian hinterland, one step ahead of the invading Czarist armies, and of sundry Muslim warlords. In the Flashman books, the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” is roving and rogering his way through the late nineteenth century, somehow managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another, including Custer’s famous “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn, and the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak during the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842.
Amidst the humour and ribaldry is a poignant reminder of those ‘lost worlds’ that succumbed to the relentless blade of progress, a theme revisited in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and Theodore Olsen’s Soldier Blue, set in the American West, and Vincent Cronin’s The Last Migration and James A Michener’s Caravans, set in Iran and Afghanistan respectively. Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyyah’ is no match for modern weaponry.,
With trade and economic wealth creation came the rise of the middle class. The urban, mercantile elite who seek political power commensurate with their economic clout thus demand a say in how they are governed. In an age of mass production and the beginnings of mass communication, we see the emergence of the masses as a political concept, and of mass society in which rulers are responsive and reactive to the needs fears, and rages of the masses and their representatives. The times of Machiavelli give way to those of Marx. And the focus of history is as much on the ruled as on the rulers.
So passed the Nineteenth Century. The Old World ruled. The New had its own preoccupations, with civil war and western expansion. The east and the south were conquered and colonized. God (European and most probably, English-speaking) was in His heaven and all was good and right in the world. The old scourges continued as they has since time immemorial: plague and famine, drought and flood, economic boom and bust, migration and invasion, war and peace, and comme d’habitude, death and destruction on a large scale. Good times and bad times as ever, with little to impede the onward march of progress. A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” The Mahatma replied: “I think it would be a very good idea”.
In came the Twentieth Century. Same old, same old, but with markets and machines much more efficient, and likewise our capacity to create and destroy. A time of totalitarian regimes and total war, social change and technological wizardry. In 1905, the Imperial Russian Navy sailed eighteen thousand miles to the Korea Strait only to be broken by the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was a new boy on the block, and once the guns of Tsushima Bay had fallen silent, signalling that the white man could indeed be beaten, and thence, the decline of the colonial empires of old as the “our new-caught, sullen peoples” threw off their chains. In the political, economic, military and demographic spheres, balances of power changed, and changed again. In the wake of two World Wars, from Old Europe to the USA and the Soviet Union, and then, in these present times, to a totally new configuration that reflects the transitory rise and fall of nations. As I write, we see a hesitant America and a struggling Europe competing with a resurgent and belligerent Russia, and the rise and rise of its fellow BRICs, Brazil, India and China – an ascendency that is not however assured in this unstable and unpredictable world of ours. And in the post-Cold War, global financial crisis world of wide-open borders and the mass movement across them of people, goods, and capital, everything has a price and can be bought and sold. Immoral mathematics: “in these shifting tides, bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs, and more besides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores – damnation takes no sides” (from E Lucevan le Stelle).
And passing strange it is that whilst we can place men on the moon and machines on Mars, we still live in a world riven by superstition. We have come through the age of enlightenment, the age of revolutions, the age of machines, the age of mass society, mass war, and of mass communications, And yet, we are so, so ignorant. We thought that the rising tide of progress and knowledge would raise all the boats. But how wrong we were. The Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, we have returned there. Helped in no small part by their more atavistic descendants who see some wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a mediaeval ethos and lifestyle.
One thing is pretty certain. We are almost closing a circle. The history of the West, for the past two millennia has been dominated by the emergence and triumph of Christianity and of Islam. As the early Muslims saw it, al Dar al Harb and al Dar al Islam, the houses of war and peace respectively. A pretty good description if the terms are used interchangeably. Much of what has passed has been refracted through the prisms of these theologies. Call it crusade or call it jihad; or call it blow back on a grand scale. The legacy of two millennia of empire is coming back up the pipes. “Take up the White Man’s burden (or any conqueror’s burden, in fact) and reap his old reward: the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard”.
For surely, “by all ye cry or whisper, by all ye leave or do, the silent, sullen peoples shall weigh your gods and you”. Weigh them all and find them wanting. In compassion and loving kindness, in reason and rationality, in patience and peacefulness. And the greatest, saddest irony of all for all who have a passion for history and for charting the unbroken story of humankind, and for those with this passion who treasure the depths of their cultural lineage through all the fugues, follies, and fault lines of our heritage, is the dawning realization and regret, that after two millennia, the religion that kicked off so much controversy and conflict, schism and schadenfreude, brilliance and bigotry, bounty and bloodshed, that was the heir to ancient faiths and the progenitor of many more, is probably now doomed in the lands wherein it was born.
It’s as if over a millennium of painful, staggering, stuttering, blood soaked, inventive, and pioneering progress has meant naught, and that we might as well have remained in the dark, literally and figuratively. “It is written in the Book of Days where the names of God a wrought, where all our dead a buried and all our wars a fought”. We range through “the battlefields and graveyards and the fields our fathers knew”. The cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, to mention but a few of those “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and the foreboding for the impending armed peace. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography. The lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. And all this against a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked and betrayed. “The revolution’s father, the hero psychopath” shows us how hopes and dreams can be “fooled by the riddle of the revolution”. “Words carried far in time and space will topple tyrants, but there’s no salvation”. (see In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill)
When Miranda exclaimed “what brave new world, with such people in’t!’, when the dismal Dane moaned ‘what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving, how express and admirable’, was the Bard being singularly ironic? He was writing at the dawn of the Sixteenth Century when the wars of religion were well under way, and yet, the reign of Elizabeth had brought a degree of civil calm, and King James was determined to heal the schisms, using his translation of The Bible as his balm. Reasons to be cheerful, perhaps. The Thirty Years War had yet to devastate continental Europe, and the English Civil war had still to come. Sweden had not yet ravaged Eastern Europe (yes, the Swedes had indeed attempted world dominion before ABBA). The Pilgrim Fathers were not to set sail for a decade, the Inca and Aztec were already no more, and as the Plains Indians rode the range mounted on the descendants of the conquistadors’ horses, the American West had not yet been discovered let alone ‘won’.
Some digression, that! So, back to where are we now, in the first decade of the 21st century. A world of wonders, no doubt, of technological advances in medicine, machines, and mass communications. But the new millennium began with the destruction of the Twin Towers, and war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars in these sad states continue. Conflagrations now engulf Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and turmoil threatens Egypt and Turkey. These are all the battlegrounds of old. Alexander marched this way and back (he burned Persepolis and died in Babylon, and his body, embalmed in gold, lies waiting to be discovered). In 1853 Czar Nicholas I of Russia demanded the right to protect Christian shrines in Ottoman Jerusalem, setting in train the chain of events that led to the Crimean War, and thence to the dissolution of the once grand Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the long decline and eventual demise of what the ascendant Europeans called ‘the sick man of Europe”, accompanied by Europe’s cultural and political – and in the case of France, territorial – conquest of the Muslim Middle East and South Asia bred a bitterness that endures and manifests today. In June 1914, in Sarajevo, a former outpost of that empire, a wrong turn put Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the imminently moribund Habsburg Empire in pistol range of Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. The sixth attempt on his life that morning sounded the first shot of “the war to end all wars”, which led, incidentally to the destruction of the long-declining Ottoman Empire, to the Balfour Declaration, and to the Sykes Picot Agreement that created the tortured Middle East that today is the sum of all our fears.
So, we are still paying the price as all these ghosts watch over a brave new world of asymmetrical, ideological warfare weaponized by the Lords of War who know no frontiers or ethics, and waged by rag-tag armies who likewise know neither. The sundered and sullied tribes of man are caught up in the dreams and fears of their fathers and grandfathers, all the old hatreds and habits, schemes and shibboleths, the ethnic, sectarian and partisan traps of their elders. “There rides the mercenary, here roams the robber band. In flies the emissary with claims upon our land. The lesser breed with savage speed is slaughtered where he stands, his elemental fantasy felled by a foreign hand” (from ‘Freedom Comes’).
Over to the good and the noble players of the new Great Game who wage those ‘savage wars of peace’ that are “the white man’s burden”. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes expounded gloomily, “I show in the first place that the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is none other than a war of all against all; and that in that war, all has a right to all things”. He had the English civil war on his mind, but, if he had slept for over four hundred and fifty years, and awoke today, he would cry “See! What did I tell you?” In the war of all against all, Homer’s blinded Cyclops is staggering around, endeavouring to catch the one who robbed him of his sight.
And he wages his savage wars of peace with weapons that would make the inquisition jealous. In his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein, the redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.
And meanwhile, back in the lands of the rich folks, economic recession and high unemployment, and political and social instability, financial graft and funny money dressed up in manufactured metaphors like derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, and collateralised debt obligations. And in the lands of the poorer folks, those “faraway places with strange sounding names”, as The Springfields once sang, and of those who are climbing out of the mud, a sliding scale of prosperity and poverty, venality and violence. And threatening all of us, environmental degradation and climate change, with ice caps melting, low lands flooding, pasturelands turning to dust, and oceans becoming deserts. Fires and floods, and twisters and earthquakes, famines and plagues. As Joni Mitchell sang, paraphrasing Yeats, “Surely some revelation is at hand, surely it’s the second coming and the wrath has finally taken form” (the word ‘apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek for ‘revelation’).
We are not on the ‘Morningtown Ride’ to Honalee, but are we on the road to Pichipoi? This not the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak but are we Israelites looking out over Canaan Land? We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to Paradise, but are we sliding down the road to Ragnarok? In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the poet begins his descent into Hell saying:”I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost”. Journeying down and then back up through the seven levels of Hell, he finally returns to the surface saying: “And thence we emerged to see the stars again”. We yearn, to quote Nigella Lawson, “that blissful moment when the bagpipes stop”. But in all truth, the crystal ball is shattered. All bets are off. Everyone has a game, and all is now in play. And remember what Bob said: “Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’, for the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin”’.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014
Since I wrote this history, the final paragraph has effectively been mugged by reality. The heady days of 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, had not yet transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter. Five 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.
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. It was followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Syria, Libya, and Yemen that have led, five years later, 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, that has extended southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.
Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has 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 have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.
In the game of political ifs and buts, the world reaps the whirlwind of bad decisions by our owners and rulers. If “the Coalition of the Willing” hadn’t destroyed Iraq in the Third Gulf War; if the war in Afghanistan hadn’t been subcontracted out to warlords and private security firms; if the west hadn’t propped up tyrants and kleptocrats for decades; if it hadn’t turned a blind eye to its Saudi friends financing and inspiring the Salafi Killers; if the US had destroyed the Da’esh convoys as they crossed the open desert to capture and desecrate Palmyra; if the Russians had attacked IS rather than other Syrian militias; if the coalition had made as many bombing runs as the Russians. If so many events that had come before had not happened – the fall of the Shah and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (apparently given the nod by the US), and the wars that ensued; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed it; the rise of al Qa’ida. If, if, if. But, at the end of the day, Muslims pay the price, and yet, it will have to be Muslims who sort it out. Western boots on the ground will not fix it, but, rather, as in days of yore, it will create yet another whirlwind for us all to reap.
We are in midst of what could be described as the final phase of the Wars of the Ottoman Succession. The lines drawn on maps by British and French bureaucrats in the years after The Great War have been dissolved. The polities fabricated by Messrs Sykes and Picot, and manifested in the mandates that evolved into the present states of Syria and Iraq have effectively disintegrated. The future of the other former mandates, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, is uncertain, as is that of Turkey, the country which rose out of the ashes of defeat and civil war to inherit the Ottoman Anatolian heartland. Indeed, new states could emerge from the maelstrom. A Kurdistan long denied; a partitioned Iraq; Ottoman redux: and the atavistic Islamic Caliphate.
All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly.
The featured image: Timeless. A Syrian moment, in Foreign Policy 23rd July 2012. Paul Simon once sang “On the side of a hill in a land called somewhere”. Little changes.
The Destruction of the Temple, AD70, Francesco Hayes
So Far From Home, William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak, 13th January 1842 (1898). The phrase ‘so far from home’ is the title of young Mary Driscoll’s 1847 account of her migration from Ireland to America.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus February 2014. Al Jazeeraz 26 February 2014
Babes in the Wilderness. Syrian children in the eye of the storm. Al Jazeera, September 2011
In addition to a multitude of Wiki and Google searches, and references to and quotations from many songs and poems, including my own poetry and verse , special note is made of the following books that I have read of late that have inspired this piece:
Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood (Knopf)
Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization (Sceptre)
William Dalrymple, From The Holy Mountain (Harper Perennial)
William Dalrymple, Return Of A King (Knopf)
Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation (HarperCollins)
Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation (Andre Deutsch)
Vaslily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook (NYRB Classics)
Tom Holland, In The Shadow Of The Sword (Doubleday)
Robert D Kaplan, The Revenge Of Geography (Random House)
Amin Malouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Schoken)
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, The Biography (Orion)
Simon Winchester, Atlantic (HarperCollins)
When Jackson BrownereleasedLives in the Balance in 1986, critics reckoned that its contemporary content, the USA’s bloody meddling in Central America, limited its appeal and long-term significance. And yet, here in the early twentieth first century, with the wars of the Arab Dissolution dragging the world into its vortex, the Great Power politics and proxy wars that taxed intellectual and actual imaginations in that seemingly distant decade jump back into the frame like some dystopian jack in the box. As Mark Twain noted, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.
Lives in the Balance was certainly a record for and of its times. Months before the Iran-contra scandal broke, Browne sang “I want to know who the men in the shadows are, I want to hear somebody asking them why. They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are but they’re never the ones to fight or to die”. After the “arms for hostages” deals hit the news, increased public awareness of the US’ secret and dirty war in Nicaragua inspired him to produce a video for the title track well after the album had passed its sales peak.
The album’s other songs sustained the assault. Soldier of Plenty condemns America’s paternalism towards its poor Latin neighbours. Lawless Avenues, with poignant Spanish lyrics by Browne and Warren Zevon’s old friend and collaborator, Jorge Calderón, takes us down the mean streets of Latino Los Angeles before sending its young anti-hero off to die in America’s wars. In the driving and ironic For America, Browne regrets his prior indifference and qualifies his conflicted patriotism: “I have prayed for America; I was made for America; it’s in my blood and in my bones. By the dawn’s early light! by all I know is right, we’re going to reap what we have sown”. in Til I Go Down, he sings “I’m not gonna shut my eyes, I’ve already seen the lies on the faces of the men of war leading people to the killing floor”. This song aptly plays out the end credits of the harrowing academy award winning The Panama Deception which documents the US’ invasion of that unfortunate country.
Browne was not the first mainstream singer and songwriter to address America’s long and troublesome relationship with its Latin American neighbours. In his 1983 Stealing Fire and 1984 World of Wonders, Canadian Bruce Cockburn gave us the tragically beautiful Nicaragua and Santiago Dawn and the visceral If I Had a Rocket Launcher.On The Trouble With Normal (1983), there is Tropic Moon, with its cinematic imagery, and the lyrically deceptive Waiting For The Moon. The theme is the same as Browne’s – the North’s intervention in the politics of the South – particularly when comes to financing and arming rogue militias and warlords, and pliable, vicious and corrupt dictators: “Yanqui wake up, don’t you see what you’re doing, trying to be the Pharoah of the West bringing nothing but ruin…You’re my friend but I say Yanqui go home!”
In this sad world, whenever Uncle Sam (or Uncle Ivan for that matter) plays his hand, something wicked this ways comes: “Little spots on the horizon into gunboats grow – waiting for the moon to show. Might be a party, might be a war when those faceless sailors come ashore. Whatever’s coming, there’s no place else to go, waiting for the moon to show”.
Cockburn’s poetic muse trumps Browne’s agit-prop. These lines from Tropic Moon are nonpareil: “Away from the river, away from the smoke of the burning, fearful survivors, subject of government directives. One sad guitar note echoes off the wall of the jungle. Seen from the air they’re just targets with nowhere to run to”. And: “the light through the wire mesh plays on the president’s pistol like the gleam of bead of sweat in the flow of a candle”.
Very little has changed since Browne and Cockburn sang their Tales of Yankee Power. “But who are the ones that we call our friends? These governments killing their own? Or the people who finally can’t take anymore, and they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone. And there are lives in the balance; there are people under fire; there are children at the cannons; and there is blood on the wire”. And if you were one of those people, why wouldn’t you say “If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate!“ As Cockburn sings in Santiago Dawn, “military thugs with their dogs and clubs spreading through the poblacion, hunting whoever has a voice, sure that everyone will run. They come in strong but its not that long before they know its not that easy to leave. To keep a million homeless down takes more than a strong arm up your sleeve”.
From Petrograd to Palestine, the story-line endures. The eighties were also the years of Russia’s Afghan quagmire, which led, ideologically if not geographically to the Chechen pogroms; and of a decade of bloodletting in Lebanon and in what in reality was the First Gulf War, that between Iran and Iraq. The Berlin Wall fell a few years before the events that drove these records, inspiring an outpouring of optimism as the countries of Eastern Europe broke free of the Soviet thrall. But this was not the Kumbaya moment that dreamers yearn for. Ensuing decades have seen a cartography of carnage: Bali and Beslan, Gaza and Grozny, Kabul and Kigali, Manhattan and Mogadishu, Sarajevo and Srebrenica.
We witness the anatomy of the new world economy in which millions of souls are on the move and everything can be traded for value. Bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs and more besides. False prophets and bad dreams, broken promises and forlorn hopes, obscured visions and false horizons. “Many have perished, and more most surely will” – a line taken from WH Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world in transition between the wreckage of The Second World War and foreboding for the impending armed peace that was itself to endure for another forty five years.
It is sadly ironic that our present world is passing through another time of uneasy transition, between the fixed certainties of great power rivalry and the intractable and bloody asymmetrical conflicts of today.
Paul Hemphill, November 2015
The other day, I was listening to Dire Straits’ excellent 1985 album Brothers in Arms, and was reminded that several of the songs thereon refer, albeit obliquely, to the “bush wars” of Central America, and possibly also, to the US and Soviet Union’s proxy wars in Southern Africa and Afghanistan. There is Ride Across the River, with its Latino mood, and the beautiful and haunting title track. And there is TheMan’s Too Strong, a powerful indictment of the cult of “the big man” that plagues countries all over the world. How often have these tyrants “re-written history with my armies and my crooks. Invented memories. I did burn all the books”. And how often too have they been tolerated, supported and bankrolled by Uncle Sam and Comrade Ivan.
Its story does not relate to Bob Dylan’s cryptic and nihilistic Señor (Tales of Yankee Power), from Street Legal (1978), played here by bluegrass wiz Tim O’Brien. As for the meaning of the Bobster’s song, well, that’s pretty hard to fathom. A cowboy fever dream, perhaps; one of those strange illusions you channel in the early morning between sleeping and waking, more about mood than meaning. Perhaps it deserves a post of its own one find day.
Listen to Lives in the Balancein full be clicking on the blue text. Amid the its hard-hitting political commentary sits In the Shape of a Heart, considered to be one of Browne’s finest love songs. Yet this too might be regarded as controversial with regard to what it may or may not imply about the doomed relationship it describes. But like “the ruby she wore on the chain around her neck”, it is a finely cut gem.
Spring is here, spring is here Life is skittles and life is beer I think the loveliest time of the year Is the spring, I do, don’t you? Course you do But there’s one thing that makes spring complete for me And makes every Sunday a treat for me…
That music always round me, unceasing, unbeginning, yet long untaught I did not hear, but now the chorus I hear and am elated. Walt Whitman
It is five in the morning and the sun she’s rising. Old King Koel has been making his lovelorn call for two hours already. As the shadows lift, a lone kookaburra calls. Another answers, and is immediately joined by a choral cacophony. A whip bird calls in the distance, and somewhere in the forest, a white-chested pigeon commences its hopeful woo woo. Just across the way, Barrel-chested wongas waddle across the grass, and on a dance floor bedecked with festive straw swiped from the garden and blue trophies gathered from all over, a bower bird rasps loudly to a potential lady love who is edging across the garden. As she enters his bower, he sits on a branch and serenades her with a melody that is all sweetness. A mob of spangled drongos chortle and jingle amidst the trees as if they were about to watch the show.
Spangled Drongos and a Regent Bower Bird feeding on a termite swarm
The day brightens and as the nectar warms in the sun, spine-bills and scarlet honey-eaters flock to the bottle brushes, “Ollie, ollie” oriole carols in the tea trees, the noisy friar bird lives up to his name, and satin and regent bower birds bounce on the grevillia ground cover. The fig birds, all green coats and red eyes, are up early, their minds set on the ripening figs, getting in early before the competition gathers. Through the morning, king parrots squeal as they keep watch over ripening bananas and pawpaws, and yellow robins ring like bells, following us through the gardens as we turn the earth to reveal juicy takeaway. On the forest fringes, a wompoo bassoons his courting carol. Bollocks are blue, bollocks are blue, wom-poo!
Eastern Spinebill and Gymea Lily
The sun moves on, and the day is subdued in the noonday heat. Afternoon reaches for evening and at four o’clock, and as if to schedule, a flight of yellow-tailed black cockatoos cruise in, squarking to each other as they settle into the banksias and casuarinas for a feed. Drongos chuckle and chatter, gamboling and chasing each other through the trees, carrying on like, well, drongos, as they take turns to swoop into the dam for a dip.
Then it is beer o’clock, and as we are sitting here, we hear some serous catbird courting. She’s way down in the valley below, and he, up on the spur. Over the next hour, they draw closer and closer together, her call becoming louder and louder, his keener and keener, their calls converging in the forest to our right. And maybe, soon, catbird kittens?
Changeover is upon us, that magical interlude when daytime segues into night-tide and the sounds of daylight and darkness meet, mingle and separate as the one melts and the other flows. Twilight approaches, and there is a flurry of argument and scuffling as birds grab their last snacks and hassle and hustle each other as they retire to their roosts. But the night-tide hunters stir in silence, and tawnies, boobooks and powerful owls depart their shady day-time perches.
And then it is frog time. The generator frog heralds the changeover from day to night. Next, the bleaters start up, followed by the ding dings, the bonk bonks, barkers, and bubble wraps, wark warks and wot wots, and the rubber duckies. And amongt them, little Peronii, the frog who drops down from the foliage of overhanging trees as the air cools. The music of the night! We are waiting for the flying foxes to cross the evening sky for the silky oak nectar, and soon they will be slurping and chirping. The fireflies are bobbing like a wandering band of fairies through the forest that surrounds us; and the mozzies have begun to butt up against the screens.
And did I mention the snakes? They’re waking early with these unseasonable Septembers …
See below for a picture gallery of our wild friends and neighbours …
We in Bellingen Shire, some ten kilometres west of the seaside town of Urunga on the mid north coast of New South Wales. The forest lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers, and these are connected tidally to the ocean at Urunga – the only place in Australia where two rivers meet the ocean together. The forest rises from the rivers on either side of the Fernmount Range, the easternmost extension of the Great Dividing Range that spans the eastern edge of our island continent. Above and between the two rivers, it is a rain-harvesting, filtration and stabilization ecosystem vital to the waterways and wetlands around them, and is a habitat for bird, reptilian, mammalian and marsupial wildlife, including koalas, wallabies, echidnas, quolls, goannas, owls, fruit doves and cockatoos. The east-west Fernmount Range Trail is an ancient highway called the Yildaan Dreaming Track. It led from the plains beyond the Dorrigo massif to what is now the seaside town of Urunga, known then to the Gumbaynggirr people as a “place of plenty”. The first people would descend the spurs on the north and south flanks of the range to fishing and ceremonies on the riverside. The Tarkeeth Forest therefore contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.
We have been visiting Bellingen Shire for the last thirty years, and moved a house onto our bush block over twenty years ago. in the Bellinger Valley on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. Bellingen is well known as a picturesque, well-preserved (founded in 1870) country town. In former times, it was the centre of a thriving dairy and timber industry, and in more recent times, as a popular tourist transit between the university city of Armidale and the country music capital of Tamworth to the west, and the Pacific “holiday coast” of Coffs Harbour, Sawtell, Urunga, and Nambucca Heads, with their sand, surf and sun.
Between the two is the Great Dividing Range, the rolling, high country escarpment of the New England Plateau with its gorges and waterfalls, and the world-heritage Dorrigo National Park with it timeless, untouched rainforests – a “land that time forgot”. And linking them all, the old trunk road, aptly if touristically named Waterfall Way.
Bellingen is popular for its cafes and coffee shops, craft industries and shops, music festivals, and federation facades. It’s visual appeal, and it’s bucolic rural environs have seen the town used on many occasions as a film location. In the seventies, it was a Mecca for young people seeking an alternative lifestyle. The hills thereabout are still scattered with cooperatives and communes, or, in local council-speak, multiple occupancy. In those days, no love was lost between the “hippies” and the farmers and loggers, and politics were dominated by the rural, conservative “born to rule” National and Country Party. Nowadays, it’s heir, the National Party still dominates the political scene, but its clear majorities decrease election by election, and by the turn of the century, there may no longer be a National Party member. But demographics do change, as does society. The hippies’ children and the farmers kids grew up together, attended the high school together, played, partied, and paired, and now, there are grand children and great grandchildren.
As the timber and dairy industry has declined, Bellingen’s economy has changed. Once exclusively agrarian – including a time as one of the prime producers of cannabis sativa – tourism plays a a vital role, Bellingen advertises itself to visitors and to present and future residents as a clean, green and sustainable shire. Nature’s wonderland, from its golden beaches to its mountain rainforests and waterfalls. Tourist Heaven with a cornucopia of recreational activities for young and old. Lazy bathing and picnicking to energetic rambling and trecking, camping and climbing, canoeing and fishing. Cultural mecca with its cafes, live music,craft and artisan shops, and music festivals.
Two years ago, the online magazine Traveller published a breathless paean to “the bohemian town that is heaven on earth’. Happy traveller Sheriden Rhodes wrote: Some places are so beautiful; it feels like holy ground. For me, Bellingen has always had that consecrated feeling. It’s obvious, given the name the early pioneers gave the Promised Land, a scenic 10 minute-drive from Bellingen’s township itself. Here the land is so abundantly verdant and fruitful; it literally drips with milk and honey. It’s a place so special the fortunate locals that call it home, including its most famous residents George Negus and David Helfgott would much rather keep all to themselves”.
This is the spin. The reality is somewhat different. Bellingen and the “Holiday Coast” generally have seen a large influx of city folk seeking a different lifestyle for themselves and their children, and also of retirees seeking rural or seaside tranquility -in such numbers that Coffs Harbour and its seaside satellites have become in many ways the Costa Geriatrica.
Many newcomers are not fully aware that the Coffs Coast generally is one of the poorest areas of rural New South Wales. Statistics for youth unemployment and senior poverty are among the highest in the state with all the attendant economic, social and psychological impacts as evidence in high rates of depression, domestic violence and substance abuse. Health and transport services outside the urban centres are pretty poor. But on the right side of the ledger, despite the environmental degradation of clear-felling, land-clearing, flammable, monoculture, woodchip-bound eucalyptus plantations that encircle Bellingen, a potential fire bomb primed to explode during one of our scorching, hot dry summers, the generational degradation of the Bellinger’s banks and the graveling up of its once deep depths, and the encroachment and expansion of water-hungry, pesticide and herbicide reliant blueberry farms, we in the Shire are indeed blessed by Mother Nature.
The coastline boasts magnicent headlands and promontories, and long, pristine and often deserted beaches. The World Heritage Gondwana rainforests are a national treasure, and surrounding national parks truly are a natural wonderland. We never tire of the drive from Urunga to Armidale via Waterfall Way, as it crosses the Great Dividing Range and the New England Plateau. The Kalang River as it flows beside South Arm Road and between the Tarkeeth and Newry State Forests is itself one of the Shire’s hidden and largely unvisited secrets, a haven for fishermen, canoeist and all who love mucking about in boats.
Compared to many places on this planet, we’ve really not much to complain about …
For other posts in our Small Stories series of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, see: TheOdyssey of Assid Corban, the story of a Lebanese migrant to New Zealand, and The Monarch of the Sea, the rollicking tale of an unlikely “pirate king”.
Listening to my good friend Demitri and his King Street Blues combo inspired me to revisit the early soul standards of the late fifties and early sixties. Inevitably the journey took me to Sam Cooke.
Sam Cooke (January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964), born Samuel Cook, was an African-American recording artist, singer-songwriter and entrepreneur. He is commonly known as the King of Soul for his distinctive vocal abilities and influence on the modern world of music. His pioneering contributions to soul music led to the rise of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Billy Preston and popularized the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown.
Cooke had 30 U.S. top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, and a further three after his death. Major hits included “You Send Me”, “A Change Is Gonna Come”, “Cupid”, “Chain Gang”, and “Twistin’ the Night Away”. And few remember that Herman’s Hermits “Wonderful World” was written and first recorded by Cooke.
He was also among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of his musical career. He founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. He also took an active part in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
On December 11, 1964, Cooke was fatally shot by the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 33. At the time, the courts ruled that Cooke was drunk and distressed, and that the manager had killed Cooke in what was later ruled a justifiable homicide. Since that time, the circumstances of his death have been widely questioned. Wiki tells the story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Cooke
Counterfactual or alternative history had never gone out of fashion. As a history tragic with many kilometers on the clock, I enjoy such alternative history. “What if…?” and “if only…” are natural, if not instinctual responses to events around us – particularly the unpleasant ones. Hence the popularity of films like SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle (WW2 and the “Nazi victory” books they are based which on have always attracted us alternative history aficionados. There is currently excitement (and panic in some politically correct quarters) about the prospect of a project pitched by Game of Thrones’ show-runners visualizing a USA in which the Confederacy won the Civil War and slavery endures still. But such history is an indulgence that serious historians ought not take seriously – unless they are branching out into historical fiction, that is, which many indeed do. Popular English author Peter Ackroyd has said, the words “What if …” should never be on a historian’s lexicon. But writers of historical fiction have literary license to let their imaginations roam. Counterfactuals or alternative history is a fiction genre all of its own.
When we create alternative histories, we largely replicate a history we already know, often intimately. We replicate histories in which most of the same variables coexist, and the same historical trends prevail. Our motives are quite often as much to warn readers or audiences as to entertain them. Hence the tendency for such endeavours to drift into the depressing dystopian dramas that are so in vogue in these challenged times.
And yet, changing one or more of the players, removing or adding ingredients, hypothesizing different, even opposite scenarios, and imagining how events might have transpired differently, may not radically alter the result. In the case of the First World War, for example, if the conflict had not happened, the European empires may or may not gave endured. Often such multinational entities contain the seeds of their own demise – internal dynamics and contradictions, the impact of events in other countries. Whose to say what might have happened in say France, Germany, Russia, Türkiye or the US that might have upended the balance of power?
One surmises whether or not there is an iron law of inevitability that determines – predetermines, even – the same or similar outcome – a historical equivalent of Oedipus’ unsuccessful efforts to avoid his prophesied fate, affirming TS Elliot’s observation in Little Gidding: “And the end of all our exploring will be be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.
In this entertaining podcast, British historians Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland discuss many examples of what might have been if …
In an interesting if light-weight and indeed disappointing exercise in alternative history, with an absolutely meaningless but catchy play on the title of a fabulous song, title, The Sultans of Spring, The Economist recently pondered how events would have unfolded if the Ottoman Empire had sat out WW1 or joined the Entente of Britain, France and Russia instead of throwing in its lot with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. You may click on the above link, or page down to the full (and brief) transcript. Al-Sisi below, but preceding this is a brief précis of a a popular paperback historical novel published a short while ago which presented an imaginative if overcooked and totally different Ottoman history.
But first, here is my own argument:
So, what if?
Removing the Ottoman Empire from the strategic equation, or else placing it in the military scales against the Central Powers, would certainly have a significant impact upon the conduct and progress of the European war on both the eastern and western fronts. Russia and Britain would not have had to divert forces and materiel to the Middle East arenas. The Ottomans could have reaped the political and economic benefit of either neutrality or victory, with commensurate benefits for their own survival. The hypotheticals with respect to what may have happened next are innumerable.
The Economist surmises: “How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?”
But would things have turned out radically different if this had happened – notwithstanding the fact that three to five million Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Africans, Indians, and Europeans who lived in or soldiered through the Middle East theatre would have lived to die a natural death after fulfilling their own particular destinies or to perish purposefully or pointlessly in some other conflict.
The previous century had seen the steady decline of the Sultan’s Empire. It had commenced with Napoleon, and the rise of Muhammad Ali in Egypt, an Albanian “slave soldier” who in practical terms, seceded from the empire. Greece followed next, assisted by European states, and then, bit by bit, the Balkans. The Czar dubbed the empire the “sick man of Europe”, or so British politician John Russell misquoted him, and everybody wanted a piece. The European powers were circling hoping to pick up pieces as the Empire’s borderlands detached – Russia in the east, France in the Levant, and Britain in Egypt and the Gulf. The Crimean War was but one manifestation of “the Eastern Question” that had excited European Chancellories for a hundred years. France and Britain challenged Russia for power and influence in the East and went to war on the Sultan’s side, ostensibly to protect Christian rights in the Holy Land, but weightier matters were in play – alliances have always been fluid in this part of the world, as today’s shifting allegiances demonstrate. Crimea ended in stalemate, but Russia kept encroaching, whilst France established its presence in the Levant. Britain, meanwhile, has its sights set on Egypt and the Red Sea, (the vital route to its African and Asian empires), and when it was finally built, the Suez Canal, a strategic and commercial link that to this day concentrates the minds of foreign and state departments, military strategists and corporations worldwide.
The Balkan states continued to decouple from the empire, and prior to 1914, engaged in several bloody wars with each other, drawing their neighbours deeper and deeper into the tangle. The slow countdown to WW1 accelerated with the Austro-Hungarian archduke being killed by a Serbian student. Gavril Princip’s “shot that echoed around the world” in Sarajevo in 1914 was but one part of a chaotic picture, igniting tinder that had long awaited a match. Russia, supported the Serbs, Germany, the Austrians, Britain, and France, the Russians. And the Ottomans, forever hard pressed by the Russians, French and Brits, had already moved into the German orbit. When the Ottomans entered the war on the side of the central powers, the cards were dealt.
The Empire was already on a revolutionary path what with the Sultan’s desultory efforts with constitutional reform, the ascendency of Young Turks, a cabal of Turkish nationalist army officers, and the parlous state of the economy. Efforts to institute political and economic reform had faltered, and sooner or later, something was going to blow.
Arab nationalism had already taken root in the Levant, a secular creed spear-headed by Arab Christian intellectuals, to be brutally suppressed by the Young Turk triumvirate, Enver, Talat and Jamal. “Martyrs” were being strung up in Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem. Perhaps the Ottoman Middle East would have unraveled like in the Balkans (and Balkanised too? Most probably). The “wars of the Ottoman Succession” that we are witnessing today amongst the states created in 1921 would eventually have erupted.
The Zionist project was already underway at the outbreak of war, with settlements of Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia well-established in Palestine, often encouraged by the Ottoman authorities. The pioneers included many of the founders of modern Israel, including its architect and first prime minister David Ben Gurion. The pressures that drove Jews from eastern Europe and Russia in the first place (the discrimination and the pogroms paramount) were unlikely to abate given the atavistic nationalism of Holy Russia and just as Holy Poland. Sooner or later, Zionism and Arab nationalism were going to collide. We will never know how the Ottoman state and its Arab provinces would have coped with the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine. It certainly would have put the popular (but highly qualified) narrative of Ottoman tolerance of other faiths through a rigorous stress test. The Zionists had a pretty clear road map, and they weren’t sharing it with their new neighbours.
The British, French and Russians had been involving themselves in Middle Eastern affairs – that confounding “Eastern Question” – since the Napoleonic wars. , and Germany, seeking its coveted “place in the sun”, wanted in. German influence was already strong amongst progressive army officers – Prussian elan, ethos, menswear and weapons have exerted a powerful influence on wannabe juntas, the “men on horseback”, since the days Frederick the Great. The Kaiser’s government was very keen on expanding German influence in the east as a counter to British and French imperial power. Meanwhile, the industrial powers were already sniffing around the Gulf, Iranian, and Mesopotamian oilfields, the economic impetus behind imperialism having yet to run its course. The sea-lanes that preoccupied policy-makers in London, Paris and Moscow were soon to be joined by railways and pipelines, with the Germans making the running with its backing of the Berlin to Baghdad Bahnhof. Petroleum would soon join the fabled Great Game as a western imperial obsession. And this too, in time, would have to come up against rising Arab nationalism.
Would Ataturk and Ibn Saud’s ascendency in Turley and Arabia respectively have happened? Perhaps. The political instability in Anatolia and the Arabian Peninsula, and also, as we have described in the Levant, would have created conditions which could have brought these ambitious, capable and charismatic men to power.
Mustafa Kemal was just one of many promising Young Turks. Whether he would have risen above his peers without his Gallipoli reputation is moot – he would still have had to shove aside the three amigos. His Turkish nationalism, like that of his Young Turk compadres, was not sympathetic to Arab aspirations. Nor was his agnosticism empathetic to what he considered to be a backward and suffocating Islam. Fezzes and face-coverings were amongst the first things to go once he established his secular republic. Whether he could have held the empire together is another question.
Ibn Saud was not the only kid on the Arabian block. The Hashimites (the descendants of Jordan’s King Abdullah) held the western edge of the peninsula, but also the most spiritually significant – the “haramayn” of Mecca and Medina, no less. The Hashimite princes has their eyes on an Arab Kingdom, but Ibn Saud had his eyes on them. The house of Saud, with its Salafi Wahhabi credentials of a cleaner Islam was way “out there” as far as Arab politics and religion went at the time. Apart from perennial outbreaks of intolerance towards and repression of religious and ethnic minorities and heterodox Muslim sects, Istanbul ruled its multinational and multicultural empire with a light if autocratic hand. But there was all that oil – and to British policy makers, that trumped loyalty to the Qurayshi wannabes in the west, for all their descent from the Prophet and their custodianship of the Holy Places.
How would British-controlled Egypt’s politics have developed? Resistance to Britain and its puppet monarchy (headed by the descendent of that famed Albanian schemer Muhammad Ali, who had caused the Europeans so much angst in the early days of the Eastern Question) was growing and would develop into a secular Egyptian nationalism on the one hand and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood on the other.
So: no Gallipoli campaign (Churchill would have had to find another project, and young Australia another patriotic shibboleth); no Arab Revolt – the Hashemites would have remained just another influential desert clan and TE Lawrence would not have become a legend; no Balfour Declaration or Sykes Picot agreement to distort and dismember the Arab Levant with two conflicting and irreconcilable nationalisms, so, no Syria, Iraq and Lebanon; no British (and Australian) advance on Gaza, Jerusalem and Damascus (General Allenby might have ended up on the Western Front instead of the steps of King David’s Tower in Jerusalem) and arguably, therefore no Mandate, no Palestine, and no Israel; no Armenian genocide to darken Türkiye‘s reputation and prefigure the Shoah that was to come, or then again, perhaps never came; and no Türkiye as we know it today (although President Erdogan is certainly acting out his inner sultan).
As former and unlamented Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice prematurely proclaimed in 2006 too much ridicule from Arabs generally, “a new Middle East”.
TE Lawrence, General Allenby, Ataturk, and Ben Gurion
The Ottoman Secret
By Raymond Khoury
The Ottoman siege of Vienna of 1683 sees the city fall and the Christian forces annihilated. Western Europe is conquered soon afterwards and in 2019, an increasingly repressive Sultan still rules the continent (though Britain and Russia withstood the onslaught and remain independent nations). A lot has happened in the world since 1683, and as Christendom was vanquished, many things just didn’t happen. Russia is still ruled by the Czars, and America by a post-Mayflower Christian theocracy. Concepts like democracy, freedom of thought and expression, and gender equality are ideas still struggling against heavy odds to be born.
We are in Muslim Paris in 2019. Kamal Arslan Agha is a patriotic, loyal subject of the the Sultan and a special investigator of the Tashkeelat-i Hafiye, the secret police, on the front line of the empire’s harsh response to increasing political and economic turmoil throughout Europe. The Caliphate’s efforts to maintain law and order spare no one, and soon, Kamal’s own family attracts the Hafiye’s attention.
His brother and sister-in-law discover a secret so dangerous, the Caliphate must suppress it, and with the foundations of the Empire under threat, Kamal’s family have no choice but to run. Whether or not they can escape the pursuing Hafiye will determine their own fate, and that of the Caliphate itself – its past, its present, and its future.
Khouri’s vision of a world dominated by conservative, repressive regimes combining religious conformity with modern technology is not a pleasant one. Western democracy might have its faults, but as Churchill said, it’s better than most of the alternatives.
This is, of course, fiction, written by a novelist and not a historian. Its political, cultural and technical milieu is predicated on “what if? What if the Ottomans had expanded and prospered for three centuries instead of gradually transforming into the “sick man of Europe” to be dissected and defeated by western powers? What if through serendipitous and underhand means, the empire has acquired the military, industrial, scientific and technical wherewithal to build over four centuries a world that in many ways in not unlike our own? What if their had been no enlightenment, no French or Russian revolutions, no Hitler, no Holocaust, no Hiroshima?
Incidentally, the siege of Vienna in 1683 gives its name to ‘Gates of Vienna’, a fanatically anti-Muslim far-right blog. Its essential thesis is that this was only one battle in a long war and that Europe and its civilisation are constantly threatened by a Muslim invasion.
As Kurt Vonnegut’s avatar Kilgore Trout would say, “so it goes …”
Sultans of Spring – if the Ottoman Empire hadn’t collapsed.
Imagine the mayhem that might have been avoided had the Ottoman Empire been saved rather than sunk. Blame, among others, Winston Churchill
When a Serb gunman shot an Austrian archduke in the summer of 1914, the nations of Europe tumbled into war with all the grace of bowling pins. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, whose ally Russia declared war on Austria, whose ally Germany declared war on Russia, whose allies France and Britain declared war on Germany and Austria. By early August the continent was in flames.
Much as it wobbled like the rest, however, one of those bowling pins could not make up its mind. Which way would Turkey fall? Should the fading Ottoman Empire join the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) or go with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary)
Turkey’s 500-year-old empire was shrinking. It had lost its territories in Africa, nearly all its Mediterranean islands and most of its Balkan lands as well as chunks of eastern Anatolia. It was debt-ridden, industrially backward and politically shaky.
Still, the sultan’s lands straddled two continents, controlling access to the Black Sea. His Arabian territories stretched beyond the holy cities of Islam to the mountains of Yemen and the Persian Gulf, where there were rumoured to lie vast caverns of the sticky black liquid soon to replace coal as the world’s chief source of power.
Confident of Turkey’s weakness, Britain, France and Russia could have clobbered the Ottomans and divided the spoils. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed. At a secret conclave aboard a British dreadnought off the coast of Norway in late July, a far-sighted politician by the name of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, worked with French, Russian and Turkish diplomats to forge a treaty. The Turks drove a hard bargain for, as they coyly revealed, Germany too was proffering arms and gold in exchange for an alliance.
The deal that was reached proved immensely beneficial to all concerned. From France, Turkey received generous debt relief. Russia scrapped all claims to Ottoman territory, and made a limited goodwill withdrawal from parts of Anatolia. Churchill waived further payment on two warships that British shipyards were building for Turkey. And Turkey received assurances that its vulnerable extremities would not be attacked; for an empire that for a century had been preyed upon like a carcass this was a new lease of life.
The rewards to the Triple Entente were equally big. Granted exclusive access to the Black Sea, Russia’s allies could resupply the tsar’s armies when they faltered at the start of the war. With no need to defend its Turkish frontier, Russia moved thousands of crack troops from the Caucasus to shore up its front lines. Turkey signed separate agreements recognising British control of the Suez Canal, Aden and the Trucial sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, securing the sea lanes for Britain’s massive deployment of troops from the colonies to the Western Front. Turkey’s own army joined in a broad front against Austria-Hungary. Together, these Allied advantages are thought to have shortened the war by as much as a year; the Central Powers might not have sued for a truce as soon as America entered the war, but fought on instead.
Reprieved from collapse, the Ottoman Empire’s government pursued radical reforms. Challenged by growing nationalist tendencies from Arab, Armenian, Greek and Kurdish subjects, Sultan Mehmed V issued a historic firman or proclamation that recognised these as individual nations united under the Ottoman sovereign.
The sultan got to keep the title of caliph, commander of the Sunni Muslim faithful, which his ancestors had acquired four centuries earlier. This proved useful when the empire had to put down a rebellion of religious fanatics in central Arabia, led by a man called Ibn Saud who gained followers by claiming he would restore Islam to a purer state. But mostly the empire was seen as a tolerant place. When Nazi persecutions drove Jews from Europe in the 1930s, many took refuge there (as they had done when expelled from Spain in 1492), particularly in the province of Jerusalem.
Needless to say, none of the above happened. Quite the opposite. Turkey aligned with Germany in the first world war, and the allies did attempt to invade and divide its empire. Churchill, instead of handing over the warships that ordinary Turks had paid for by subscription, had them seized for the British navy. In 1915 he ordered a catastrophic attack on Turkey; the landing at Gallipoli cost the allies 300,000 casualties. British campaigns against Turkey in Iraq and the Levant cost another million lives.
Turkey’s casualties mounted, by war’s end, to 3m-5m people, nearly a quarter of the Ottoman population. This included some 1.5m Armenians, slaughtered because Turkish officials believed they might become a fifth column for a hostile Russia. And when Britain and France grabbed the Ottomans’ Arab lands, their suppression of uprisings cost thousands more lives.
How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?
Ataturk Monument, Istanbul
Here are other posts about Turkey past and present:
The listing and rating of comedy books – any books, really, and indeed, “best of” lists of anything, be it music or movies, holiday choices or cheeses, is a highly selective and subjective exercise that says more about the compilers of the lists than about the quality of the books themselves. A demonstration of their erudition, perhaps, and their eclectic tastes? Or is it pomposity and pretentiousness, or worse, that put-down so beloved nowadays of shock-jocks, populists and self-styled”outsiders”: elitism.
I must confess that whilst I have heard of most of the books in these lists, I have read only a handful. And with the exception of Catch22, The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, I would not rank these in a list of my own – which I will get to shortly.
Humour, comedy, call it what you will, is a funny business. Sorry. Bad pun.
There is a wide gap between a wry grin and a guffaw. One man’s cringe is another man’s belly laugh. And whilst whoopee cushions are anachronisms, remembered only by over-sixties, some folk actually DO like fart jokes. And age is no barrier – last week in Big W, I marveled (I think “winced with incredulity” is more apt) at a “fart blaster”, a promotional spin-off from the Despicable Me film franchise.
Humour works in many ways and on many levels. Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all. I recall my schooldays back in England, and being obliged to write essays explaining and analyzing the humour in Henry IV Part One (a title that doesn’t suggest a lot of laughs, although this is the play that gave world that lovable old rogue Sir John Falstaff and his motley crew) , The Pickwick Papers, and the plays of George Bernard Shaw (I can still sing all the songs from My Fair Lady). Like numberless students before me, I tried unsuccessfully to explain to “Sir” that I just didn’t find them “funny”. As did most of my classmates. So we settled for memorizing the different “types” of “humour” (as if being “funny” was not really a part of it). These were usually words of Greek and Latin origin (these old folk invented it, you see – the classical “commedia” that is ), and classifying the Bard, Boz and GBS according to this scholarly taxonomy. Which, incidentally, is summarized beautifully in Monty Python’s classic Piranha Brothers sketch as an a witness describes the negotiating techniques of the demented and dangerous Douglas Dinsdale:
“Well, I was terrified. Everyone was terrified of Doug. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug…He used… sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and… satire. He was vicious”.
Some may find the concept and realization of this ice-thinly disguised and ridiculous send-up of the notorious and seriously brutal Kray Brothers to be in dubious taste (it would never get up today, what with political correctness and defamation laws). But that was the way the Python crew worked. You really had to “get” it. The same could be said of its predecessors, The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was, and Pete and Dud’s Not Only But Also. And it’s successors, The Young Ones, Bottom, Black Adder, and Ab Fab. What is hilarious to some is puerile to others. What is deep and meaningful to serious aficionados is lightweight, trite and pointless to high and low-brow grumps alike – who “just don’t get it”.
And “getting it” too is selective and subjective. Some people “get” Woody Allen, and see all his stuff (and believe me, it can be patchy, and as he gets older, you do have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince of the Annie Hall and Manhattan days), and others just don’t see the point (quite apart from expressing discomfort with his private life). So you can see how subjective it all is.
Humour in radio, film and television is in the eye, ear and imagination of the beholder. It is audiovisual as well as textual, the one often illustrating and enhancing the other. Expressing humour on the printed page is an altogether different and difficult endeavour.
Which brings me back to books, and to those lists.
I could never get into the lightweight upper-class comedies of manners so beloved of many English people, the Jeeveses and the Woosters and the Three Men in a Boat, or the precocious, neurotic memories of New York Jewish writers and intellectuals (although I do “get” Woody, as I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t abide Portnoy’sComplaint), nor the chatty, revelatory memoirs and faux-memoirs of celebrities of stage, screen and standup (I did however enjoy David Niven’s Bring on theEmpty Horses, back in the day, and Clive James’ UnreliableMemoirs). Yet these and their ilk would appear to dominate the “best comedy books” lists. And I wondered why classics like Cervante’s Don Quixote and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, surreal and eccentric as they are, didn’t make the team – nor old GeorgeBernard or the now rehabilitated Oscar Wilde. But then again, these worthies were so weighed down with social and political comment that the humour often got side-tracked. I mean, who wants to hear about madness and despair, class prejudice, the privileged few and the downtrodden masses? Who needs to read about what happens when “the white knight is talking backwards and the Red Queen’s off her head”. Sorry about that, but I couldn’t resist bringing Grace Slick into this.. “Remember! What te dormouse said”:
Back to those lists. Compiled several years apart, they contain quite a few of the same titles. Which might suggest one of several things: that intelligent, well-read, journalists and reviewers are into much the same kind of books as their peers; that their literary tastes are not at all like mine – I am very much a “I like what I like” person, are many other readers; and that people who put together such lists google others’ lists in order to draw up their own – so perhaps there are some lazy compilers out there who have not even read the books that they are listing.
Anyhow, in no particular order, here are my top five:
1. Jospeh Heller, Catch22
The adventures of an American airman who maintains his sanity in an insane WW2 by endeavouring by fair means or foul to get discharged from the forces on grounds of insanity, and gives the world an iconic catchphrase for paradoxical double-binds and vicious circles. It was mean to be “Catch 18”, but Heller was gazzumped by Leon Uris’ Warsaw Ghetto soap opera Mila 18.
2. Thomas Pynchon, The Cryingof Lot 49
Oedipa Maas returns home from a Tupperware party to discover that she has been appointed executrix of a former lover’s estate, and embarks on a strangely strange quest in which she encounters an exotic bunch of people with equally exotic names, like fascist Mike Fallopian, philatelist Ghengis Cohen, and a shrink named Doctor Hilarius.
3. Michael Chabon, The YiddishPolicemen’s Union
An alternative history set in the Yishuv of Sitka, Alaska where the Jews of Palestine were settled after being expelled by the victorious Arabs in 1948, as alcoholic detective Meyer Landsmen struggles with his personal demons, broken relationships, Hassidic gangsters, Jewish-Inuit mixed-bloods, and timeless Jewish customs and traditions whilst investigating a gruesome mob murder.
4. David Barret’s Penguin Books translation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs and Other Plays Written by an Old Greek in the Fourth Century BC, these camp and corny, political satires, replete with cross-dressing, bawdy repartee, catchy choruses, and yes, fart jokes, are sharp and acerbic, and readily applicable to the politics of today. “Not my circus”, his over-the-top characters seem to say, “not my monkeys”.
5. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment.
Impoverished, arrogant, misanthropic, know-it-all Russian student plots the perfect murder. And, doesn’t get away with it. Just kidding.
Seriously though, here is number five:
5. George McDonald Fraser,The GeneralDanced at Dawn
GMF Is better know for his Flashman books, in which the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” roves and rogers his way through the late nineteenth century, managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another. But Fraser’s semi-autographical memoir as a young officer in Egypt during WW2, recounted in a series of short stories, is an absolute delight. The title story of The General Danced At Dawn contains one of my unforgettable “almost pissed myself laughing” moments. It goes like this:
The inspecting General MacCrimmon is unimpressed with the Battalion until he watches a display of the regiment’s officers performing Highland dancing. He joins in, becoming more and more excited, and recruiting more and more soldiers and passers-by to join in, by dawn the next morning, a mob of Highlanders, Fusiliers who share their base, military policemen, Egyptian locals, an Italian cafe proprietor, a some Senussi Arabs from the west in burnouses, and three German prisoners of war make history by dancing ‘a one hundred and twenty-eightsome reel’. The General’s inspection report “congratulated the battalion, and highly commended the pipe-sergeant on the standard of the officers’ dancing.” The pipey’s opinion was that as a dancer, the General was “no’ bad … for a Campbell.
I “got it”. And still smile whenever recall that strange ceilidh.
Didn’t I say that lists can be selective and subjective.