On Wednesday I check into the hospital and the operation is the following day. I’m not sure how long I’ll be in – probably two or three days – but for the duration normal blogging will be on hold. (Certainly during the op, anyway..!) I can post to the Pages from my iPhone so there may be brief reports from the front, but anything of substance will have to await my enforced leisure in the days and weeks following my return home.
Meanwhile, just to keep the channels open, I shall re-post a few items from the archive. The poem below was first published in qarrtsiluni in August 2006. It emerged almost complete from a 20-minute exercise at the poetry workshop I used to attend. I think this version was a second draft and I haven’t made any changes for this posting so I guess it’s as close to arrival as a poem ever gets.
Straight talking, that was what was needed, so you said. And
you smiled a thin and final line, and you turned, as they say,
on your heel, on a sixpence, and you strode, straight-limbed, along
the coastal path, direct, unswerving, to the jetty, walked its slick rectangle
to where the ferry tugged its moorings. Just in time: the straining lines
released, the cables stowed, the ferry drove a silver track, straight as
a rail, towards a flat horizon. And, as I watched unmoving, you
slipped at last around the slow unyielding curve of the world.
These are second drafts of translations of a pair of poems by Rene Guy Cadou.
René-Guy Cadou was born in Brittany in 1920. During his short poetic life – he died in 1951 - he dedicated himself to what he saw as the simple values of rural culture, childhood and the land.
30th MAY 1932
There remain only you and I in the attic, My father. The walls have given way. Flesh has given way. The rubble of the blue sky tumbles all around. I see your face more clearly. You’re weeping. Tonight we share the same age Before these her remembered hands
10 o’ clock. The wall clock strikes And blood recoils. No-one remains. House closed. Far away the wind pushes at a morning star.
No-one remains. But you are there, My father, And like bindweed, My arms entwined in your arms, You wipe away my tears, hot across your fingers
the bridge the angular rain obscured the landscape over the bridge arched like a lover the wind hustled the bustling umbrellas that sprinkled colours over the grey river stubborn rain separating the two inert sodden banks seeking out a light already quenched
'...a time to weep and a time to laugh...’ (Ecclesiastes 3:4)
It was hearing again for the first time in 40 years the title track of the fantasy album tracklisted below - How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away? sung by the godlike Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks – that had me resuscitating this old 2004 post from my Salon blog.
HOW CAN I MISS YOU IF YOU WON'T GO AWAY?
I’ve always had a place in my heart for country music. And I’m talking about way back here. I’m not some johnny-come-lately who clambered up onto the buckboard in the late ‘60s alongside The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and, of course, Bob Dylan when suddenly yesterday’s hillbilly-huckleberry sounds became today’s cutting edge rock and roll. I still have to stifle a sob when I hear Hank Locklin begging, Please Help Me, I’m Falling or I come across Skeeter Davis calmly staring into the abyss at The End of the World. And I loved those mariachi trumpets on Ring Of Fire years before Johnny Cash became the hipster’s hayseed.
So this list of authentic country and western song titles did for me completely. What price Rodgers and Hart, Leiber and Stoller, Pomus and Schuman when somebody out there is coming up with song titles like these? I hardly dare speculate about the lyrics…
# How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away? # Get Your Tongue Outta My Mouth 'Cause I'm Kissing You Goodbye # Here's a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares # I Just Bought A Car From A Guy That Stole My Girl, But The Car Don't Run So I Figure We Got An Even Deal # If I Had Shot You When I Wanted To, I'd Be Out By Now. # If the Phone Don't Ring, You'll Know It's Me. # I Changed Her Oil, She Changed My Life # Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed # My John Deere Was Breaking Your Field, While Your Dear John Was Breaking My Heart # Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through The Goalposts Of Life # I Don't Know Whether To Kill Myself Or Go Bowling # She Got The Gold Mine And I Got The Shaft # She Got The Ring And I Got The Finger # They May Put Me In Prison, But They Can't Stop My Face From Breakin' Out # You Can't Have Your Kate And Edith Too # You Done Tore Out My Heart And Stomped That Sucker Flat # If I Can’t Be Number One In Your Life, Then Number Two On You # If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?
Strange days. Because I feel no discomfort, life goes on much as ever. I chop wood; I take the stairs two at a time; I carry heavy shopping bags down the precipitate steps from the drive to the house; I dig holes in the earth and plant things in them. And the day of the operation approaches.
Neither the notion of surgery nor the likelihood of some pain and discomfort afterwards bothers me greatly. And the various indignities that are part of the aftermath of a prostatectomy will be tackled as time passes. But each morning when I wake, disorientated by dreams, I have to recalibrate my bearings, recognising anew for a while that my place on the map has shifted. There is the territory that is occupied by those who don’t have cancer, but fear its proximity, its immanence. There is the territory occupied by those who have cancer and must acknowledge its arrival and so identify and affirm their relationship with it. I have crossed from the one to the other.
I hear of a colleague. Not a man I knew well, but a vital, energetic, charismatic teacher whose inspiration and endeavour illuminated the two schools in which I taught for the longest time. I’m told first that he’s in a hospice dying from lung cancer, this having been discovered after the successful removal of a tumour from his neck. Once, only weeks ago, I would have contemplated his situation from the precarious safety of the first territory and the news would have chilled me. How does an individual whose forward velocity is so brutally terminated come to terms with mortality? Now I live in his territory and yet – whilst I’m no clearer as to an understanding of what accommodation one could ever make in those circumstances – I am calm in my contemplation of it all. Then I hear that he has died and I feel a deep sadness for the waste and for those left behind. But I am calm.
This territory is not as I imagined it would be. It has its bleak aspects: I worry that removal of the prostate may leave traces behind that will have to be irradiated, so prolonging my association with cancer; I worry that the momentum that has carried me pretty much undiminished from my 40s into my 60s won’t be regained in convalescence. But, paradoxically, the atavistic fear of the spectre of cancer that hovered in the tail of vision for so long has diminished. To meet what you dread most is to recognise the limitless power of the imagination. Its capacity for extrapolation from a basis of fact towards a gothic vision of personal apocalypse is overwhelming and - grim truth – it can only be unravelled by a direct encounter with the actuality of the object of dread.
I would rather have the dread still than the present actuality in my life. But because there is no plan, no preordination, no individual existential contract drawn up for each of us by some divine insurance claims adjuster, I accept the random allocation. Why not me? That’s the way it goes. My one-time colleague drew short odds; mine are long. If there remain in place in me any shreds of the cultural conditioning that once passed for belief in divine providence, they are evident in a feeling of gratitude that my probable deliverance is at hand.
I wrote on April 1st about A. and his impending hernia operation. I visited him yesterday in the King Edward VII hospital near Harley Street in central London. The operation is to take place at 5.00 this afternoon and I wanted to spend a little time with him because there’s some likelihood that, because of age (he’s 88) and a heart condition, he won’t make it through the general anaesthetic. We spoke of the past, the General Election, volcanic dust, my upcoming surgery, the dire state of television entertainment outside the benign demesne of the BBC, and practicalities arising from the possibility of his death the following day. Then we parted as we have parted so many times before – not with an embrace (Alan is an Englishman very much of his generation), but with the firm handshake of two friends who are to meet again soon.
All these thoughts of mortality. Outside, hazy sunshine; the daffodils are passing, the tulips are nearly all in full bloom.
10.55 PM. A. is through the operation and back in his room, woozy but conscious. Too soon to assume safety, but the first and biggest hazard has been beaten.
Sorry - run for cover all those allergic to the political post. This is the second and last of the pre-election rants.
LA LOTTA CONTINUA...
If I have ever adhered to any kind of faith it’s been to a belief based on hope against rational expectation that the capacity for redemption and salvation is a product of human desire and will alone. And once that faith fuelled a conviction that the only political system within which we might grow towards our hitherto almost entirely unrealised potential was anarchism. Now the black-and-red flag is a poor, tattered thing and I oscillate between reluctant cynicism and sudden bursts of unwarranted optimism brought on when some event, local or beyond, seems to confirm the human spirit as more generous, self-sacrificial and loving than it is venal, selfish and full of hate.
There are very few certainties in my scheme of things. (In fact, to my perception there is very little scheme of things at all!) But one judgement that time has substantiated for me again and again is that wherever power is concentrated beyond the moderation of those over whom it is wielded there will be corruption and abuse. This is no dynamic insight; it is not the painfully wrought product of some intense internal Socratic debate. It’s a simple and constantly reiterated axiom acknowledged by all. But because I live in the ‘real world’ of legitimised greed, of souls mortgaged to consumerism, of programmed stimuli and conditioned responses, of institutionalised injustice, I no longer believe in some great political epiphany that will have us shrugging off our willing chains in favour of the anarchist dream. Like you, I compromise; as with you, my actions deny my principles daily; as with you, instinct and emotion govern reason and, all too frequently, moral lethargy dictates my actions and reactions.
But the radical voice is never silent – quiet to the point of near inaudibility at times, but never entirely silent. And it utters those immortal words whose synthesis of sly wit and raw truth has anarchism putting the Zen into politics: Be realistic and demand the impossible. Just about every social, political, cultural, spiritual, philosophical, biological, physical, chemical, medical, technological advance was impossible until necessity brought it into being. If there is any ‘WHY’ driving the great existential engine of ‘WHAT’ and ‘HOW’ then it’s all about a.) making the inconceivable conceivable, and b.) turning the mastered concept into action.
So deep down my faith in the very best we can be and the very best we can do never quite founders. Every time I am made aware of some infinitesimal act of self-sacrifice – the motorist in packed traffic who waves me into the space in front – or some mighty act of self-immolation – the firefighter who turns at the bottom of the stairs and climbs back into the burning tower against the deluge of fleeing humanity – I know that we have it within us to step beyond the self-crippling power systems whereby we surrender up personal responsibility to the exploiters. Reflect in this moment on how far we have stepped from slavery and serfdom to this place here and now. Why, at this point in the development of humankind, do we have to stand still?
In packing for the house move a month or two back, I came across a little notebook that I’d begun to compile back in the mid-‘70s. It contained gleanings from a wide variety of sources and times, all of them concerned with political dissent, opposition, notions of freedom and self-government. What struck me forcibly as I skimmed through them again was how little both repression and aspiration have changed. Here are some.
To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded; all by creatures that have neither the right, nor wisdom, nor virtue… Government means to be subjected to tribute, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolised, extorted, pressured, mystified, robbed; all in the name of public utility and the general good. Then, at the first sign of resistance or word of complaint, one is repressed, tined, despised, vexed, pursued, hustled, beaten up, garrotted, imprisoned, shot…sold, betrayed, and, to cap it all, ridiculed, mocked, outraged and dishonoured. That is government, that is its justice and its morality. PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON (father of modern anarchism - 1840)
My good people, things cannot go well in England, nor ever shall, till everything be made common, and there are neither villains nor gentlemen, but we shall all be united together, and the lords shall be no greater masters than ourselves. JOHN BALL, (renegade priest and ideologist of the Peasants’ Revolt, 1381)
Commons to close and keep, Poor folk for bread to cry and weep, Towns pulled down to pasture sheep; This is the new guise.
Envy waxeth wondrous strong, The Rich doeth the poor wrong, God of his mercy suffereth long The devil his work to do.
The towns go down, the land decays, Of corn fields, plain lays, Great men maketh nowadays A sheepcote in the church. ANONYMOUS POEM (early 16th century)
LEAR: Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall yourn houseless heads, and unfed sides, Your loop’d and window’d raggedness defend you From such seasons as these? O I have ta’en Too little care of this: take physic, Pomp, Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the Heavens more just. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (‘King Lear’, c. 1603/1606)
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves. WILLIAM PITT THE YOUNGER (1759 – 1806)
Listen, O Daughters, to my voice. Listen to the Words of Wisdom. So shall you govern over all; let Moral Duty tune your tongue. But be your hearts harder than the nether millstone… Compel the poor to live upon a Crust of bread, by soft mild arts. Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale With Labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy; And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough Born, even too many, and our Earth will be overrun Without these arts. If you would make the poor live with temper, With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp. Say he smiles if you hear him sigh. If pale, say he is ruddy. Preach temperance: say he is overgorg’d and drowns his wit In strong drink, tho’ you know that bread and water are all He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art. WILLIAM BLAKE (from ‘Vala or the Four Zoas’ – 1797).
Yes! To this thought I hold with firm persistence; the last result of wisdom stamps it true: he only earns his freedom and existence who daily conquers them anew. JOHANN WOLGANG VON GOETHE (from ‘Faust’ – 1828/9)
All things are sold: the very light of heaven Is venal; earth’s unsparing gifts of love, The smallest and most despicable things That lurk in the abysses of the deep, All objects of our life, even the life itself, And the poor pittance which the law allows Of liberty, the fellowship of man, Those duties which his heart of human love Should urge him to perform instinctively, Are bought and sold as in a public mart Of undisguising selfishness, that sets On each its price, the stamp-mark of her reign. Even love is sold… PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (from ‘Queen Mab’ – 1813)
Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it. THOMAS PAINE (1791)
THE TOLDPUDDLE MARTYRS
God is our guide! from field, from wave, From plough, from anvil, and from loom; We come, our country’s rights to save, And speak a tyrant faction’s doom: We raise the watch-word liberty; We will, we will, we will be free!
God is our guide! no swords we draw, We kindle not war’s battle fires; By reason, union, justice, law, We claim the birth-right of our sires: We raise the watch-word liberty; We will, we will, we will be free!!! GEORGE LOVELESS (one of the group of Dorchester labourers, The Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were sentenced to seven years transportation for joining a union – 1834).
Freedom has a thousand charms to show That slaves, howe’er contented, cannot know. WILLIAM COWPER (from ‘Table Talk’ – 1856)
MOURN NOT THE DEAD
Mourn not the dead that in the cool earth lie – Dust unto dust – The calm, sweet earth that mothers all who die As all men must;
Mourn not your captive comrades who must dwell – Too strong to strive – Within each steel-bond coffin of a cell, Buried alive;
But rather mourn the apathetic throng – The cowed and the meek – Who see the world’s great anguish and its wrong And dare not speak! RALPH CHAPLIN, Industrial Workers of the World activist - 1922
The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves. WILLIAM HAZLITT, English essayist - 1817
Is that we are not perfect Nor perfectable.
Is that the desire to lead Will destroy ourselves and others.
Is that when we act alone It is harder to harm.
Is that when we act collectively We must not surrender our selves.
Is that land cannot be owned Nor animals nor people.
Is that money is meaningless When there is no property.
Is that we disavow marriage. It is the union of Church and State.
Is that no human is sovereign The one over the other.
Is that our children are The common wealth.
Is that there is no god Nor heaven nor hell.
Is that only we can be the creators Of paradise on earth. ANONYMOUS. (19th century Spanish anarchists called their beliefs The Idea).
THE INTERNATIONALE (first two verses)
Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth, For justice thunders condemnation, A better world’s in birth. No more tradition’s chains shall bind us, Arise, ye slaves! no more in thrall! The earth shall rise on new foundations, We have been naught, we shall be all.
‘’Tis the final conflict Let each stand in his place, The Internationale Unites the human race.
We want no condescending saviours, To rule us from a judgement hall; We workers ask not for their favours; Let us consult for all. To make the thief disgorge his booty To free the spirit from its cell, We must ourselves decide our duty, We must decide and do it well.
EUGENE POTTIER (written in 1871, translated by CHARLES H. KERR)
The stumble-up to the General Election is underway. All eyes are on the two main sluggers - ex-Etonian wunderkind David Cameron and the bloody but largely unbowed Gordon Brown.
Poor David, struggling to bridge the Grand Canyon between the moiling masses and his party’s increasingly harrumphing right wing. Whilst not quite affecting the glottal stop that is the verbal tic of the middle class trying for populist support, he’s backslapping and soul-handshaking his way around the supermarkets and shopping malls. Meanwhile, the Paul Smith suits on the party’s liberal wing are cobbling together post-Blairite tough-but-tender policy on the move while the Tory Old Guard worry increasingly that red blood now flows where once it was deepest blue.
Poor Gordon, struggling to muzzle current and ex-cabinet ministers, who, liberated by his predecessor from the diktats of anything resembling a set of rooted political principles, are – much as their Tory counterparts – making it up as they go along. Rumpled and dour, smiling scarily like an alien who has learned the manoeuvre from an incomplete set of instructions, Gordon goes from stump to stump. Maybe to some extent he continues to benefit from not being Tony Blair. Certainly in terms of public image there is little to link the leering Dorian Grey in his immaculate tailoring with the clunky Scot whose shirt always seems about to part company with his considerable waistband. But in the wake of the expenses scandal the widespread disgust still prevails and there is something lumbering and hopeless about the Prime Minister’s pugnacious defence of New Labour’s achievements.
But whatever is to transpire during the next few weeks as diaphanous David attempts to achieve corporeal form before the electorate and galumphing Gordon attempts to transmute the base metal of just about getting by into the gold of glorious achievement, let us be crystal clear about two things: ideology is dead; realpolitik rules. The political arena comprises only centre ground now with both big hitters battling for control of a mixed economy dominated by the same behemoths that have been calling the shots since the Industrial Revolution. The only difference now is that their fiefdom is global. The utter failure of governments on both sides of the Atlantic and all stops in between even to make a dent in the citadel walls of the entrenched and implacable bankers, much less flay the bastards into bloody submission, is unambiguous evidence of the implosion of the moral agenda in politics. Political choice in the 21st century is, it would seem, best represented by that most famous of dictums from that most famous of capitalists Henry Ford: you can have any colour you like as long as it’s black. Welcome to the monochrome world of the contemporary democracy.
I’ve been nursing for several years now a piece from John & Belle Have A Blog. It was written by John Holbo (the John of the blog) and it pins down elegantly and concisely a fundamentally important element in the functioning of modern capitalism. However green or pink the costumes worn by Cameron and Brown are as their battle buses race up and down the British Isles in pursuit of our votes, their commitment to the sustenance and further growth of capitalism as the force that drives the world will be unwavering. In this conviction the two opponents will be united. Now, as you read the following, bear in mind that it was written several years before the recession. Prescient or what..?
The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do not.
The thing that makes capitalism good, apparently, is not that it generates wealth more efficiently than other known economic engines. No, the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will – a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’. Of course, crouching to protect themselves and their loved ones from the eternal lash of risk precisely won’t preserve these workers from risk. But the point isn’t to induce a society-wide conformist crouch by way of making the workers safe and happy. The point is to induce a society-wide conformist crouch. Period. A solid foundation is hereby laid for a desirable social order.
Vote wisely on the day, won’t you? Always assuming that you can discern a flash of colour within the universal grey.