SQ 100 Dumb

Entry 100: DumbHow dumb can you get?! Question mark; exclamation point. Hands up alla-dumb-image those who have never had this accusation, or some synonymous hoot, levelled at them. Oh…Kay… can you just shift over to the liars’ corner- now, please?

1959, Aruba, Netherlands Antilles. It was not long after my tenth birthday and I had just returned from my best friend, Rusty’s, “Christmas party” (air-quotes, here).  His Dad was a raging atheist and had flushed his Mom’s Bible, page by page, down the toilet, not so long before, Rusty confided. So she had to have a party that had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, but she still wanted to have some sort of commemoration, being a woman of faith, a-christmaspresents-f-550-jpghowever brow-beaten, and possibly beaten in other ways, too. So she devised a gift-sharing party for her son in mid-December which coincided with his birthday.

We all brought gifts, bought and wrapped by our mothers, of course, and we placed then in a large wicker basket in the centre of the lounge room. We had cake and snacks and we played silly games, as kids do on such occasions. Then came the gift exchange. There was a musical chairs sort of game where, when the music stopped, the standing child was able to choose a gift from the basket. The music was traditional Christmas carols.

The only rule was: you couldn’t choose your own gift. Sorry, there was another rule- youa-flask could exchange gifts with another child if you hated your gift and the swap was agreeable. My gift was a quality thermos flask. I hated it on sight. An older child, whose name I will supress to protect the guilty, suggested a swap with his gift- a plastic ray-gun that made a snazzy sound and had sparks. Of course, I made the swap!

When I reported the exchange to my father, he responded in words similar to those at the top of this journal entry. My Dad was tough, a-gunand he had respect among the hard men, Rusty’s Dad included, on that enchanted desert island. But I loved that space-gun for the two days that it worked. And, do you know, even at this remove in time of over half a century, I do not regret the choice I made on that hot, tropical afternoon. Two days of pretend wars in space! How could a thermos flask compare?

But, through the years, I still remember Rusty’s, mother, and I wonder how things turneda-toughen-up-image out for her, that subversive believer who delivered to me a ray-gun that sparked my imagination for two whole days. As you can imagine, I remained mute in the face of my father’s scorn at my ill-advised deal with the older boy. Of course, he was only trying to toughen me up for the real world, of which he knew a great deal. I’ll dedicate the remainder of the content of this entry to the courage of the woman who defied her husband to bring to kids like me the joys of sharing gifts.

I’ll start OT. There is some ambiguity as to whether the prophet, Ezekiel, was struck dumb or if he just held his tongue for several years by the a-ezekiel-imagerivers of Babylon. Whatever the case, no one suggested that he was stupid. There can be no doubt, though, if you choose to accept the testimony of Luke 1: 18-22, that Zacharias, priestly husband of Elizabeth and father of John the Baptist, choosing to disbelieve the tidings of the archangel Gabriel, was, in fact, struck dumb from the moment of doubt through the duration of his wife’s pregnancy and was not released from his mute state until he had written on a wax tablet, at the ceremony of circumcision of his son, that his name was to be John, as mandated by the archangel and not Zacharias, as custom dictated.a-zacharias-image

Now, although it is never advisable to bandy words with an archangel, no one suggested a lack of intelligence on the part of Zacharias. So where do you stand? Does dumb mean mute or stupid? Acres of pedantic tedium could scarcely contain the volume of material generated by this dispute. Just accept both as being OK. Dictionaries will give first position to the former while common usage will favour the latter. Me? Oh, I’ll go to the poets, every time. Report for duty now please, Robert Graves,

a-graves-imageChildren are dumb to say how hot the day is,/How hot the scent is of the summer rose,/How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,/How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by. Robert Graves knew about childhood and he tells us of the cool web of language and how we are trapped in its sticky essence as we grow older:

…we have speech, to chill the angry day,/And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent./We spell away the overhanging night,/We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

Yes we do, and I thank the poet for reminding me that the awkward butterfly has, a justa-butterfly sense of how not to fly:/He lurches here and here by guess/And God and hope and hopelessness./Even the aerobatic swift/Has not his flying-crooked gift. Another of God’s dumb creatures.



SQ 101 Mr Brown

a-roseEntry 101: Mr BrownWhat’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ by any other name would smell as sweet, Romeo famously declaimed. What’s in a name, Romeo? Quite a lot, actually. He was not the sharpest tool in the shed even if he was, arguably, Verona’s most eligible bachelor. Suppose, taking a leaf out of Romeo’s book, you decided that a rose was to be called a stench. A dozen stenches just for you, darling! Does not sound as sweet, and I dare say, the connotative transfer would attenuate somewhat the perfume perceived by the recipient of your well-meaning romantic gesture.

a-iagoConsider the flipside of this, where honourable words cloak dishonourable intentions as in Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Othello, where Iago draws the naïve hero down into his devilish trap by pretending to withhold, for noble motive, the name of the person rumoured as having seduced Othello’s wife, saying, Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,/Is the immediate jewel of their souls./Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; /’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;/But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him,/And makes me poor indeed.

In The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witchcraft trials of 1690 as aa-proctor-image commentary on the poison of McCarthyism in 1950s America, John Proctor, the play’s flawed protagonist cries, Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them you have hanged! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

The magistrates, who had hanged a dozen innocent people on the word of hysterical girls, were desperate to get his confession because of his stature in the community and, thinking that they had succeeded, a-crucible-imagebring him the paper to sign so that they might display it for all to see on the church door. But Proctor, ultimately, refuses to blacken the names of the others by denouncing them as witches and, with them, is led to his death.

Naming rituals have been important in all cultures and at all times. Christians confer names at baptism, and some at Confirmation. Hindus, Jews and Muslims all name their children within days or weeks of birth. Many non-believers, too, have secular naming ceremonies. If you’re into secret names, you may wish to join a Wiccan coven where you will receive your Craft-name to be used only among others of your faith during ceremonies performed away from public gaze.

Other secret names are to be found in a variety of sub-cultures; and let us not forget loversa-hidden-name who would be discomfited if their pet-names of, say, Snugglie-poos and Cuddle-cakes were widely known. Not only people, but place-names are causes of dissension: in the province of my birth- Ulster- it is still possible to witness apoplectic arguments over the proper name of the city on the River Foyle- is it Derry or Londonderry? Or Stroke City as local radio presenter, Gerry Anderson dubbed it, as wry acknowledgement of the clunky but widespread usage Derry/Londonderry as a compromise solution to the conundrum.

a-colonial-imagePost-colonial renaming of African and Asian countries and cities has proceeded apace since the mid-twentieth century: are you enjoying a cup of Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka, perhaps as an accompaniment to your tasty Peking duck, a delicacy prepared in Beijing since the imperial era- or do you like something stronger -Bombay Gin, mmm? Even at a parochial level, tempests rage in innumerable tea-cups over the naming or proposed renaming of streets and parks.

And the imbroglio extends to the metaphysical: naming the Deity has been a no-no fora-tetragrammaton pious Jews from Biblical times who refuse to pronounce the ineffable name of God or G-d, as they prefer to put it. It is rendered as the four consonants YHWH or YHVH (known as the tetragrammaton) which transliterates to Yahweh or Jehovah.

It is also unwise to bandy about the name of the Adversary or Devil: the harmless-seeming idiom, speak of the devil! when someone you a-devils-namehave just been talking about puts in an unexpected appearance derives from an earlier saying, speak of the devil and he doth appear.

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night./A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,/And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,/I started with A, So begins The Names, a poem by Billy Collins and he proceeds through the alphabet: it wasn’t until he reached X that I twigged that this was a special poem: (Let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound). The last line, so many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart, underscores the sorrow: a naming of some of those lost on 9/11.a-names-image

So, what’s in a name, Romeo? Quite a lot, actually.


Mr Brown

SQ 102 Roscoe

Entry 102: Roscoe– What would you do with the ring of Gyges? The story goes that Gyges wasa-gyges-ring in service to King Caduales of Lydia as a shepherd when he discovered a ring in a cave after an earthquake uncovered its entrance. The ring conferred invisibility on the wearer so he made his way to the palace where, with the aid of the magical ring, he seduced the queen and murdered the king thereby securing both throne and queen.

Wikipedia takes up the story, In Plato’s The Republic, the tale of the ring of Gyges is described by the character of Glaucon who is the a-glaucon-imagebrother of Plato. Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice. Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate…. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot.

 The ring of Gyges is the basis for The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Rings of power are alsoa-ring the subject of Wagner’s Ring cycle and Tolkein’s, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Of course, the rings symbolise absolute power, and, as Lord Acton so famously observed, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. With the corruption attendant on power comes injustice. Injustice is much easier to apprehend than justice, just as evil is more tangible to us than goodness; although, paradoxically perhaps, the most satisfactory outcomes in fact and fiction are when good triumphs over evil.

a-plato-imageAnd, to return to Plato’s Republic, where Glaucon gave the cynical and widespread view that the tendency to evil when one can act without impunity is universal- what did Socrates have to say on the matter? He argued that one who used the ring unjustly was slave to his appetites whereas the just man who refused to use the ring was rationally in control of himself and therefore, happy. But away from the rarefied atmosphere of philosophical speculation, I’m pretty sure the framers of the constitution of the US got it right with the separation of powers. The checks and balances of democratic systems of governance are much preferable to any of the alternatives, however efficient they may, supposedly, be.

I read David Yallop’s, The Day the Laughter Stopped back in 1978 and   I was incensed enougha-roscoe-image by the fate of the silent-film era comedian, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, to write an atypically lengthy song. Atypical, also, in that its content was based on a close reading of another text. Usually my inspiration comes from something fleeting or ephemeral: was it George Eliot who could concoct a complicated narrative from just a glimpse through a doorway of a mundane domestic scene?  At any rate, not only did I write a six-minute plus song but I gave headings to each of the verses utilising Roman numerals: I THE SETTING, II THE PARTY, III THE TELEGRAM, IV DEATH AND THE DOCTORS, V THE POWER GRAB, VI THE TRIALS, VII THE ACQUITTAL AND REACTION OF THE JACKALS, VIII ROSCOE’S FIGHTBACK AND IRONIES OF THE END.

a-starfish-imageWhat really got to me about the Arbuckle story, was that such an egregious instance of injustice took place in the land of the free where the rule of law and separation of powers were supposed to guarantee the liberty of the citizen. Yes, I was rather naïve and idealistic way back then. Now I just weep as I view, and read about, the manifold injustices of the world even as I am being assured that things are getting better all the time. Oh, go on! Tell me the parable of the starfish- you know, where a man asks a child, who is on a beach throwing back into the sea one starfish even though the beach is covered with thousands, what difference will it make? The child answers that it will make a difference to this one.

But what if the child is throwing a crown-of-thorns starfish back onto the Great Barrier Reef? Still, the urge to do something active seems a better response than that of passivity. And, again, I look to the poets to bring into clear focus the issue about which so much has been written, discussed and fought over.

Langston Hughes speaks for all of the oppressed when he says, That Justice is a blinda-blind-justice goddess/Is a thing to which we black are wise:/Her bandage hides two festering sores/That once perhaps were eyes. Israeli poet Yehudi Amichai observes, Out of three or four in the room/One is always standing at the window/ Forced to see the injustice amongst the thorns,/The fires on the hills.

Thank God for the minority who stand at the window and make an effort to correct injustices: who see, and act.



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.



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.



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.



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