Sunday, 4 October 2015

Stop Believing and You Lose Your Balance...

...unlike Phillipe Petit, below, crossing the between the two towers of the World Trade Center on August 6, 1974, now the subject of a feature film, The Walk.
Each uniquely alone
must face the night
without love,
the morning
without occupation,
this much we know:
it is enough to face the day
that lies ahead -
a meadow or a minefield
disguised by snow.
In an earthquake zone
what we stand on
is mental terra firma.
The great Karl Walenda knew:
stop believing 
and you lose your balance.
He lost his only once.
Life lived is
more than all the time and talents
we bury or hoard,
afraid to risk.

first published in Blue on Blue, Redbeck Press, 2005
 Man on Wire': Twin Towers high-wire walk

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Them Russians and those Americans...

To deflect public attention from the terrible consequences of the European Union's meddling in Ukraine, the media has been playing up the tensions between Russia's President and the President of the United States at the United Nations over what to do about Syria.

Them Russians and those Americans, oh, they at daggers drawn with each other, they no like each other, another Cold War is coming on, be warned.

Nuts. If you go back a little way to the autumn of 1995, back to yet another appalling time in Western European history, you'll find the United States and Russia lining up with France, Germany and the United Kingdom as signatories of the Dayton Agreement which brought an end to the three-way civil war in former Yugoslavia involving the federal republics of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia.

That three-and-a-half-year bloodbath, which saw as many refugees on the roads of Europe as we are seeing now, had a variety of flash-points and causes - the death of iron man Tito, who had held the six republics together since the end of World War 2 in spite of all that had happened during the Nazi occupation and all that had happened subsequently; the collapse of Communism from 1989 and the re-unification of Germany two years later.

The collapse of Communism and the bringing together of East and West Germany prompted outbreaks of independence fever from the Baltic to the Adriactic. In the case of Slovenia, this was actively encouraged by European Community, especially Germany. The fever was accompanied by conflicting boundary-breaking territorial claims between the presidents of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. Without a centrally strong bastard to control them all hell broke loose, fanned by the flames of historic hatreds.

The European Community didn't know what to do. The United Nations sent in armed soldiers to keep the peace under instruction not to use their weapons to protect life. But for the armed intervention of NATO fighter-bombers the bloody killing would have continued perhaps into the 21st century.

The West, over-stimulated by the end of Communism and the idea of regime change, wanted to topple all the nasty men of iron and steel from their pedastals of power. But when that happens too quickly chaos prevails as we have seen recently in North Africa and the Middle East. The Arab Spring has turned into a blizzard of murder and despair.

President Obama can cold-eye President Putin as much as he likes over Ukraine and Syria, to save face with his critics in the United States; but I suspect that wiser heads know that Russia's President could just be the man to help deal with the black-robed legions of Islamic State.

America and Russia co-operated over the seemingly intractable problems in former Yugoslavia. To this bear of staggeringly little brain it is obvious that they should so so again to restore some semblance of order and stability in Syria. Don't be distracted by the media's obsession with generating heat rather than light.

Thursday, 24 September 2015


Singer-songwriter and guitar man John Verity has written a song about an Afghan woman who was savagely done to death in March this year.

She was framed by the caretaker of a shrine in Kabul whom she had challenged for practicing what was known as simony in the unreformed Roman Catholic Church centuries ago - flogging bogus religious items for money.

The caretaker shouted out that this woman, a student of Islam who hoped to be a judge one day, had desecrated the Koran. He also said she was an American. That was enough for the mob. They beat her up, invaded the shrine where she sought sanctuary, and resumed the attack, kicking her, running a car over her, stoning her, throwing her over a parapet and setting her alight. Her killers were mostly young men and were mostly well-dressed in modern clothes. After the murder members of Afghanistan's Government joined in with loud acclamations and justifications.

For a while. When they realised that religious men are liable to lie to protect themselves, the public revulsion for what had been done in the name of Islam was too late.

John's song touches on this and more - religious bigotry, the hypocrisy of crocodile tears. It's made more effective by the judicious use of pictures and captions that tell the story and allow him to express his emotions without cluttering them with explanation. Please touch on the link below.


Monday, 14 September 2015

An Inspector Calls

I'm glad I resisted the temptation to change channels after 90 seconds. Drama Republic's adaptation of J B Priestley's An Inspector Calls on BBC1 began with Eva Smith answering Eric Birley's question: 'Do you believe in God?' Every other version of the play that I've seen opens conventionally in the Birling household on the night of the self-congratulatory party. This version, I thought, might be an adaptation too far. Then again, Miranda Richardson can end up a caricature of her Blackadder Elizabeth I.

Ninety minutes later I resolved to watch the play again today. Miranda Richardson as Mrs Sybil Birling, Ken Stott as Arthur Birling and David Thewlis as the sombre but sardonic Inspector Goole became the characters they were playing without the irritation of too much artifice. It was an all-round ensemble performance, I thought, augmented at moments of suspense by the score – one of the better ones I’ve heard recently.What was different about this production was the way Eva Smith was brought into the drama. Normally, she is an unseen, unheard presence whom other characters refer to. Here she was a person, touchingly played by Sophie Rundle, rather than a symbol: this was the main adaptation from Priestley's original stage play and I thought it was well done.
Also, I thought the Salts Mill/ Saltaire locations were used well. Salts Mill, which I know quite well, was the exterior location for Birling and Company. The filming was done in January when there was snow on the ground and you saw a smattering of that as the hands clattered over the cobbles to and from the mill. These wintry images added to the contrast between the dining room in the Birling home, with its bowls of fruit, painted portraits and solidly thudding doors, and the flimsy poverty of Eva Smith’s rented rooms. Every attempt she makes to extricate herself from her predicament crashes against the rocks of the Birlings.
In textiles, birling is the process by which damaged cloth is mended. The Birling familymembers  don’t do any mending in this play, set in 1912. Eva loses her living twice through the actions of father and daughter, her honour through the actions of Eric and finally her hope for help through the actions of the mother, Sybil. Even after Inspector Goole’s revelations, all but Eric and his sister Sheila manage to persuade themselves that they have done nothing wrong; it was all a hoax by a malcontent jealous of Arthur Birling’s prospective knighthood.
John Donne's Meditation 17 came to mind: No man is an island entire of itself. Each is a part of the continent, a part of the main....Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in Mankind. Therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

Donne wrote that in 1624. Priestley's play was first performed in Moscow 321 years later in 1945. Donne's words are mirrored in Inspector Goole's departing speech: "We are responsible for one another...If men will not learn this lesson they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish." Earlier on in the evening over cigars and whiskey, Arthur Birling had told Gerald Croft, his prospective son-in-law, that well-to-do men like themselves were under no obligation to anyone else.
Priestley, a veteran of World War 1, set his play in 1912, when the threat of war with Germany was in the air. But Priestley, a Fabian Socialist and founder member of CND, was thinking of the threat of nuclear holocaust that was in the air in 1945.
The BBC couldn't have timed the screening of the play better - the day after Jeremy Corbyn's election as leader of the Labour Party. He was probably too busy trying to fill his Shadow Cabinet last night but those of his supporters who did watch must have been thrilled by the synchronicity of Inspector Goole's warning.
They could adopt it as the re-formed Labour Party's rallying call.

Sunday, 13 September 2015


MAURICE WILSON (1898, Bradford -1934, Everest)

Off again. Gorgeous day.
His final legible entry; alone,
four miles or more on Everest,
sub-zero sanity. No valedictory,
no pitiful letter home.
He set out to get to the top on his own.

The 5,000-mile Gypsy Moth flight to India
cockpit open to all weather,
only maps and a compass to show where he was,
would have been enough;
but he had another world to conquer
beyond Kipling, Buchan, W E Johns.

Another year of weather passed.
Six thousand feet below the howling summit,
mountaineers found Wilson’s remains.
Whether he succumbed going up
or perished stumbling down,
the climbers could not say.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

More Bloody Foreigners*

And then the Romans came
with their straight roads, stone forts
and short, belly-piercing swords.
They taught us the art of
stone-walling, ruling
off North from South.
And then came Picts and Britons,
Angles and Saxons,
Jutes and bloody great Danes,
and after them Vikings.
Lowering blood-red sails in the sunset,
they burned the East with dragon-flames.
Irish Norsemen from Dublin
caught and slaughtered the Danes
and were, in turn, broken by Saxon axemen.

The Reformation, the Armada, D-Day -
all that followed might not have been
had Harold Godwinson
kept his nose out of Normandy.
With Papal blessing, William's Normans came
and England, first flayed by the tanner,
was put under the hammer.

Nothing much has changed.

*The title is a line in the film The Eagle Has Landed. This piece was first published in Ambit 173 in Spring, 2003.

Thursday, 13 August 2015


The struggle is to live with quiet gladness
in spite of weather, rent rises,
power bills, stock market fluctuations,
stupid or cowardly governance;

bad faith, cheap grace,
circumstances, time;
young blonde barmaids
with plunging necklines.

Midwife of the questing mind,
professor of ignorance.
The way to wisdom is not
for those with secrets to hide.

The authorities got him
for immoral aiding and abetting,
as the English got Joan of Arc
for the heresy of cross-dressing.

More of a gargoyle even
than Paul Verlaine;
but purer than democrats and tyrants.
He had no possessions, no loot,

no off-shore investments in Persia.
What he had was shared with friends,
and when Athens was under military threat
he fought as a foot soldier.

He was sent to shine a light through posterity.
A thorny old bastard bare-heeled
among potsherds and
the broken amphora of history.

He accepted the state's poison ruefully.
The greatest discovery you can make in life
he said, as he wiped the hemlock from his mouth,
is yourself.

first published in Ambit 196, Spring 2009