On this day: three voices that speak to our time

On this day: three voices that speak to our time

On this day in 1907 WH Auden was born. His poem ‘September 1, 1939’, written in a bar in New York at the outbreak of war, seems to chime with our own time (even if he later disowned the poem, saying it was ‘infected with an incurable dishonesty’). And on this day in 1933, Nina Simone was born. ‘I wish I knew how
it would feel to be free; I wish I could break all the chains holding me,’ she sang, while in her song ‘Revolution’, after a lifetime of tireless advocacy for the civil rights movement, she saw in the demand for Black Power the challenge to continuing racism, inequality and repression in the United States: ‘The only way that we can stand in fact/Is when you get your foot off our back.’ And now, written this month we have a superb poetic response to the present situation in America from Joanna Clink.

Continue reading “On this day: three voices that speak to our time”

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance (forms of rhetoric he states are are for ‘the small or large leaders who make History’), but rather insists that ‘One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments, the time of Becoming.’ . Continue reading “In the dark times will there also be singing?”

This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

This must be what it was like in the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany created a major refugee crisis to which the response of Britain, the USA and other potential safe haven countries was a collective shoulder shrug of indifference – or outright hostility. This summer we have witnessed an unfolding crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, as desperate people risk their lives fleeing the civil war in Syria and the murderous advance of ISIS. With some noble exceptions, the prevailing response, especially here in the UK, has been once again to demonise fellow human beings. Continue reading “This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees”

Watching migrants drown: ‘there are lines which, if crossed, make us immoral’

Watching migrants drown: ‘there are lines which, if crossed, make us immoral’

Martin Rowson 29.10.14

Martin Rowson in today’s Guardian

A few days ago I posted a piece about the photo of desperate migrants perched on top of the border fence that surrounds the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the north African coast.  Now we learn that the British government has supported, and the EU justice and home affairs council has adopted a policy of leaving migrants to drown.

For the past year the Italian navy, with EU financial and logistical support, has operated a search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum for migrants in danger of drowning in the Mediterranean which has saved the lives of an estimated 150,000 refugees. It is to be replaced with a much more limited EU ‘border protection’ operation codenamed Triton which will not conduct search-and-rescue missions. The justification given by both the UK government and the EU for this inhumane decision is that Mare Nostrum exercised a ‘pulling factor’, encouraging economic migrants to set sail for Europe.

Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, said today that history would judge the decision as unforgivable:

This is a very dark day for the moral standing of the UK. When the hour came, the UK turned its back on despairing people and left them to drown. The vague prospect of rescue has never been the incentive. War, poverty and persecution are what make desperate people take terrible risks.

Migrants are impelled by a potent combination of desperation and aspiration, global inequalities in work and freedom, and the insecurity created by war and persecution across north Africa and the Middle East. The poor and oppressed will always move in search of work and freedom in a world so unequal.

Refugee boat on the coast of Lampedusa

Refugee boat off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa

This morning’s Guardian editorial pulls no punches:

The British government’s refusal to support search and rescue missions to save refugees in the Mediterranean is an outrageous and immoral act. It suggests a government so alarmed by Ukip that it has lost all sense of proportion. The Italian-funded Mare Nostrum exercise, mobilised after 300 refugees drowned off Lampedusa a year ago, has saved thousands of lives.  […] What a grotesque betrayal of the founding principles of the EU, an organisation built on the promise of peace, prosperity and asylum for the desperate. What an indictment of timid politicians.

On the letters page, the artist Anish Kapoor asks, ‘Have we lost our sense of common humanity? Are we to isolate ourselves to such an extent that we are unable or unwilling to reach out to our fellow human beings? These people find themselves in such dire difficulties that they see no choice but to take to the high seas and risk their lives in vessels that are woefully inadequate. Let us not forget that our government acts in our name and that each of us is implicated in this act of barbaric selfishness.’

Yesterday Nicholas Winton, the British man who saved 669 Jewish children from the Nazi concentration camps by arranging trains to take the children out of occupied Czechoslovakia to be fostered in Britain, was awarded the Czech Republic’s highest state honour. How does the morality of the decision to end support for Mare Nostrum differ from that of European countries that turned their backs on the Jews in 1939?  That was the year when WH Auden wrote ‘Refugee Blues’, from which I’ve taken these extracts:

Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.


The counsul banged the table and said,
‘If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead’:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.


Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

As Alex Andreou observes in ‘Random acts of kindness can make the world a better place‘ this is all about ‘lack of kindness and meanness of spirit’. He continues:

There are lines which, if crossed, make us immoral as a country. This is one of them, especially considering our involvement in the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa which fuel the surge in refugees. It leaves our allies with a choice to either make up the shortfall or let people drown in their waters. People – men, women and children – not migrants or refugees; not numbers. Families like mine and yours, fleeing in precisely the same way we would if we lived in a war zone.

We bewail the loss of our values, whether we call them civilised, British, western or Christian. We turn to a minority of migrants and blame them for ostensibly diluting them. But it is simply not true. The reason we are losing our values is that we are failing to nourish them, cherish them and hold on to them. It is a collective meanness of spirit.

The reason we are becoming less and less like the Britain we recognise is not the presence of Polish plumbers; it is the putting up of spikes to shoo away the homeless instead of offering them a cup of tea. The reason this is no longer a civilised country is not the presence of a smattering of mosques; it is the decision to let people drown in the sea to save a measly amount which will not make even the smallest dent in our budget. The reason we are turning uncivilised, un-British, unchristian, un-western – however you define it – is the lack of tangible kindness. We are simply turning into the worst version of ourselves.

Rocella near Riace abandoned sailing ship Kurds ashore 1999

Rocella near Riace abandoned sailing ship Kurds ashore 1999

In December last year I wrote about Riace, a poor village in Calabria that has welcomed migrants with open arms.  For more than a decade, since two hundred Kurds scrambled ashore from their sinking boat on the nearby coas,t the villagers have opened their doors to migrants in a dramatic reversal of usual attitudes towards immigrants.  The left-wing mayor encouraged the Kurds to settle in his village replacing the people who had left and reversing his village’s decline.  Since then, more ‘people who come from the sea’, as locals put it, have been encouraged to settle in the village.

Yesterday on the Today programme an Eritrean migrant,Daniel Habtey, who is now a British citizen, described his ‘horrendous’ journey to Italy on a tiny boat.  He fled Eritrea with his wife and family ten years ago because the regime persecuted Christians and now lives and works as a Pastor in Huddersfield.

The dead from the Lampedusa tragedy

The dead from the Lampedusa tragedy

It’s barely a year since more than 300 African migrants drowned when their boat caught fire and sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa.  Delalorm Sesi Semabia responded to the disaster by writing this poem:

We have laughed before
On the morning when we were born.
I was not there but they told me I laughed.
With careless glee, taking all the world in my gums.
And these ones
I heard them laugh
That early morning when the midwife brought them here
Telling tales of shot mamas and arrested papas
Certainly never to return.
I did not see them but I heard them laugh
Laugh at the world, laugh at all our world
Which would not laugh back.

Why do you ask us to laugh now
Here, at the brink of this water
Coming and going, calling us?
Why do you ask us to laugh
With a burnt village behind us
And drowned brothers before us,
On our way to Lampedusa?
What is humorous about paddling over the place
Where your brother’s carcass lies
Grinning up above at you
On your way to freedom,
And Lampedusa, death.
Wherein is the humour of overtaking your brother?

We sail away, our heads full of dreams
Dreams that come to us only by daylight
For where we stand,
We cannot sleep at night
And try as we do,
We have forgotten how to laugh.

The Habit of Art

A disappointing evening at the Lowry, seeing Alan Bennett’s play, The Habit of Art, a theatrically complex piece, structured around an imagined late meeting between Benjamin Britten and WH Auden. Although there were flashes of laugh-out-loud humour, overall we found the play sprawling and rather tedious, with a particularly clunky last scene.

On stage we see a set within a set for a play within a play: in a rehearsal room, watched over by a playwright, observed and explained by a biographer of both Britten and Auden, we see the actors performing the inner play (called Caliban’s Day) on a set whose centrepiece is Auden’s study in the Brewhouse, a cottage in the grounds of Christ Church, Oxford in the early 1970s.

This is a National Theatre touring production, directed by Nicholas Hytner (as was the much better play, The History Boys).  Benjamin Britten, played by Malcolm Sinclair, is struggling with his new opera, Death in Venice, that he fears might be sailing too close to the wind for his Aldeburgh audience with its theme of older man attracted to young boy (14 years old in Mann).  Britten seeks advice from his former collaborator and friend, Auden (Desmond Barrit). During this imagined meeting, their first for twenty-five years, they are observed from the wings, and interrupted by, amongst others, their future biographer (Humphrey Carpenter), the playwright and a rent boy hired by Auden.

The play promises to deal with many questions – being an artist, growing old, the ethics of biography, coming to terms with your homosexuality in a judgemental society, and the overlooked ‘Caliban’ ignored in accounts of great artists’ lives. But it doesn’t really work – the ‘Caliban’ idea seems particularly tacked on and undeveloped, while scenes in which Auden’s furniture – and even the lines on his fissured face – talk are, frankly, risible, even within the framing device.

It’s almost as if, having decided that his play has too many problems to solve, Bennett erected protective scaffolding around it by showing his initial playscript being rehearsed and commented upon.  Thus, any problems that the play has become opportunities for comedy; clunky lines, clumsy scenes or devices that don’t come off, can be passed off as ridiculous. Bennett seems to have admitted as much in an article in the London Review of Books.

The second act has the best scene, in which Britten and Auden discuss their varying approaches to their creative work. But even here, the issue ultimately turns upon the less universal and more inward-looking question of how they each deal with being gay, both in creating their art and in their personal lives.  The play closes with a deeply unsatisfying and clumsy final scene which suddenly brings the previously undeveloped character of Stuart the rent-boy, the ‘Caliban’ figure, centre stage in what Bennett has called a plea for recognition and acknowledgement of the outsider, the uninvited guest.

The Unknown Citizen: poetry and sculpture

I’m grateful to a friend for reminding me in an email this morning of a Brecht poem I haven’t read for ages:

A Worker Reads History by Bertold Brecht

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.

Looking for the text of the Brecht poem, I chanced on this by Sahir Ludhianvi (1921 – 1980) a popular Indian poet and lyricist for Bollywood movies. It develops the same theme of timeless works of art crafted by nameless men and women hidden from history:

The Taj Mahal  by Sahir Ludhianvi

For you, the Taj may be a monument to love;
you may adore this lovely spot
but, darling,
let’s meet somewhere else!
In such royal places,
we – the poor?
Regal opulence seen every which way,
two poor lovers – here?
Really out-of-place!
Sweetheart, under this so-called symbol of love,
if only you’d seen the vulgar splurge of opulence.
Charmed you may be by royal mausoleums,
if only you’d thought
of our own dismal homes!
Countless millions are in love;
who can say their emotions aren’t real
just because they, like us, have no means
to put up an advertisement?
These mausoleums, these arrogant forts,
these pillars of royal eminence, these lush gardens:
In these very flowers and vines
runs the blood of our own ancestors, my love.
Don’t you think they must also have been in love,
the people whose art and skill
made this monument so beautiful?
They and their loved ones now lie nameless,
in unmarked graves,without a single candle
yet lit for them.
These gardens, by the Jamuna,
this palace, the embroidered doors, walls and niches–
that’s just how an emperor,
using his wealth and power,
mocks the love between us destitutes.
Could we meet somewhere else, darling ?

Translated by Riz Rahim

Reading these lines reawakened a memory of Shelley’s Ozymandias, his meditation on hubris and the transience of power and glory, which also has an anonymous sculptor carving the face of  the mighty ruler. Ozymandias was another name for Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. Shelley paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue: King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works. This statue of Ramesses in the British Museum may have inspired Shelley.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And then I stumbled on this poem by Ionna Warwick that continues the theme into modern times. Warwick was born in Poland and has lived in the United States since she was 17: “There’s no escaping the fact that I had history for breakfast. It was dramatic enough to be growing up under a Communist dictatorship; on top of it, I heard many stories of World War II. There was no getting away from history. I got to see the ruins of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw – and I don’t mean in a photograph or a movie. I never sought out history; it was the stuff of nightmares I continued to have long into adulthood”.

These images are of the destruction of the Stalin Monument in Budapest, erected in 1951 and destroyed during the Hungarian Uprising in October 1956, when the statue was demolished, leaving only the boots.

Stalin’s Moustache by Ionna Warwick

In Warsaw near the Tomb
of the Unknown Soldier,
in a treeless square,
there used to scowl a bronze
statue of Felix Dzierzhinski,
founder of the Cheka,
the Bolshevik Secret Police.
His nickname was
“Bloody Felix.”

Before the solemn unveiling,
someone had managed to paint
the statue’s hands blood-red.
When the string was pulled,
the dignitaries gasped:
the blood of his victims seemed to drip
from Bloody Felix’s hands.

The speaker on the podium
began to stutter.
The military band
struck up, then stopped;
feebly began again.
To patriotic chords,
the string was pulled back.

Fifty years later, ten thousand
people jammed into the square
to watch the demolition
of the statue of a mass murderer.


My cousin Ewa told the tale
of yet another fallen icon:
a giant statue of Stalin,
the tallest in the world.

Taller than the Statue of Liberty,
the dictator darkened the sky
at the joining of two great rivers:
the Volga and the Don of Cossack fame –
his “sneer of cold command”
staring down the starving Ukraine.
The empty
multi-story pedestal still stands.

Stalin was toppled into the water –
shallow enough, they say,
that from the cruise boats one can see
his colossal face.
Ewa was on one of those boats.
At the sight of the pedestal,
all rushed to the deck.
Ewa said, “From where I stood,
I only caught a glimpse
of Stalin’s moustache.”

She giggled. She must have told
this story countless times.
We sat around the table smiling,
sipping home-made hawthorn wine.


So many heavy statues.

Huge posters like holy icons
carried in May Day parades.
In store windows instead of goods,
portraits of Marx and Engels
draped in red flags.

Stalin’s moustache.

It stained the walls,
it used to grow in the streets.

Stalin’s Boots in Statue Park (Szoborpark), Budapest. This is not an accurate copy of the original but an artistic recreation by sculptor Ákos Eleőd.

The image of Stalin’s moustache reminded me of Osip Mandelstam’s ‘huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip’, from this poem that has become known as The Stalin Epigram, written in November 1933, which led to his arrest by the NKVD :

We Live Without Feeling by Osip Mandelstam

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

Translated by W. S. Merwin

And finally, returning to the theme of the anonymous citizen and the modern state, here’s Auden in 1939:

The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378: This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.