SQ 103 Manolito

Entry 103: Manolito– Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua festered in the heata-central-american-map of Central America during the 70s and 80s. Belize was insulated from the conflicts endemic to the region by the British presence and Panama, as a strategic asset of the US, thanks to its canal, also escaped the worst of the killings increasingly creating headlines in international newspapers.

Costa Rica was a relatively peaceful anomaly; without a standing army and possessing robust democratic institutions, it was spared the horrors of civil conflict and destabilisation by shadowy American forces. Indeed, because of the moral authority bestowed by a country that puts public welfare in the place of military spending, its President was able to address the US congress in in 1987 in these terms,

a-costa-rican-presidentI belong to a small country, that was not afraid to abolish its army in order to increase its strength. In my homeland you will not find a single tank, a single artillery piece, a single warship or a single military helicopter…. Today we threaten no one, neither our own people nor our neighbours. Such threats are absent not because we lack tanks but because there are few of us who are hungry, illiterate or unemployed.

 He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize two months after this address. This, was a slap ina-contras-image the face to Ronald Reagan, who had attempted to strong-arm the country into re-militarising and joining in the fight with the right-wing Contras, which he continued to fund covertly in the face of congressional blocks in 1985 to further financial assistance, against the legitimate Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

To all who glorify armed conflict as the art of war, a-denise-imageas a righteous response to ideological threats, I would refer them to Denise Levertov’s poem Misnomer, which refutes this appellation, They speak of the art of war,/ but the arts/ draw their light from the soul’s well,/ and warfare/ dries up the soul and draws its power/ from a dark and burning wasteland.

The darkness, to this day, blankets much of Central America, and the burning wasteland that is the lived experience of millions as we speak, is a screaming indictment of the corruption and violence which drives desperate people to seek refuge across the Rio Grande. As Jude Webber writes in his FT review dated April 6, 2016, of A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America by Oscar Martinez,a-c-a-refugee-imagejpg

 …every day, in an endless stream, more than 1,000 people flee Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras staking everything on a perilous journey north to escape a peacetime now proving more deadly than civil wars that ended two decades ago. The book is a series of extended essays based on his reporting for El Faro, an award-winning Salvadoran online newspaper, and the unflinching cameos it paints offer a chilling portrait of corruption, unimaginable brutality and impunity.

a-killing-imageThe cameos include heart-wrenching stories of sex slavery and merciless retribution when victims who sought help from officials were handed back to the gangs. And this testament to the bravery of an individual who cannot look away,

For Israel Ticas, El Salvador’s only forensic investigator, the quest to dig murder victims out of a well turns into an 805-day nightmare. He has dived into its murky depths and discovers bones and body parts, corroborating testimonies from two turncoat gang members that at least four (but probably many more) victims they had, in gang slang, “taken for a walk”, had been thrown in. It is a race against time: not only must he get the bodies out before rains flood his tunnel, he also needs to do so before the maximum pre-trial detention is up for 43 gang members arrested in connection with the four known bodies. The government lends digging equipment, but swiftly takes it back. The excavation is doomed.

Meanwhile Donald Trump, front-runner for the Republican Party in the US, promises toa-trump-image expel 11 million undocumented migrants and then build a wall to keep them out. I can’t believe we’re living in the 21st Century!

 The song, Manolito, emerges from the shock I experienced at witnessing, on the TV news, in late June of 1979, the brutal slaying of American journalist Bill Stewart. I watched as he was a-killing2-imagemade to lie down on the roadway; then a member of Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza’s, National Guard kicked him in the side and shot him in the head killing him instantly.

The outrage following this atrocity led to the fall of the corrupt regime and Somoza’s flight to Paraguay after, of course, he had looted the Guatemalan treasury. There, a Sandinista commando squad assassinated him. The song, written during July, 1979, shows that burning wasteland from the point of view of a young wife speaking to her husband who is visiting his village home for a short while before resuming the guerrilla campaign.

 

Manolito

SQ 104 Rosa

Entry 104: Rosa– What do Reinhard Heydrich and Rudolf Hoess have in common aside froma-nazi-image being among the most loathsome exemplars and promoters of the ‘final solution”; that Nazi euphemism for the genocidal mass murder of at least six million Jews between 1933, when Dachau concentration camp opens, and 1945, which is termed the Holocaust, and is one of the darkest events in the history of the world?

Heydrich was the architect of the final solution and Hoess was the commandant of Auschwitz. Both cut their teeth, so to speak, as members of the Freikorps- a paramilitary organisation, active in a-nazi-image2the wake of the first world war, in anti-democratic and anti-socialist agitation and assassination. Much has been written about this group and their activities but I came across a rather unusual approach to the subject matter when I read a review by Paul Robinson, a professor of history at Stanford University, of a book entitled, MALE FANTASIES Volume One: Women, Floods, Bodies, History. By Klaus Theweleit published in West Germany in 1977, which had something to say about the psychopathology of men drawn to the Freikorps.

Robinson’s review, published in The New York Times, June 21, 1987, entitled, The Women They Fear states, Klaus Theweleit’s distinctive contribution is to examine the fantasies of the Freikorps soldiers, under the assumption that their intellectual and emotional predilections would explain their behavior. He does so primarily through a close reading of the autobiographies and novels of a select group of Freikorps members… In particular, he draws our attention to the ideas they entertained about women and sex… His central contention is that thea-nazi-image3 Freikorps soldiers were afraid of women. Indeed, not just afraid, they were deeply hostile to them, and their ultimate goal was to murder them. Women, in their view, came in only two varieties: Red and White. The White woman was the nurse, the mother, the sister. She was distinguished above all else by her sexlessness. The Red woman, on the other hand, was a whore and a Communist. She was a kind of distillation of sexuality, threatening to engulf the male in a whirlpool of bodily a-nazi-image4and emotional ecstasy…the Republic had to be destroyed because it empowered the lascivious Red woman, while it failed to protect the White woman’s sexual purity.

 While not entirely convinced by Theweleit’s thesis, Robinson concludes, that in the end he asks us to believe that their hatred of women and fear of sexuality were merely an exaggerated version of what all men feel, or have felt for the past two centuries. And, furthermore, he may have captured a glimpse of our souls.  Good Lord, I hope not mine! What about yours?

And what about Rosa? Today, Rosa Luxemburg seems a quainta-rosa-image fictional character. But she was real; murdered in Berlin on 15 January 1919 by members of the Freikorps. With Karl Liebknecht, co-founder with her of the Spartacist League, which was the forerunner of the Communist Party of Germany, Rosa Luxemburg was captured by the Rifle Division of the Cavalry Guards of the Freikorps. Its commander and deputy questioned them under torture and then gave the order to execute them.

Luxemburg was knocked down with a rifle butt by a soldier, then shot in the head. Her body was flung into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal.  In the a-liebnecht-imagenearby Tiergarten, Liebknecht was shot and his body, without a name, brought to a morgue. While not sharing her revolutionary political beliefs, I like Rosa for having written, Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.

 Notice that the male body, although not identified by name, was brought to the morgue while the female body was thrown into the canal without further ado: there may be something in Theweleit’s thesis, after all. I am in a dark section of the journal and I pray for something made from light to help me conclude this distressing entry.

Sometimes, prayers are answered: In 1932 an American housewife and florist, Mary Elizabeth Frye, was moved by the plight of a young Jewish girl, Margaret Swartzkopf, who a-frye2-imagewas warned not to return to Germany to see her dying mother because of the anti-Semitism of the time. Frye wrote these lines to console the weeping girl who, upon the death of her mother, lamented that she could not stand at the graveside and shed a tear. It was only in the late 1990s that the authorship of the following poem was established,

Do not stand at my grave and weep,/I am not there; I do not sleep./I am a thousand winds that blow,/I am the diamond glints on snow,/I am the sun on ripened grain,/I am the gentle autumn rain./When you awaken in the morning’s hush/I am the swift uplifting rush/Of quiet birds in circling flight./I am the soft star-shine at night./Do not stand at my grave and cry,/I am not there; I did not die.

 

Rosa

SQ 105 The Morrigan

Entry 105: The MorriganMordor, in J R R Tolkein’s great Lord of the Rings trilogy, is thea-celtic-goddess place of horror. Tolkein, as a philologist, knew that Mor probably derives from an Indo-European root connoting terror and monstrousness. The Morrigan is the phantom queen of Irish mythology- a war goddess who takes on the appearance of a crow over battlefields.

Wikipedia notes that, in one version of Cúchulainn’s death-tale, as Cúchulainn rides to meet his enemies, he encounters the Morrígan as a hag washing his bloody armour in a ford, an omen of his death. Later in the story, mortally wounded, Cúchulainn ties himself to a standing stone with his own entrails so he can die upright, and it is only when a crow lands on his shoulder that his enemies believe he is dead.

a-belfast-firejpgSectarian strife had been building throughout 1969 in Northern Ireland and in August of that year, it became the burning wasteland beloved of war gods and goddesses as riots swept Belfast and Derry and houses went up in flames displacing those whose misfortune it was to live on sectarian interfaces. Among the more problematical things I have done in my lifetime was agreeing to drive, in late August of 1969, a car full of people I did not know but who were termed as refugees from North Queen Street, Belfast, to County Donegal, where there was an Irish Army camp at a place called Finner.

I had been approached by a person who supplied snack machines for the students’ uniona-b-specials-image and he seemed a regular guy; besides, he told me he would be making the humanitarian journey as well. I drove over country backroads, scared shitless that I would be stopped by the B-Specials, a Protestant militia still in force. After getting lost a couple of times, I left off a woman and two children at the camp but, to my surprise, not all the passengers agreed to accept the hospitality of the Irish Army.

a-moira-imageThere were two twenty-something year-old men who decided they were not going to stay in Donegal but would return with me to Belfast. On the way back, the rust-heap, which was the car I had driven for so long, broke down on the M2 on the way back into Belfast.  The naïve student, a.k.a.me, ran to the nearest phone-box and asked for help. Now, I didn’t know that the motorway phones were linked to police stations, did I? When I heard a voice declaring, Moira police, how can I help? I dropped the phone and started to gulp like a fish out of water- oh, I was, I was!

While I was floundering on the shoulder of the motorway who should turn up, but thea-m2-night-image vending machine salesman who told me I was as stupid as a sack of shit. In no time he had tied a rope to our stricken vehicle and towed it to an off-ramp and into the outer suburbs where it was abandoned on a side-street. He later drove me to the city centre and told me he never wanted to see me again.

a-bedsitAt the beginning of the academic year 1969-1970, I rented a bedsit near Carlisle Circus in Belfast and quickly settled into a diet of beer and potato crisps. My cousin, Elizabeth, who was working in the city, had a flat up a flight of stairs from me and, occasionally, would arrange to feed me something more substantial. A journalist with The Belfast Telegraph occupied the flat across the landing from me and books were piled everywhere, overflowing tables, chairs and bookcases. He drank a lot, too, and we often talked about the scuttlebutt swirling around the streets: were black taxis containing British assassination duos real or part of the general paranoia?

And, just before I left for a visit home at Christmas that year, were the IRA really going toa-belfast-stree split in two, with a more militant faction gearing up to escalate the conflict?  The city that I had been visiting for several years as a teen because it was vibrant, music-filled and exciting became a shadowed place of menace where a once open and inclusive nightlife shrivelled into closed, claustrophobic sectarian venues controlled by paramilitary groups.

Following my restricted diet, I became less and less well and my girlfriend, now wife, prevailed upon me to seek medical advice. I was a-mater-hospital-detailadmitted to the Mater Hospital on the Crumlin Road in July of 1970. My reception was frosty, to say the least. I had bulging protuberances on my neck which were assumed to be evidence of mononucleosis by the Nuns of the hospital. When they were told, that, far from being a kissing bandit, I was a victim of sarcoidosis, their demeanour warmed remarkably.

During my weeks in hospital I was visited by friends and family. Among my visitors were a couple of musos from the College who had followed the trail laid down by the Beatles by gigging in Hamburg, too. We played a few riffs and shared a few laughs, and, at that time, I started to write the song that would later be entitled, The Morrigan. This is one of my earliest apocalyptic songs.

 

The Morrigan

SQ 106 I Wonder How They Got So Far

Entry 106: I Wonder How They Got So Far At All?– The years 1971 and 1972 loomed large: I gota-venice-image married, travelled overseas on my first independent holiday (our honeymoon in Croatia and Venice) moved into our first home, fathered my first child, got my first degree (I never bothered completing another) and moved to Australia to start my first job. A lot of firsts.

In these years, too, I first started to write songs about what was going on around me rather than anodyne love ditties or apocalyptical takes on the latest round of the troubles such as the one heard at the end of the previous entry. Some of these early songs have been lost forever in the chaos of living. Others, such as this one, survived long enough to be transferred to cassette tape and, later, to zeros and ones in the digital domain.

a-belfast-street2The transience and randomness of life and death swirled around us: I missed, by moments, being blown up in a pub near the city centre, an acquaintance was shot and killed by gunmen unknown. After the honeymoon we found part of a house for rent in West Belfast off the Whiterock Road in Beechview Park which looked across a cinder pitch to the walls of the city cemetery on which was sprayed, in white paint, the graffito, Is there a life before death?

 We lived there from late July 1971 until late August 1972. On the 9th of August, 1971,a-internment-image gunfire erupted in the area as British Army Saracens whined through the streets lifting republican suspects for internment. I watched later from our bedroom window as two men placed barrels of petrol on the Whiterock Road, detonating them as a patrol passed shortly afterwards.

My pregnant wife, clambering over barricades to get to work and back was in the grocery store on the Falls Road at the corner of the lane leading to our street when she was unceremoniously pushed to the floor by a woman next to her: a-bullet-rubberbefore she could remonstrate a couple of rubber bullets came through the door and ricocheted around the shop, smashing displays and causing panic and anger. Over 55,000 of these were fired before they were phased out with the introduction of plastic bullets in 1975.

One of the rubber bullets from the shop was given to my wife as a souvenir and was displayed for a time on our mantelpieces, but disappeared, too, in the chaos of living. I, protective husband that I was-remonstrated with the local women that night, that I would not let her go out on bin-lid duty- this was the early warning technology of the savvy citizens to warn thea-belfast4-scene local IRA brigade of British Army patrols, and she, returning to the corner shop the next day, met with a wall of silence as she was motioned silently to the counter to buy her bread and milk and sugar.

The conflict deepened as bombings and shootings took their toll- in lives and quality of life. The dirty war kicked into gear in earnest as Brigadier Frank Kitson’s counter-insurgency tactics honed against the Mau Mau in Kenya was introduced to streets of the United Kingdom (although not on the island of Britain, itself). a-bar-bombingFifteen civilians, including four women, were killed in McGurk’s Pub in North Queen Street by loyalist bombers whose path before and after was facilitated by members of the shadowy Military Reaction Force of the British Army.

Eight weeks later, British Paratroopers shot dead 13 civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday prompting a rush on IRA recruiters. Republicans hit back by burning the British embassy in Dublin three days later, bombing Aldershota-bloody-sunday-image Barracks in Britain which killed seven and exploding a bomb in Lower Donegall Street killing seven, also. As violence spiralled out of control, Edward Heath, British Prime Minister, pulled the pin, prorogued Stormont parliament and introduced direct rule, ending all hopes of democracy in Northern Ireland for over a generation.

There were false dawns with truces and secret talks but the killing went on and, on Friday, July 21, while I was returning records to the a-bloody-friday-imageBelfast Central Library 22 bombs went off in the space of an hour and a quarter killing nine outright and seriously injuring 130 more. That summer the UDA in ranked and hooded thousands marched along Royal Avenue through the centre of Belfast as I watched in trepidation. I rang my father in Cushendall and arranged to spend a few days in Cushendall and he came and collected my wife, my three-month old daughter and me from Beechview Park on Saturday, August 26, as gunfire rang out in the distance.

I can see the headlines now, I thought sardonically, young family tragically killed a week before they were to start their new life in Australia. Don’t even joke about it! I immediately admonished myself. As Yeats so truly put it, Out of Ireland have we come./Great hatred, little room,/Maimed us at the start. I wonder how they got so far at all…

 

I Wonder How They Got So Far?

SQ 107 Progress

Entry 107: Progress– At entry 73, I referred to a cartoon from the sixties by Ron Cobb,a-cobb-caartoon3 entitled Progress, the upper panel shows two cavemen brandishing bones at one another. Then, dividing the upper panel from the lower, is the word Progress. The lower panel shows two men in suits; one has a pistol with which he has just shot his rival dead. This song inserts a few more panels outlining the history of war.

Originally entitled Pentagon Progress, I thought, afterwards, this was unfairly restrictive and just adopted the Cobb label (even though the US accounts for 75% of the world’s total expenditure on the military but only 0.04% of the total a-cobb-road-kill-ron-cobb-19724population of the planet). In 1972 Cobb composed a cartoon showing road-kill in the Australian outback; lying at the side of the road, among the litter and detritus of road-users, was an aboriginal tribesman and a kangaroo as a road-train sped off, oblivious into the distance.

Almost 45 years later, it still packs a punch. Worth a look, too, is a three-panel depiction of uranium mining in Australia by Fiona Katauskas: panel one- a hole in the ground with the caption, Mine; the second panel an evena-mineoursfionakatauskas larger hole in the ground with the caption, Mine; finally, a facility filled with radioactive barrels with the caption, Ours. Of course, the picture is not one of total gloom: if you haven’t yet checked out Hans Rosling on TED talks, you’re denying yourself a wake-up call about the real state of the world.

a-chimp-imageOver ten years ago, Rosling demonstrated that medical students in Sweden performed worse than chimpanzees at predicting mortality rates and other indicators of progress. Most westerners still have mid-twentieth century notions of us and them about the developed world and the third world: this despite the increasing evidence of Asian tourists at our iconic sites.

Half a billion Chinese are middle-class with disposable income that would turn many westerners green with envy. India is close on thea-chinese-tourist heels of its large neighbour, so it’s probable that we will have a new middle class of one billion plus before too long. Elsewhere in the world, even in sub-Saharan Africa, there is increasing wealth and better health. By the middle of this century, many of the people who just assumed that the largesse was theirs, only, may look longingly off-shore at the greener grass in foreign fields.

While bad news fills our screens, behind the mayhem, there is quiet progress in many areas of social development worldwide. Loathsome regimes (you know who you are!) are no longer able to conceal their barbarities from the ubiquitous smartphones- affordable by a-micro-imageeven the poor.  Micro-finance schemes liberating women from servitude, pro-active prosecution of predators who have felt safe indulging their pedophilic appetites in poorer countries, and the slow awakening in developed nations among the blue-collar workers that they have been played for saps by their political elites, are all signs of the times that provide a counterweight for the doom and gloom scenarios to which we pay too much attention, perhaps.

Or so I hope. I am a hopeless romantic, I guess. I have, at my desk, a reproduction of thea-alter_1060x400-1060x400 icon at my local church as I write this- which is a tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board measuring 100cm by 70 cm. It depicts St Joseph and his stepson. It stands ignored, for most part, for most of the year, squashed between my printer and my 20.5 inch display monitor. There is something in the pictorial relationship that catches me, though.

How this old guy, depending on a dream, travelled over hard ground to register a birth, and then fled into the land of original slavery to preserve a promise for the ages. Whether you believe it or not, it is a potent archetype of selflessness that cannot be gainsaid. Men, males, of most species, kill the progeny of other males to establish their dominance. Joseph took his mother and him in- a big deal then- and taught him an honourable trade. Of course, today, digital disruption would consign his humble woodworking skills to the bin and spit him out like so many others.

a-iss-imagejpgCrucifixion, like so many other methods of mass killing, would be lost in the plethora of statistics the UN so conveniently keeps. So, where is all the good news? Here it is. All around us: In every land, from the circumpolar wastes, to the savannahs, to the rain-forests, to the cities, to the vast plains, to the islands and archipelagos, to the deep-ocean submersibles and to the International Space Station, let us affirm that there is a point to all of our endeavours; that there is an end to the dark travails so many of us endure;, that there is a reason for all us to cheer.

As Oscar Wilde, recalling Socrates, so wisely wrote:

Our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us; and true progress is to know more, and be more, and to do more… Progress.

 

Progress

SQ 108 An Impervious Wall

Entry 108: An Impervious WallBefore I built a wall, I’d ask to know/What I was walling in ora-auden-poem walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offence./Something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down. Truly spoken, Robert Frost. Another poet, W. H. Auden wrote about Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Wall Blues, where he captures the loneliness and misery of sentinels the world over throughout history as they stand vigil on their particular wall and peer into the mist for signs of the enemy, The rain comes pattering out of the sky,/I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

 a-castleThere is something about walls that engender complacency- in Edwin Muir’s poem, The Castle, the besieged look unconcernedly from the turret walls surrounding the fortress at the foe half a mile distant confident in the knowledge of their ample provisions, brave defenders, stout fortifications and allies drawing near. But… There was a little private gate,/A little wicked wicket gate./The wizened warder let them through. And why? Our only enemy was gold,/And we had no arms to fight it with.

 So-called Chinese walls in financial, commercial and legal institutions are supposed to guarantee probity in matters where conflicts of interest may occur but this does not stop regular breaches of the walls and laws in all of these sectors. The actual Great Wall of Chinaa-chinese-wall is stupendous to look at but failed miserably in its purpose of keeping out determined invaders, who simply rode around it or had its gates opened by traitors. The Berlin Wall failed and one may surmise (indeed, hope) that similar walls still in place around the world, will ultimately fail, too.

Something there is that does not love a wall. Are you listening, Donald Trump? Walls made of unobtainium remain the ideal of oppressors throughout time and place. Such a wall would a-big-wallbe impervious to any agency, method or technology. Impenetrable, resisting any level of energy or density of matter, this wall would serve the wildest fantasies of even the most certifiable of megalomaniacs. But it’s out of reach in our material world. The only place such walls can be forged are in the furnaces of the dogmatic mind. Is there anything in this universe more adamantine than the certitude of the religious bigot or political ideologue?

The wailing wall has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries and the practice of leavinga-wailing-wall prayers on scraps of paper stuffed into cracks is one that fulfils a deep human need to connect in a tangible way with sacred places. In the city of Leiden, the Netherlands, there is a modern version of the wailing wall, it seems to me. Two artists, Ben Walenkamp and Jan-Willem Bruins, with the assistance of various civic and philanthropic bodies arranged that on various walls throughout the city you will be able read 101 poems by a range of poets, starting in 1992 a-dutch-wallwith a poem in Russian by Marina Tssvetaeva, concluding in 2005 with the Federico Garcia Lorca poem, De Profundis,

Those hundred lovers/are asleep forever/beneath the dry earth./Andalusia has/long, red-coloured roads./Córdoba, green olive trees/for placing a hundred crosses/to remember them./Those hundred lovers/are asleep forever.

 Assassinated, himself, in shadowy circumstances in 1936, his friend Pablo Neruda, explained that the poet had a premonition of his impending death, relating to him that, waking just before dawn Lorca walked to the ruins of a feudal estate on the outskirts of a village in Castile,

Suddenly Federico felt oppressed as if by something about to come out of the dawn, somethinga-innocent-lamb about to happen. He sat down on the broken-off capital of a pillar lying toppled there. A tiny lamb came out to browse in the weeds among the ruins, appearing like an angel of mist, out of nowhere, to turn solitude into something human, dropping like a gentle petal on the solitude of the place. The poet no longer felt alone. Suddenly a herd of swine also came into the area. There were four or five dark animals, half-wild pigs with a savage hunger and hoofs like rocks. Then Federico witnessed a blood-curdling scene: the swine fell on the lamb and, to the great horror of the poet, tore it to pieces and devoured it.a-feral-pig

So, was this sublime poet, musician and playwright, taken to some pock-marked wall and slaughtered; his body later disposed of in a manner shrouded, to this day, in mystery? Yet another young life cut short. I used to yearn, like the Roman wall soldier in Auden’s poem for the days, When I’m a veteran with only one eye/I shall do nothing but look at the sky. I think, I’ve reached that point.

And I recall the words of Moe Bandy’s fine country song, Til I’m Too Old To Die Young, I will climb the highest hill/And watch the rising sun/And pray that I won’t feel the chill/’Til I’m too old to die young. Why is that too much to ask for far too many?

 

An Impervious Wall

SQ 109 I Rest My Case

Entry 109: I Rest My Case– We have such a lot to put up with in the state of Affluenza: I’ma-consumerism-cartoon suffering from compassion fatigue: there’s always someone after my charity dollar…Paying off the mortgage is taking all my time and energy; so much so that I can’t enjoy my harbour view…I feel so guilty: I know! I’ll dress in black, like Johnny Cash did, until there is equality and harmony and world peace… Keeping up with the Joneses is such tiring business because just when you get up to where they are, lo and behold, another set of Joneses pops up to spoil your feeling of having arrived.

The phrase has been with us for over one hundred years and is becoming increasingly archaic; predicated, as it was, on a much lesser gap in wealth between socio-economic groups. Now, the gap between wealth and the rest a-cartoon-about-inequalityis staggering. And even within the top 1%- that cliché for true wealth, there is a divide between the millionaires who are becoming a dime a dozen, so to speak, and the rarefied planet of the jet-setting billionaires.

In the state of Affluenza, you don’t want to be alone, in a position of vulnerability, and subject to illness, accident or attack, because- chances are- you will become just another statistic in the case-files of the bystander effect. Wikipedia defines this as a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

Now, this phenomenon pre-dates Affluenza as the parable of The Good Samaritan attestsa-cartoon-about-the-gs but it is clearly amplified in affluent, urban societies. Here are a few: Kitty Genovese, a young woman stabbed, raped and killed brutally over a period of half an hour outside her apartment building in Queens, NYC in 1964, within the hearing of a dozen people, not one of whom lifted a hand to help or even a phone for police assistance, which would have saved her life. In 2011 two-year old Wang Yue was run over twice, by drivers, in the Chinese city of Foshan, neither of whom stopped. At least 18 bystanders walked past without aiding the stricken infant. Only an elderly rubbish scavenger, Chen Xianmei, stopped to help the dying child.

a-carter-photoHow many of the plutocracy are worth as much, in essence, as this fine woman. But what does inaction do to those who witness human distress without active compassion? And how many of us can say we have always acted honourably when confronted with similar situations? There is a photograph that I often used in the last twenty years of my teaching career to illustrate the importance of context and framing in the making of meaning. It is a photograph taken in 1993 by photo-journalist Kevin Carter of an African scene.

I would show, at first, a cropped shot of a vulture on the arid plain gazing intently ata-carter2-photo something just out of frame and ask for a response- which was usually fairly tepid. Then, I would reveal the uncropped shot where we see in the foreground a severely emaciated child crawling on the ground. Now, it is clear why the vulture is gazing so intently. The response is always one of shock.

As I was shocked today, when I learned a fuller version of the story: Carter waited, in vain, for 20 minutes for the vulture to spread its wings- which he thought would make the better shot. All the while the child was whimpering and panting in distress. Carter took the shot, shoo-ed the vulture away and then walked off, leaving the child, claiming he didn’t want to get involved. He won the Pulitzer Prize the following year and he took his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning.

I don’t presume to know if there was a causal link between the circumstances of the photograph and his final act, but I would not be surprised to learn that it was a factor. Here a-hodanin Australia, another refugee has self-immolated in protest over the conditions at Nauru, the off-shore detention centre. Both of the major parties are welded to policies that guarantee cruelty to these people will persist as I, and twenty million fellow citizens look on.

I’ve read that the treasurer, like so many of his colleagues, are active Christians, so Ia-mt2-image wonder how foreign aid will fare in the budget tonight. In a thought-experiment, I have the cabinet study in detail Matthew 25: 31-45. You know, the one about the sheep and the goats. And I would have them all recite The Confiteor, that old penitential prayer which includes these words, I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.

 Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa- indeed.

 

I Rest My Case

SQ 110 Now We’re 64

Entry 110: Now We’re 64– It’s strange how the gravitational pull of the stellar personalitiesa-beatles-image in our youth, no matter how fast and far we thought we had travelled in the years since, draw us into an orbit of obeisance, or, at least, sincere acknowledgement of influence.  As I lurched through the barrier of sixty, I began to think of eschatological matters with a little more attention: I mean, even with the most optimistic and deluded of outlooks, one would have to agree that the past was more packed with incident and longevity than the years ahead.

So I wrote a song which touched upon matters encompassing the fifty years I have known my wife.  As my inspiration, I took a song from the Beatles’ St. Pepper’s album, Paul McCartney’s, When I’m 64. Although the theme is “ageing”, Wikipedia informs me, it was one of the first songs McCartney wrote, when he was 16. It was on the Beatles playlist in their early a-beatles2-imagedays as a song to perform when their amplifiers broke down or the electricity went off. Lennon said, in his 1980 interview for Playboy, “I would never even dream of writing a song like that.”

But, I did, at age 63. And I’m not Robinson Crusoe, in this regard either. Lots of other people, riffing off the McCartney song, have registered in song or verse or prose, reflections on reaching age 64. And almost fifty years before the Beatles set the song in vinyl, T.S. Eliot, in one of his finest poems, explored age in a poem, the title of which, means old manGerontion.a-gerontian-image

…Vacant shuttles/ Weave the wind.  I have no ghosts,/ An old man in a draughty house/ Under a windy knob.// After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now/History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/ And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,/ Guides us by vanities./ I was neither at the hot gates/ Nor fought in the warm rain/ Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass… I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:… These with a thousand small deliberations… multiply variety in a wilderness of mirrors…

McCartney was only 16 when he wrote his song; Eliot was twice his age- 32- when he wrote his poem. But neither, by any stretch, could be considered old. Are our senior poets, then, so immured in their senescence, that we can learn nothing from them?

a-cad-imageNot so! Carol Ann Duffy, that redoubtable poet (and laureate) wrote, introducing a selection of poems from senior British poets in The Guardian back in 2010, I invited the poets here to write, in any way they chose, about ageing. Our society, I believe, is turning gradually away from its obsession with “yoof” and “slebs”. We are beginning to realise that we face, at the very least, an uncertain future, one in which wisdom and experience – and respect – will need to be accorded a more important role. Nice thought, Carol Ann, if only it were true.

All the old gods have become enfeebled,/mere playthings for poets. Few, doze or daft,/frolic on Parnassian clover, wrote Dannie Abse, a notable poet, who died at age 91, in 2014. For Ruth Fainlight, aged 85, and close friend of Sylvia Plath in the years before that poet’s suicide,a-fainlight-image ageing, means no more roller-skating./That used to be my favourite/ sport, after school, every day:… When I saw that young girl on her blades,/wind in her hair, sun on her face,… racing/her boyfriend along the pavement:/– then I understood ageing.

Interesting, and amusing, is Roger McGough’s re-working of his famous 1967 poem, Let Me Die A Youngman’s Death, where he spurns the decorous, fading-away-like-the-smoke-of-a-blown-candle sort of death for one that is full of incident, violence, lasciviousness and noise- a-mcgough-imagealthough not before the age of 73 at the earliest! Now, at age 78, he admits, My nights are rarely unruly. My days/of allnight parties are over, well and truly./No mistresses no red sports cars/no shady deals no gangland bars/no drugs no fags no rock’n’roll/Time alone has taken its toll.

I guess, that for Roger and me and so many others in- what do you call them- our golden years, a dose of Lily the Pink’s medicinal compound would be just what the doctor ordered! I’ll finish by reference to a poem by erudite British-baseda-porter-image Australian poet, Peter Porter who died in 2010, aged 81, shortly after submitting, Random Ageist Verses, for inclusion in the Guardian article.

In this short poem of ten quatrains rhyming abab, he ranges wittily across age-related themes, citing Churchill, Auden, Hardy and Hyden, with insights such as, Immersed in time, we question time/And ask for commentators’ rights/The amoeba has a taste for slime/ Among its range of appetites concluding with these lines that surely only the wisdom of age can craft,

The greyness of the sky is streaked/Along its width with shades of red;/The pity of the world has leaked/ But who are these whose hands have bled?

 

Now We’re 64

SQ 111 Sidekick

a-caroon-sidekick

Entry 111: SidekickWhat do Porky Pig, Tonto and Dr Watson have in common? The entry title gives it away, I guess. They’re all the sidekick to the protagonist they support: Daffy Duck, The Lone Ranger and Sherlock Holmes respectively. Defined by Wikipedia as a close companion or colleague (not necessarily in fiction) who is actually, or generally regarded as, subordinate to the one he accompanies, the sidekick has a special place in our hearts.  

 By asking questions of the hero, or giving the hero someone to talk to, the sidekick provides an opportunity for the author to provide exposition, thereby filling the same role as a Greek chorus. Sidekicks frequently serve as an emotional connection, especially when the hero is depicted as detached and distant, traits which might make it difficult to like the hero.

a-cartoon-henchman

 Of course, every hero needs the opposition of a villainous antagonist. The villain often mirrors the hero by also having a secondary accomplice. But these are not dignified by the label, sidekick.

A villain‘s supporters are normally called henchmen, minions, or lackeys, not sidekicks. While this is partially a convention in terminology, it also reflects that few villains are capable of bonds of friendship and loyalty, which are normal in the relationship between a hero and sidekick. This may also be due to the different roles in fiction of the protagonist and the antagonist: whereas a sidekick is a relatively important character due to his or her proximity to the protagonist, and so will likely be a developed character, the role of a henchman is to act as cannon-fodder for the hero and his sidekick. As a result, henchmen tend to be anonymous, disposable characters, existing for the sole purpose of illustrating the protagonists’ prowess as they defeat them.

a-cartoon-ghoul-horde

This truth can be amply demonstrated by viewing Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy and even more so, The Hobbit films: how many orcs, goblins and assorted ghoulish monsters perish under the axes, swords and spells of Tolkien’s heroes. Far too many to adequately sustain suspension of disbelief, in my experience. I remember not playing Cowboys and Indians as a kid in Aruba because no one wanted to be one of the Indians, fated to lose every encounter; so we were each our own hero, pe-yoo, pe-yooing mouth salvos as we invariably avoided the fatal bullet, conceding only wounds to the left shoulder, leaving our deadly right-hand fully functioning into the descending dusk or until some other diversion attracted our attention.

a-canterbury-tale-squire

Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,/Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede;/ Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day,/ He was as fressh as is the monthe of May. This is The Squire, from the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, and he is my ideal for the youthful sidekick. Nameless, he shines from the fourteenth century as a template of the type, Wel koude he sitte on hors, and faire ryde./ He koude songes make, and wel endite,/ Juste, and eek daunce, and weel purtreye and write./ So hoote he lovede, that by nyghtertale/ He slepte namoore than dooth a nyghtyngale./ Not only was he passionate and accomplished in all the knightly arts, but humility and loyalty were also part of his repertoire, Curteis he was, lowely, and servysable,/ And carf biforn his fader at the table.

a-don-q-sidekick

 Now past the mid-point of my sixties, it is futile to aspire to this template and so I must look to a more mature example of the species. Perhaps Sancho Panza, the sidekick of Don Quixote may serve. Panza means paunch in Spanish, so this bit fits. The online Britannica notes that his gross appetite, common sense, and vulgar wit serve as a foil to the mad idealism of his master. This, too, induces sparks of recognition but in the end fails to start a fire.

a-donkey-shrek

Ultimately, perhaps, there is no single template that will do because so many of us are, in fact, only sidekicks within our own narrative. To aspire to be a named sidekick outside of our own story is too lofty an ambition for most: who would be so big-headed as to compare themselves to Sam Gamgee? Robin, The Boy Wonder? Or even, Donkey from Shrek? Some may find an image of themselves in the poem Sidekicks, by American poet, Ronald Koertge,

They were never handsome and often came/with a hormone imbalance manifested by corpulence,/a yodel of a voice or ears big as kidneys.

 Of course, as we all know, the most important attributes are not those of physicality but those of character, as the poem makes clear,

a-hero-image

But each was brave. More than once a sidekick/has thrown himself in front of our hero in order/to receive the bullet or blow meant for that/perfect face and body.

In this song, stanza one looks at the home life of the sidekick and stanza two takes the longer view, while the coda emphasises their essential equality…where not even heroes get to go to heaven.

Sidekick

SQ 112 BMD (Births Marriages Deaths)

Entry 112: BMD (Births Marriages Deaths)– Back in the mid-eighties, I collaborated with ana-cushendall-coastal-path ex-student of mine from Ballymena Academy to compose a jazz suite as part of his honours music course at Queen’s University, Belfast. I came up with the idea of a set of lyrics based on parts of the newspaper: the headline, the horoscope, the page three girlie shot, and so on. We met over the summer months in the pleasant coastal village of Cushendall and hammered out a draft- I handled the lyrics and he composed the music.

a-whitla-hall-imageAll went well until, in the autumn term, I received an urgent telephone call one Friday evening: the suite was not long enough as drafted and the deadline for submission was looming. So that night, I stayed up until about 2:00 a.m. working on the lyrics and music. The next day, I drove to Belfast with my guitar and lyrics and we worked in the Whitla Hall at Queen’s as he sat at the grand piano and composed a jazz score of the song I had written. It sufficed, and we later recorded the suite at BBC Northern Ireland for radio broadcast with the Desmond Harlan Quartet and Candy Devine as singer.a-candy-image

In the thirty years since, I wrote a number of songs that seemed worthwhile keeping and, having well over a hundred examples, thought it time to gather them together. Here is text from the introduction,

I’ll start with a banal assertion: there must be defining moments. The dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, the assassination of JFK, Sept 11, 2001-in our era- are  big moments prompting questions such as where were you? when that happened. But that’s history. In our own lives, Births, Marriages and Deaths used to be those a-bible-imagejpgRed (or Black) Letter days recorded in family Bibles (or analogous familial archives). Now, those time-honoured milestones are increasingly quaint, it seems. Our personal histories are now far more idiosyncratic, tied to the minutiae of a day-to-day existence that is often driven by a fear of missing out.

 So, that is what The Summa Quotidian is: defining moments, captured in song, which forms a quasi-chronicle of my life and musings. I had tried to keep a diary, as so many do. It didn’t go anywhere, though. At one stage I kept a record of the books I had read and my reactions to them. At other times I tried to chronicle in prose my responses to the TV shows, music and films I was avidly consuming. Sometimes I evena-journal found the energy to write for TV, Radio and the Stage. And several of these effusions found an outlet. All worthy, but limited in time to a matter of months as writing projects, and limited, too, in their range.

 Songs, taken as individual works, might seem to be even more limited- and, indeed, they are, until you see them as a larger grouping linked by a unifying (and an ageing, if not evolving) sensibility. Then they form a larger picture. A gestalt of the zeitgeist, perhaps? What I have held on to consistently over the decades, and what I could carry in my head, retrieve, and reconstruct after a time, was the minor art-form of song. From my early teens I inhaled the melodies and the words of popular song. Before I could play an instrument I knew that this was something I could (and would) do as naturally as I breathe: write songs.

a-caraqvel-image And, as I live and breathe, that’s what I’ve done. For better or worse, for most of my life. Here assembled, are ten collections of twelve songs. They are not strictly sequential. I think of a reef, off a stormy shore. Ten caravels, one after the other, are wrecked on the stony spines and the currents and vagaries of wind and weight wash the cargoes ashore to be caressed by the tides into figurations that are found, at a later date, by beachcombers. They may speculate on the provenance of each trove and, who knows, they could be right (or wrong) as they piece together a putative chronology.

 If you entered the world when I did (and this would put your date of birth about the midpoint of the 20th Century), then, a lot of the references and terms will be second- nature to you: especially if, like me, you were a product of the postwar West and you found the reading of books to be a harmless but consuming addiction. So, what’s it all about, really? The answer is- not very much. You live day by day. You take stuff in. You go to the pub or club or bed or wherever… and you talk…to someone…(or no one?) And they say, what do you think about…? and you say whatever occurs to you . Or it’s the other way round. And it’s important. At the time. Sometimes, though, you’re only blowing smoke. Sometimes a song gets written.

 The Summa hangs together by gossamer threads such as these. And the shape it is is what it is. It’sa-gossamer-thread just…stuff! But as the incomparable Bard wrote at the conclusion of his last play, We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.

But not just yet, still a few songs to go.

 

BMD (Births, Marriages, Deaths)