The Fortitude of Poetry
Brother, what must I do
at this late hour
to remind you of my innocence?
I only raised some questions
to warn you of a storm coming in from the edge
But now you abandon me
and accuse me
Yet I recall that day precisely.
You and I sitting by the cafe in Abha
sipping coffee laced with cardamom.
The arc of the winter sun had settled
in the crease of your brow —
the evening light softening that hard glance
you aimed at me like a dart.
And may I say now, brother,
your judgement of this refugee is harsh.
I spoke only of my paintings
and poetry — how they mitigate
the lash of the Mutaween —
make visible the shadow world
of Sharia — this consumption
of flesh and spirit.
Yet you chose silence.
Brother, you know as well as I
how things stand
in the House of Saud.
The quiet terror spreads
like a virus
in muted streets and markets
and a new dark age brings down
with a thud the broad sword
Yes, I raised the stoning of lonely wives,
the wild tales of witchcraft and sorcery —
the fear their strict whip-hand has of women.
Yet, by the power of male decree,
the zealot makes it plain what’s on his mind:
the female form must be disfigured or hidden.
Yet you chose silence.
Here anything that reeks of love
must be routed out and crushed,
for they miss nothing, —
not one unlawful kiss
that may pass between
the lips of many lovers.
But in this stone cell mercy has its price.
Money buys the killer pardon,
and spares his helpless neck from the block.
Yet for me? The worst lies in wait
simply for the crime
of speech or thought.
They’d rather unsheathe the blade
and gild the truth with blood
than acknowledge a kingdom run by vice.
You see, brother, if I’m passing
on the road and see a man half naked
being nailed to a cross —
suspended there until the sky darkens, until
the ripe olives turn red —
I must ask you: what have we become?
Do you remember?
How the light took refuge in the hollows
of his flesh — tugging and stretching
the sagging limbs — tearing the skin
until it turned blue
and peeled like paper.
His right foot was lashed tightly
against the left —
wrought iron nails were driven in
with quiet purpose, until his cries soared above
the crowded square
silencing the gasps of tourists,
the sighs of doves,
the holy call to prayer
rising uneasily in the distance.
“Be silent, Ashraf!” you cried.
The Commission for Virtue and Prevention of Vice
will always have its way.
But my answer then, as it is now,
Is quite simple.
I sing to fill the silence rising in you.
For it condones, by the edge of a sword,
the slicing of hands and the slicing of heads —
rendering mute arbiters of law.
Brother, I sing into this silence
to break a lineage of fear
and ring in a new paradigm.
My song will fill the silence
that prevails in the courts
of kings and queens.
Conscience will not be reduced
to a cult — or a pathology
of the mind.
And know this. My voice
will resonate in the throat
of the zealot,
it will draw poison
from this bitter root
and nourish the will of the people.
This is the fortitude of poetry.
It will outlast the silence of good men
who would say nothing —
and soar above the venal stench of money —
beyond the blood-drenched square
of totalitarian kings.
In a few short words one union boss, Romain Altmann, captured the feelings of millions of French voters immediately after Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the last election when he stuck his face in front of a TV camera:
“It is like voting for your own hangman“, he said. Continue reading
Images: Adam Smith and David Hume
The dust has long since settled on the Brexit referendum and most of the hysteria that went with it. Now seems like an appropriate time to raise some pertinent issues in relation to this major event last year. Prior to the vote many people gave different reasons to justify their personal choice at the ballot box. However, a recurring theme within the Scottish intelligentsia in support of their position to maintain the social and political bond with the EU was ever present. One of the main foundations on which they based their argument to remain was the historical relationship Scotland has always had with old Europe. From the vantage point of the Scottish intelligentsia, these ties to Europe are indispensable; this is, in their view, a relationship based on social, cultural and political longevity, therefore it should be retained at any cost.
At the outset, this assertion that we should continue to place our faith in this relationship with the EU on the basis of longevity and past alliances suggests an absence of solid analysis in the present day context. After Brexit some felt compelled to say they voted to remain because of their “love for Europe” — but they were keen to make the distinction that their wish to stay was not for any distinctive appreciation of the EU. Well, there is no one loves or appreciates the diverse cultures of Europe more than I, (Camões, Monet, Goethe, Caravaggio, Beethoven) cultural giants of which I never seem to get enough. But that is not the point here. From where the integrationists stand, ignoring the obvious conflation that should be made between old Europe and the modern day plutocracy that the EU has become is, at the least, misguided, if not entirely wrong.
Notions of old Europe and the EU are interchangeable. In the modern day they are one and the same — including all of the negative social and political aspects membership of this organisation entails. Therefore, when we talk in a modern day context about our “love of Europe”, we are also referring – whether we like it or not – to the social, political and financial foundations that underpin Europe; the union itself.
However, this raises some fundamental question: how was it possible, if a thoughtful critique was being applied to the issue of Brexit, to view “Europe” in its current manifestation as an entity distinctly separate from the European Union? What powers were acting against the awareness and conscience of the Scottish intelligentsia when they divided one and the same entity into two?
Yes, the distinct cultural riches that we identify with old Europe are indeed undeniable: the great musicians, writers, sculptors and painters — all of those beautiful cities and architectural gems that produce within us experience of the sublime, and endear so many Scots to Europe and its people is, nevertheless, projected and sanctioned under the auspices of the European Union. Culture and politics are inextricably linked by place and time.
Of course we do have much shared history with Europe to look back on. Our national achievements are many, for we have been innovators across the main disciplines: education, science, mathematics, engineering, philosophy, sociology, literature and art. We have accomplished so much for such a small nation of approximately five million people, whose ingenuity and genius has demonstrated to the world our capacity to be pioneers in every field.
Also, in no small measure, our innate ability as Scots to adapt and integrate has allowed us for centuries to forge prominent relationships with the other diverse peoples of Europe — and many cultures around the world. We only have to look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s impact on the Polynesian island of Samoa and its indigenous people to see how integration with others comes naturally to to the people of Scotland. In short, our nature has always been outward looking, European to a certain degree — with an outlook forged by the characters which inhabited those striking paradigms of the Scottish and European Enlightenments.
From our painters such as Gavin Hamilton and Alan Ramsay, who practised and honed their skills in Italy and Sweden, to John Locke, who based his ideas of good governance in the ‘social contract’, to our national poet, Robert Burns, whose sojourns to the European continent saw him strike up a brief but intriguing collaboration with Beethoven — to the historian and philosopher David Hume, who spent some of the most rewarding time of his life in France, befriending Jean Jacque Rousseau while the Frenchman was being hounded around Europe — we have always reached out to our European neighbours, recognising, at times, a kinship of social, political and philosophical thought. We earned our place at the European table; deservedly so, through our willingness, essentially, to express the ideals of the Sottish Enlightenment.
However, in relation to last year’s referendum, our historical links to Europe raise other questions in the context of the 21st century. Was this nostalgia — for the friendships, alliances and cultural links we enjoyed with ‘old Europe’ — the overriding driver behind the majority vote of Scotland’s intelligentsia to remain in the EU?
Furthermore, is nostalgia acting as a brake on a broader and more objective consensus on the role of the EU in the lives of common people around Scotland, and holding back the people of this nation, rather than offering the Scottish people a progressive future that means real independence and much more than something just in name?
These two premises offered above, in the face of all documentable facts on EU corruption — complicity in imperialist wars of aggression — and the slow but reckless destruction of key European economies such as Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy, may offer cogent explanations in understanding the inexplicable loyalty demonstrated by the bourgeoisie in Scotland to their political masters in Brussels.
Then there are the refugee and migrant questions. In allaying ourselves with the EU, we are committing to an elite group of autocrats who have not only overseen the gradual breakdown of Europe and the bankruptcy of several countries operating within the auspices of the remit, but we are also dealing with an organisation that has greatly exacerbated the migrant crisis. The hypocrisy of the EU knows no limits: so-called leaders like Merkel have castigated eastern European nations for not doing enough to accommodate the flood of people coming in from three continents. It’s certainly true, some nations could have done much more, particularly for the traumatised Syrian refugees
However, as leader of the union what was Merkel’s solution to such a grave problem? Instead of diversifying budgets and resources, putting in place a well devised plan, she and several acolytes decided that the EU would be better to placate a dictator who is presently destroying his own country, and pay Erdogãn £6 billion of the tax payers money as a down payment to corral, indefinitely, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria into holding pens; thus prolonging the human agony.
This seemed, from Merkel’s vantage point, like a good plan for managing the “livestock”. Better be relieved of these huge sums of money and pass on such a grave problem than do what they’re paid to do from the public purse and create real solutions. However, Erdogãn acting true to character, reneged on the initial agreement and would only support such a plan on one condition: the EU must find another 6 billion as final payment, or their would be no such deal. The leaders of the EU willingly obliged and accepted this extortion.
This is one of the more overt examples of EU bureaucracy — efficient in pushing paper, drafting diktats, standing by while a haemorrhage of tax payers money is squandered on a plan that cannot possibly resolve such a grave crisis. — but entirely incapable of being proactive and demonstrating a capacity to problem solve one of the greatest issues Europe, and the world at large, has faced in almost seventy years. Our European ‘leaders’ were unable to devise a long term strategy of their own that would adequately serve a redistribution of funds, resources and manpower — and provide a long term humanitarian solution acceptable to those unfortunate refugees, all of whom, have been broken by civil war.
If we are to be honest with ourselves while maintaining our romantic attachments to old Europe, it also behoves us to follow the tenets of the Scottish Enlightenment — and the message its greatest thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume conveyed — all of whom advised that we do not forget to enquire into the social realities of our time — acting on them accordingly.
The fathers of the Scottish Enlightenment expected everyone to apply the process of objective analysis, question social and political legislation of the day, challenge social injustice in our time, express informed opinions, to come up with our own solutions, to have our voices heard at the highest level — not simply absorb standard political narratives and believe what we are told to believe and place our trust in a failed union and failed policies.
Today, in the 21st century, we are told that the EU is a force for good and that full integration will benefit every Scottish citizen. Yet when we take a closer look at historical facts — and the negative economic impact the EU has had on Scotland, the political and economic evidence does not stack up to support such an erroneous view. We only have to absorb Brussels’ poorly thought out fisheries policies to see how Scotland has been denied its natural capacity to sustain its own fishing industry — and that is only one industry among others which suffers a resounding economic disadvantage at the hands of the EU while many key decisions on Scotland are made in Brussels.
Consider the following sobering fact: since European legislation of the fisheries policy, Scotland has had to endure an annual loss of £1.5 billion per year. No. This is not a misprint. Scotland’s economy has forfeited one and a half billion pounds every single year since they were compelled to accept the Common Fisheries policy (CFP). Despite annual protestations, legal challenges, high profile meetings, and an appeal from the Scots who understand the industry, nothing has changed in over a quarter of a century.
One does indeed wonder if the integrationists would still somehow find a way to justify such an inconceivable haemorrhage of the public purse despite the hard facts which point to this policy of social and economic vandalism. Such is the fundamental leap of faith large swathes of the Scottish intelligentsia place in the EU.
A deeper critique of the argument put forth by the Scottish intelligentsia that we should never relinquish those key ‘economic benefits’ while remaining in the EU (presumably they mean we get more out of the EU than we put in) is completely misguided. Those who voted in the referendum to remain because they believed that Scotland is financially better off in such a relationship should also consider some other facts: Scotland has, historically, been a “net” contributor to EU funds, a fact acknowledged by the Scottish National Party, which of course means that historically they are putting in more to EU funds than they take out.
So let us look in more detail at Scotland’s once lucrative fishing industry as an example of the pitfalls Scotland is forced to negotiate in this relationship. On the website, ‘Scottish Independence and Scotland’s Future’, Dr James Wilkie and David Thomson present a compelling case for Scotland to take its fishing industry out of the hands of the bureaucrats in Brussels and repatriate these policies to the control of the Scottish government to prevent further haemorrhaging of its annual budget.
The financial consequences of conceding authority of such a lucrative industry to Brussels, and its Common Fisheries policy (CFP) is very clear; my ellipses in the following passages serve only for the purpose of brevity:
“Fishing has been a key element of the Scottish industry for many centuries… During these centuries the Scottish fishing industry harvested the seas while maintaining healthy fish stocks in balance with the rate of exploitation. In 1970 all that changed with the advent of control from Brussels, a move that resulted in an economic, environmental, ecological, social and cultural disaster… The clear purpose [of the ‘Common Fisheries Policy’ (CFP) was to gain unrestricted access to the rich (being strictly conserved) fish stocks of the UK, Ireland and Norway…especially Scottish waters, which they would otherwise have been unable to exploit.
However, after it became obvious that free access to the fishing grounds for all was going to have disastrous ecological and economic effects, an enormous complex of rules and quotas was drawn up in a futile attempt to correct the damage — but without addressing the root cause of the damage. These ‘sticking plaster’ amendments — the real CFP — only made matters worse… The predictable result was the collapse of fish stocks…and there is still no sign of any genuine reform of the CFP.
The dog-eat-dog” situation created by abolishing the three mile limit and allowing European fleets into the national Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) pitched Scottish fishermen against each other, and this accelerated the reduction of fish stocks, particularly in the Firths and Minches. Scots pair trawlers and pursers felt they should harvest the coastal stocks before Continental vessels caught them.
The British government failed to institute local fishery management schemes, as it had in effect conceded… authority to Europe. The situation again changed dramatically when Spain and Portugal joined the Community in 1986. Offshore fishing in Spain is in the hands of large industrial combines that exert considerable political power.
Spain entered the CFP with a huge fishing fleet not much smaller than the entire remaining Community fleets combined, and contributed nothing substantial to the sum total of Community resources. From the beginning, the by now already over-fished Scottish waters were a prime target for … exploitation, [and as a consequence] the fishing sectors of Scotland and other northern countries were systematically run down to make way for the incomers.”
These are the unpalatable facts. Indeed, in the face of such gross exploitation of Scottish waters, it is difficult not to view this, if one is looking at this objectively, as a policy which is inherently piratical. There is no other realistic way to look at it; a major Scottish industry has been destroyed, and the fish stocks of the northern hemisphere depleted by an act of greed — brought on by a pact agreed between the European Union and the UK government.
In the case of the UK government, this appears to be another depressing example — if the Scottish people do indeed require further proof — that the British government, (and Brussels) still programmed by imperialist mentality, consider Scotland and its people to be no more than a mere outpost — but a lucrative one that benefits both Westminster and its ally the EU.
The Scottish people only have to consider that for fifty years the proceeds of their own oil industry in the North Sea — and the financial benefits of their oil, waters, and fishing industry — have continued to flow south to London, and west to Europe, uninterrupted. Should Scotland tolerate such exploitation indefinitely in the misguided belief that EU membership is, somehow, beneficial to our national economy?
Significantly, later on it was revealed that the initial estimated loss to the fishing industry and the Scottish economy as a whole of £900 million per year was an honest but severe underestimate. An additional 2009 critique by Dr Lee Rotherham for the Taxpayers’ Alliance concluded that the final amount is much higher – in keeping with the figures referred to above:
“The total annual economic cost to the UK of the EU Common Fisheries Policy is £2,813 million, or 2.8 billion… Of that total, £2,100 million was from the loss of access to home waters. Since Scotland has over 66% of the EEZ, then £1,400 million of that loss relates to Scotland. Adding the other estimates proportionally from the TPA study [above] now make the Scottish fisheries sector loss due to the CFP over £1,500 million every single year.
[NB] The 2004 calculation of £0.9 million including the wider related sectors is therefore forty per cent lower than the more recent TPA figure. Little wonder that nobody in the UK government or Brussels repudiated the [initial] estimate at the time.”
Implicit in that final sentence above lies the inherent dishonesty of both the UK government, and the autocrats in Brussels who oversee the inward and the outward flow of finance from Scotland. Indeed, in that final sentence above it is not only the familiar smirk of exploitation we see — but also the sheer dishonesty of the system which is, essentially, saying: “if you don’t notice we’re robbing you, we’re not going to inform you of the practice”.
The EU is precisely the same type of animal that the UK government has always been — they are one and the same when it comes down to extracting the natural resources of many smaller countries like Scotland for the benefit of big business. Hence the core objective which fuels the desire of many leaders within Brussels who wish to homogenise the whole of Europe into one superstate — obliterating social, cultural and economic distinctions — a self-serving relationship in which EU leaders feed off smaller host states while using their resources to sustain the insatiable appetite of corporations to monopolise and gain control of new markets.
The claim that the EU is an indispensable force for good is part of an old narrative, a derivative of post-World War 2 thinking that has largely remained unchallenged for over forty years. It is a neo-liberal narrative — an integral part of the psychology behind the machine in Brussels — an autocracy designed to impose, above all, harsh austerity measures on the ordinary people of Europe in order to furnish the banks and corporations with financial opportunities. To confirm this, we only need to look at the Troika — (European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund, European Union) — and what they did to Greece, and the impossible financial demands they have placed on Spain, Italy and Portugal as part of so-called austerity measures.
The EU is essentially geared to appropriate all viable resources, natural and man made, of the integrated nations within the community, then centralise them in order to assert absolute control of related economies — and by extension, the social, political and international direction of these nations. The question is, will the people of this country stand by while the EU continues to dictate the direction of Scotland’s social, political and economic policies, denying native Scots the opportunity to have a comprehensive say in the shaping of their country?
When the majority voted in the referendum to remain within the controlling mechanisms of the EU and embrace the most disturbing aspects of integration, the most ironic alliance was revealed: the following morning, after the hangover of the Brexit vote, the Scottish intelligentsia found themselves waking up with the most incongruous of bedfellows; their new partners were the privileged members of London’s financial elite, who voted with them in large numbers to remain within the EU. Yet few within the ranks of Scotland’s intelligentsia appeared to recognize this irony.
Or, given their hatred of some for the establishment in the south, (I should note here that as a Scot, I have my own large issues with Westminster and the British government) they could not bear to discuss such an alliance even beneath a whisper. It was okay to shout loud and proud about being a “European”, but apparently it was another thing entirely to discuss how their political ideology now aligned itself with corporations, banks and the financial elites of London, all of whom voted in line with the integrationists in Scotland. Strange days indeed.
This was a scenario that probably reminded the Scottish integrationists of the more reckless moments of their misspent youth when, after a night of drunken debauchery, they woke up and opened their eyes, looking through a crack in their fingers (but only for a moment) to find themselves staring at a partner they vaguely recognized from the night before but one who was, nevertheless, sharing the opposite pillow. I can only assume this was an intimacy they could not bear to acknowledge, either privately or publicly. Therefore it was was a moment to remain tight lipped and slip quietly out of the door — blaming all and sundry — with the exception of the EU’s reprehensible behaviour — for this debacle called Brexit.
On all of the social platforms I visited after the result, and there were a few, not once did I come across any pertinent questions being asked by the integrationists of Scottish voters about their reasons for voting No in the referendum. That is not to say such questions did not take place. However, more often than not any personal comments by members of the Scottish electorate who indicated they voted to leave the EU were drowned out — aided and abetted by a plethora of memes — all of which focused on racism; the implication was self-evident: every single vote rejecting the EU was a vote hijacked by right wing lunatics, or misinformed people who just did not appreciate the gravity of such a vote — unable to understand the broad complexities reached at such a political juncture.
More than once I read comments aimed at those who refused to be taken in by EU promises of better days ahead — comments which were generally typical of Scotland’s middle class at the time:
“If only they realised what they were doing” — which meant, presumably, that those who said No to Junker and Tusk in Brussels did, essentially, require cerebral guidance at the ballot box, but only in order to make sure that the ill-informed electorate mark the same option as the integrationists. Sometimes symmetry is so pleasing on the eye.
The chief targets of the integrationists were large swathes of the English electorate — immediately implying, or leveling accusations, of “racism” at the general majority of these English and Scottish voters who had the temerity to say No. At this juncture I should note, there were indeed despicable examples of racism, audible and visible, leading up to this crucial vote — not least from the obvious suspects such as UKIP and other more nefarious organisations south of the border whose hatred of the ‘Other’ demonstrated little restraint normally associated with common human decency.
That said, here in Scotland, we also had the misfortune to experience explicit examples of racism/bigotry (one of which was broadcast live on BBC during a debate prior to the vote).
Is it not time for the people who have enjoyed some financial perks derived from brutal neo-liberal policies to recognise the financial plight of their fellow citizens—and the mirrored aspirations which arise as a consequence of unemployment, poverty and destitution?
Choosing to cherry pick the small personal benefits that some have enjoyed via EU payments and therefore point up the EU as a liberal model for good but choosing to ignore the unpalatable consequences of neo-liberalism in creating mass poverty and a series of financial crises — precipitating the fracture of Europe and its people — is difficult to credit..
What about the men and women working two or three jobs in order to feed and clothe their children? Or the woman polishing the marble floors of banks and employed on wages below the minimum rate, trapped in zero hour contracts, merely to earn a pittance which may keep a roof over her head and her family? This is precisely the kind of slave labour enshrined in the TTIP, an agreement promoted and highly favoured by the European Union. More of which I’ll say in a separate commentary to this one. However, a short comment will suffice here.
The TTIP has two distinct elements: first the agreement to cooperate on regulation — which essentially is designed to ”standardize” employment laws within all countries signed to the agreement. However, given the climate of greed, it’s difficult to credit this agreement being aimed at raising the living wage in order to standardize it in favour of the employee; basically the TTIP agreement will drive down basic wages — and no EU law can stand in its way and prevent this. Why? The EU is fully committed, despite vigorous public protest, to embrace TTIP. A clear conflict of interest is being entertained by the EU here in terms of their law, for example, on the setting of a minimum wage.
The second element of TTIP is the ‘Investor State Dispute Settlement’ (ISDS) which, in the event that a country’s laws threaten corporate profits, this part of the agreement allows companies to sue governments by way of an offshore tribunal. [author’s italics]. The very definition of democracy is negated with this agreement here. Instead of the electorate democratically retaining the power to change certain elements of governance which run contrary to fairness and equality, ISDS prevents the electorate from having a say in such matters.
The predictable but awful consequences of such an agreement between the EU and global corporations is evident in recent cases brought before the tribunal: British American Tobacco sued Australia which passed legislation on a law that limits cigarette advertising; the French company Veolia sued Egypt for increasing the minimum wage, to name only two cases. However, the leaders of the EU are more than comfortable with TTIP.
As Claire Provost said recently when commenting on the serious consequences of this agreement, “This will have a huge impact on health, access to medicines, education and the environment.”
Our choice, egalitarian in essence, is to reject the EU machine which enables the most affluent of society to live a life of relative ease — in juxtaposition to hunger, homelessness, and above all, the abject sense of hopelessness felt by millions of people around Europe at the mercy of a neo-liberal clique. All of these nations and cultures have one thing in common: they are being assaulted by a relentless force which denies them the most basic human rights, denies them the will to live a life of quality and hope. It is a system devoid of human creativity, of cooperation between cultures, a system devoid of empathy and compassion. In the place of the eurozone we have a dead zone.
If we do not challenge the movers and shakers operating at the heart of Brussels, then we are choosing a global system over human aspiration. If we chose to cling on to this old narrative, that the EU has our best interests at heart, then we give them our consent, not so much as a result of our silence but by virtue of our own self delusions — and by extension we lend our support to an organization which is primarily designed for two things: to make money and centralise power.
If we continue with this evangelical belief in such a system — in spite of all the evidence available — then we give our consent to fracking, to the destruction of the natural environment, to the pollution of the planet’s most valuable resource — our water table — (the EU has already sanctioned the use of a Monsanto product, Glyphosate, on our crops and soil despite a petition signed by hundreds of scientists in Europe warning that there remains concrete evidence of its dangers as a carcinogenic). However, for the EU, profit always has the last word.
If we continue to believe that in such a relationship with the EU there is a common good inherent to their policy making, then we say yes to the cult of neo-liberal greed. We are saying yes to large corporations, protected by TTIP, to the hollowing out of the earth and the strip mining of its minerals — to the cutting down of our trees and the decimation of our rain forests. We are saying yes to a society which enables the narcissist, the hoarder, the opportunist, the sociopath and the monopolist; trapped in this self-delusional state, numbed and silent, we give them our vote and our consent.
In our love of the European model we experience a psychological bind in which the traits of capture-bonding are manifest — and in spite of the future dangers, and the risks of increased abuse, we have formed a traumatic bond with our captor. We in our millions are vaguely aware that our former lover has become our abuser — a bizarre form of Stockholm Syndrome — but we must extol the virtues of our master, we must identify with his regressive behavior and his cycles of greed and aggression.
However, we seem unable to break the emotional ties to our captor. So we sit back in the chair and sigh as the suffering unfolds on our screens; and we ask ourselves: what will be next? We whisper to ourselves: there is nothing I can do; I am as much a victim. For we empathise with our captor. Then we succumb to his cruelty, to the persistent cycles of abuse. We embrace the punishments and the rewards.
We have formed an emotional bond with our master. By an irrational expression of identification, we defend the indefensible. Then we withdraw into our own parochial existence and live out our fantasies as proud Europeans. Yet, in our silence our abuser still hears our insane mutterings: “we consent; come and do to us as you will”.
Arc of the Hammer
…and I watched my father wield the unbearable
weight of the hammer—pounding volcanic dust in
a cavern of hell. Spits of hot ash glowed like coals
in his vest, the hard graft of the foundry marking
him out—scars and welts tattooed on his arms and chest—
but Michael was always available for hire.
I listened to the wretched cranes groan and shriek in
the darkness—swinging great vats of molten metal
above his head. From a fire, I saw him escape,
gasping for air in the dense smoke, searching blindly,
groping his way along the walls, as he staggered,
dazed, out of the burning hangar, his clothes ablaze.
Later, choking and spluttering, I heard him speak
with my mother, counting the dead while he recalled
the list of casualties—shattering the silence
with news of Thomas, his brother. In the kitchen,
trails of newspaper were laid to contain the black
ash on the souls of his boots. Helping him remove
his smoldering rags, she held back the tears, while he
stripped for his bath. Peering through the door-jamb, I saw
a pile of clothes where they had fallen—smouldering
and threatening to combust. His huge frame sank into
the tub, head angled downward, coming to rest like
a rock which had been quarried between his shoulders.
And that night I saw how my father had been cowed.
Forty years the horn had wailed him home—then at dawn
it wailed for his return. Each shift he punched his card,
reported for duty, kept in synchronized step
with a company of men as they moved as one.
In the hollow of his ear lodged a hornet’s nest—
the dull hum and dissonant whine of production
vibrating in his bones. Day and night Michael
toiled with the machines at the face of the furnace,
serving the system well, until it laid him off
with a fake gold watch taken from the public purse.
He was replaced. And quickly his mind unravelled.
The clock on the wall stopped. Each day promised little
more than another day quite devoid of purpose.
The dreams of a younger man were declared dead on
the factory floor. Counting the days and the months
and the final years, he heard the same obsessions
rattle like dice in his head. For the deafening
roar of the machine and it’s hideous face had
taken hold of him long ago—forged him much as
the smithy shapes a random piece of iron on
the anvil—until he could hear neither the sound
of his own voice, or feel the immeasurable
void open up as he stepped through the factory door.
And now it is the turn of our generation
to be undone—not by the screech of cogs turning
like screws in the head—but by a juggernaut
grinding to a halt: we will see out our best years,
not as role models, but symbols of apathy
as we while away the days and years on the dole—
our mouths and bladders working only as a sluice
while the dreams we had are mere embers smoking in
the ashes. Hunger will be the close companion
of the new born. For the dried, lifeless breasts of mothers,
much like the Autumn leaves starved of light and shriveling
on the branch, are much more than the mark of seasons.
Look at the town schizophrenic, dumbed down by his
daily cocktail—wandering aimlessly in this
Thorazine haze. Look at our beloved infants—
who once spoke with such innocence—cowering in
unspeakable fear. In absence of song and joy
children sob themselves to sleep. Young mothers refuse
to rise from bed, unable to hear the daily
news which is always bad and unbearably cruel.
The same old film reel is wound behind her eyes—
a spool of thought unravels—the world’s gone mad!
The narrative yields no relief. Deceit and lies
pass as currency in Parliament. Old stories
of everlasting life fill the pulpit. Be good!
So mother remains entirely mute—even when
her lips part to form the word …. the lone word she tried
to utter throughout her life. If she dares throw up
a stifled scream, she is lulled into this deep sleep,
beguiled into a long but restless lassitude
from which it’s much too late to stumble from her dreams.
It’s the way the drunks stagger outside her window,
slumped against the walls of filthy slums. She listens
to feral cries echo on littered streets while packs
of wild dogs sniff out the last stray bitch in heat—
mounting her in such rapacious fits of desire.
Inscrutable signals draw some beyond the walls
of the Keep, but many succumb. The hard man rails
against the tremors—the seismic shift of mood—
against a system which makes him numb. Cries echo
from the watchtower, in blind alleys, for lives stillborn
before the human heart begins to beat. Serving
a long sentence, light and darkness merge. He resists
the urge to arrest the slide and swing happily
by the neck from the stair railing. For others,
sullen blocks of grey granite hold their gaze—staring
back at them—absorbing each hysterical scream
as tense fingers tighten their grip on the trigger.
It is the shadows cast by flare stacks–vomiting
up trails of grey vapour—spitting smoke and fire.
Deep inside itself the land shudders. High above,
the contrails form a crossword—spreading a yellow
hue across the sky—while down in the valley burns
an orange flame, lighting the lonely streets, where a black
harvest coughs its way up from stinking drains: glue bags,
needles, cigarettes butts, a green-moulded shilling—
putrid smell of dead vermin. Beggars are knocking
on the door, begging to be let in, their loose rags
flapping in the wind. An interminable ache
fills the junky’s vein—to escape from the projects,
graffiti, schemes, the present and persistent urge
to maim or murder her neighbour. Our homes crumble,
dogs are brawling, derelicts recoil in self-loathing—
sloughing off the night’s dead skin. Afraid, not a word
passes the lips of the kids while mum kneels and prays
for a fix. In the winter light, children are quick
to rise and fill the day, foraging for mere scraps
of food lying within their reach. They take the bus
to school—to a desk at which to rest, to sleep, to dream.
Industry collapses, banks hoard cash, creditors
whisper on the stair—homes must go—the habitat
bulldozed for another luxury round of golf.
But the nefarious hand of the billionaire
which casually signed that slip of paper should have
substituted a knife for his platinum pen—
or slashed our throats with a razor—for he cut out
our tongues. He rendered mute the voices of our youth.
Where are the seamen, their scrawny legs dangling like
a gull’s above the swell—chipping rust from the hull—
songs eddying back and forth on the evening tide.
Some live out their lives suspended, always in hope
the cycle will turn full circle. Some hunt down cheap
palliatives, easing their way to the very edge.
So many indictments due. So many questions. Who
processed forty years of executive orders,
stayed at his post without a break, only to be
fired for arriving late? What terror made him crouch
beneath his desk—gibbering about the limits
of resistance—of short circuits blowing inside
his head. On how much paper did this poor man choke
before those fucking bureaucrats showed him the door?
A fait accompli; you’ll work your way through the pile: note,
collate, pass, file, receive. You’ll function as a slick
machine—you’ll exceed times-twenty last month’s targets—
or we’ll put you out to grass! But lest we forget
the other hands rendered up for profit and gain,
consider the young mother who spilled her daily
dose of methadone and instantly went insane.
What of the dispossessed, some jack-knifed on the steps
of the world’s theatres—with whom will they break a loaf
of bread—share the reasons for their constant sorrow.
Not with YOU Thatcher! YOU, born with the cold eyes
of Caligula—swiveling hip and buttock
like a courtesan. YOU who wiped out opponents
with that bold stare of calculation—or seduced
those who could replace you—with those
red lips reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe.
YOU subverted the Age of Enlightenment—tore
up Locke’s claim that we are free and equal—
declared a standard Poll Tax for both the grand duke
and the common man. YOU said we have the right to
be unequal. And society is dead! YOU
conjured up a timely diversion, banged hard on
the drum of war, prodded the junta with your spear—
stretched the ‘exclusion zone’, whipped up a tidal wave
of jingoism, sent in hunter-killer subs—
torpedoed the peace—sank the Belgrano and swept
two hundred and seventy-five men to their death.
But for YOU, it was a boon in ratings and votes.
Provoked by this attack, we deciphered the news,
trying to separate hard facts from the censored stream
of fiction. Staring at the screen, we held our breath,
counting in scores the coffins draped in union jacks—
listening to the sombre notes of a trumpet.
It had all been a perfect ruse for the public,
until the Sheffield took a flying fish which smashed
a hole above the water line. Casualties rose
like columns of smoke in the South Atlantic sky—
and while the parents mourned their sons consumed by fire,
YOU discussed with ministers who will survive
the slaughter—and ultimately—those who will die.
So we drew from the dole the monthly pittance and
endured the sound of Tebbit squawking from his box—
“Get up! Get on your bikes and find some bloody work”.
But we had scoured the foundries and the shipyards,
factories and woodyards—moving from Grangemouth
to Greenock—yet the only work available
required we sacrifice our lives. I remember
that winter, the young man alone in the park—
spinning round and round on a carousel—singing
the words of a nursery rhyme, crunching on some
pills, killing the pain while he killed some time.
The inexplicable was etched like a scar on
his face, and I remember that brutal void in
his eyes that opened up like the desolate space
around him. Like many young men who waited in
this suspended state, his idle hands quivered and
shook with uncertainty, until he sat down at
noon to self-medicate. But the postman coming
up the path with a giro in his bag always
offered up some brief respite, relief for the slow
sedentary queue shuffling up in line who are
unable to speak of their shame—the sense of loss—
but once every fortnight they grip the pen and sign.
Yet it had been in this very town, from the red
ash parks, we had chased a ball, shaping a well worn
path through the easy sway of wheat and corn. Green fields
moved as one in windswept pastures—and there were no
regrets for yesterday—and no hopes dependent
on tomorrow—there was only the steady gaze
of the eternal sun on the silver waters
of the reservoir. We gulped back inhibitions,
stripped off our clothes and giggled—our naked arms as
brown as the speckled eggs we had plundered from one
unguarded nest. We roamed the hills, jam jars dangling
from our waists, hunting elusive bees—looking for
a hive of golden honey. We flexed our muscles
and wandered on a wild rush of adrenaline,
weaving our way merrily through the spring barley—
climbing steep slopes over the ridge of the central
valley, taking the high trail to the hard edges
of adolescence. By dusk, Mum had tucked us up
in bed, and as we slept, we dreamed of infinite
possibilities breaking for us in the dawn.
And this great mystery, which had always been an
inscrutable puzzle, was now so simple—
as easy to navigate as that old rope bridge
we took across the gully of our late childhood.
A hail of snow petals fell from the cherry trees,
white blossoms floated in the weightless air of long,
hot summers while we plotted a distinctive course
on the chart, a rite of passage through the tempest
ahead—the incomprehensions of puberty
and inherent promise of youth. But a virus
wormed its way through that brief gestation. The people
became servile and were neutered like dogs. Deprived
of vigour, young boys prowled the schemes—marking the lines
of their territory in large letters and bold colours YGB
trying to define their lives in music—by brute
force of masculinity—in the power of
a clenched fist, by the flash of knife’s blade. And the rats
ran wild in our own season of discontent, streets
filled up with rubbish—dreams were vandalised and smashed
to pieces—stabbed in the corridors of power.
The wounds opened. Strange rituals and new habits formed—
and the bleeding was handed down from father to
son, from mother to daughter, and this haemorrhage
took its natural course, bleeding out our will to
live, to hope, to dream. One man, we’ll call him J.M,
paced the floor, back and forth, as he listened to
the music, chain-smoking—piecing together bits
of the puzzle—the fragments of his past—as his
feet paced the boards into the present. The clock chimed.
He begins to gnaw on his bloody finger nails.
The track of time seized him: this is his future!
He cracks open the back of the vial, picks out
the paper strip, moulding the bennies into tight
balls, swallowing them in one gulp of black coffee.
The elevator takes him up—a sudden rush
through space—high above the undertow. Floodgates
open—he is alert. An electrical storm
sparks in his skull. There’s a spontaneous flash
of insight. He is weightless—just as he was in
his childhood—wandering the hills, roasting chestnuts,
in the leafy hollows of Polmont Wood. Dwelling
on this nameless ache for abstraction, he prepares
one more strip, seeking much more than the limits of
mere existence. Carefully, he swings the slender
arm of the player across the vinyl—gently
lowering the needle into the grooves—hiss of
static rising in the air. He listens intently
to the lyrics of The Pretender as each word
vibrates like a tuning fork. Speaking directly
to him, the singer recalls Johnie’s narrative
mode—his own brief history of feeling— his dreams
and his bloody nightmares: how his calloused hands were
used as spare parts, arms, legs, were processed for construction,
his acrobatic tongue—being the most valuable
part for some—served a loyal apprenticeship to
his trade union. But now he hears the sound of his
own voice—and the distinct echo of the men whose
lives had filled the margins. He stares out the window
and a deep sorrow takes hold of him. He develops
a vantage point, a new way of seeing, to cope
with the hunger—insatiable hunger. The words
sharpen the edge of his existence. The red eye
of his cigarette glows in the dark. He’s thinking.
That’s what he does! He’s thinking. There’s no need to speak—
for that role lies with the singer. Now it is time
to take a journey back through the years of troubled
youth, the lean years, the slow, aimless, drift of his life—
desire to escape the cycle, the destructive
course of boom and bust. His mind is loosening
from its moorings—for he recalls that rig breaking
free of its anchors. Alarm! Panic! Blue fireballs
exploding—streaks of incandescent light aglow
on the surface of the sea—a great shower of
meteors blazing paths across ocean and sky—-—-
and the scorched heads of dead men bobbing up
and down in the boiling slick. He can still hear
the wretched screech of metal as it collapses
and melts in the furnace—shell of the rig turning
over like a giant turtle, desperate cries
of men adrift in the distance of his nightmare,
widows kneeling at the pews, shrouded in prayer,
mothers weeping for sons lost at sea— last to be
taken by one more ferocious blast. The solemn
whisper of a novena is offered up for
the dead… Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with
you, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed are
the fruit of thy womb, Jesus… He can hear the sound
of that cannon rifle through the rig—a sudden
burst of light—those working men bowled over like pins…
the inquest… big business closing it’s ranks around
the money… barristers whispering, discussing
strategy, diving stocks, depreciative value
of the men they lost. The grieving names did not stand
a chance, for big business had bought a young QC,
who took a hatchet to their claims. And every job,
every man, was temporary, but those machines,
those monstrous machines endured—and for those grateful
hands which turned them—greased, cleaned, fixed and honed—this system
turned every man to stone. On the TV screen his
eyes begin to rest, listening to the miners chant …
The miners, united,
will never be defeated…
The miners, united,
will never be defeated…
Now the brass band is knee-deep in mud. A clenched fist
is thrust up like a blunt club. They raise the red flag,
whetting Thatcher’s appetite for class war, batons
drawn—mounted cops ram the thin line of resistance,
full force of charging horses breaching the gap in
defense, the snarling leap of dogs—flash of white teeth—
hail of bottles, petrol bombs, rain down on the State
while Scargill rants in rebellious tone at the stance
of the Iron Lady. Both are charged by God-like
omnipotence, believers in their own power,
believers of their own press, posing in the glare
of flashlight—two attack-dogs straining at the leash—
baiting one another, toying with the hungry
paparazzi, waiting for soundbites, determined
to raise—bury—in one verbal stroke, the rotting
corpse of socialism.
As always, the harbingers of Spring were vocal,
peewit-call of Lapwings—their sudden, tumbling
fall to earth, the raucous tapping of some ardent
woodpeckers—just loud enough to nudge those who still
remained asleep. The pervasive heat of the sun
began to leaven the last residues of snow
from the living woods. At that time, on the hard edge
of the old town, two men, Joseph and Benjamin,
began to make their way out of a cul-de-sac—
dreaming of a journey to some distant shores at
the world’s end. The brothers scaled a long border
fence in place—the line of divergence—cutting off
wasteland, old tenements from new money—the trimmed
verges and manicured lawns, high-rise suites sprouting
boundaries—dividing the rubble of their common
aspirations from the stone portfolio which
rose up above the brothers like a monolith—
its shadow sprawling out across the reclaimed land.
Both men stared up at the intractable pillars
spreading east and west, unable to comprehend
how such schools, churches, docks and factories could be
swallowed up so quickly. But like there descendants
who had, so long ago, made their way from the wild
highlands of Sutherland, traveling by horse and cart
south to the port of Glasgow, trading for passage,
then climbing the gangway of the next freighter bound
for the New World, the vast prairies—the eternal
promise of which Columbus spoke—they too had dreamed
of this fabled land. This citadel on a hill
had cast a spell on the hungry crofters—calling
the expendable, the dispossessed, to set sail
on the cold salt waters of the north Atlantic—
to erase from their history the cruel purpose
of the Clearances—to join these bold pioneers
in pursuit of happiness. But now it was time
for Joseph and Benjamin to choose their own path.
Some weeks later, they found themselves haggling over
the last sticks of furniture as they sold up to
a ward of nurses who sensed the potential for
a bargain. Keen to barter, the women quickly
surveyed the flat, starched whites rustling on bare skin—
eyes roaming in the corners of each room. One sale
drew an excited cluck, while matron, blessing her
good luck, strutted across the floor with the larger
goods, chattering on the stair as she made her way
to the waiting truck. Joseph looked out the window,
listening to the coos of pleasure in the busy
street below. This rite of passage—this final act
was one of renewal—a time of becoming.
Benjamin imagined the luminous sphere of
western stars in the heavens—white lanterns set off
in the night sky—he could see the dazzling city
lights of Boston glowing on the Back Bay, a hub
of activity, as young and old—from the most
distant parts of the earth—set foot on the streets as
witness to the “fresh, green breast of America.”
In the foreground, he could hear the cooling towers
of the vast complex hiss, he could see the sky turn
orange, and the last light of the day fade out on
the horizon. But he could still hear the echo
of his brother’s voice from the past. At the table,
they had broken a stale bread—divided the crusts
and shared their visions of America. Autumn
light was smeared almost as thin as the salted lard
in which they dipped their bread. A profound longing had
settled in them—perceptible in the rising
and falling rhythms of both voices. And solemn
promises were made to each other—fair return
for their labour—and an offering to father.
But for the older son, too much had already
been endured and suffered in the silence of his
own counsel—too many sleights, many injuries
to carry in such a fragile mind. Murderous
fantasies began to take hold of him, beguiling
in their power—a lonely place to which he may
lure Daniel and slay the shadow of his father.
They would make passage along the eastern seaboard—
first to Boston, then on to New York. Sailing by
the Statue of Liberty, a torch flaming in
her right hand—stone tablet resting in the other,
they will gaze upon the urban sprawl of this great
metropolis, steel, glass, marble, stone—a sea
of people—a huge entity glimmering on
the shores of the Hudson like a bright star.