Friday, 10 October 2014

Ukip If You Want To - the Party's Not For Sleeping...

Would Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats be sharing power with the Conservatives if the Social Democratic Party had not come into existence in March 1981?

That's an open question, I don't have a ready-made smart answer. Thirty-three years ago the Liberal Party that David Steel inherited from Jeremy - "bunnies can and will go to France" - Thorpe was a bit of a joke. From being a potential power-broker, first with Edward Heath and then with James Callaghan, it became an outlet for disillusioned Labour or Conservative voters at by-elections. But in the autumn of 1981, six or seven months after The Limehouse Declaration and the manifestation of the SDP, Mr Steel felt sufficiently emboldened by events to tell delegates at end of the Liberal Party conference: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for govenment!"

Remember that? It took 29 years, but after the 2010 General Election they got there. The question is: would the Lib-Dems have succeeded without the side-swiping arrival of SDP? Answers on the back of a photo of Johnny Rotten aka John Lydon, please.

The analogy between the SDP and the Sex Pistols is not as incongruous as may first appear. The Pistols were a phenomenon for only about two years, from 1976 to 1978. Although popular music reverted to type after the band's shock wave subsided, the after-effect still ripples to this day. Similarly, although the SDP is no longer a Parliamentary party, arguably its influence lingers on, giving hope to the supporters of Ukip.

Disillusioned ex-Ukippers, who criticize Farage's party for not having a sign-posted road map out of the Euroland, should not be denounced as spoilsports. They serve a purpose, much as the chap who rode on the chariot of triumphant Roman emperors whispering 'memento mori'. Premature ejaculations encouraged by triumphal by-election victories are apt to lead to anti-climax and may screw things up for chaps with a cunning plan who come after.

In 1973 pro-EEC Dick Taverne, left the anti-EEC Labour Party (how times change). He sensationally won a by-election at Lincoln and formed the Campaign for Social Democracy. His blazing success was short-lived, as were the SDP comets of former Labour Party panjandrums Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins in the skies of Crosby and Glasgow Hillhead. I've forgotten most of the great by-election shock nights that I used to stay up for, watching the late Vincent Hannah enjoying himself in obscure parts of the country.

After the Rochester by-election Nigel Farage may well be able to say on behalf of Ukip: 'Now we are two: Carswell and Reckless.' Sounds like a road accident waiting to happen. But Mr Farage should also bear in mind that the SDP's Gang of Four - Bill Rodgers, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins - had 28 erstwhile Labour MPs as well as former Conservative Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler ranked behind them. They did not get into the magic circle of power. They were too pro-Brussels whereas Ukip is not.

Political life in 1981 Britannia was different. Debate was real, heated and meant something - look at the vilification aimed at Tony Benn for trying to make the internal procedures of the Labour Party more accountable. I didn't think he was right at the time, but at least people argued with real feeling. Voting meant something. Parliament meant something. Sovereignty meant something. Since then the people of this country have found themselves chained to treaties they neither voted for nor had a say in formulating. And in that time they have felt increasingly disenfranchised as evidenced by the falling turn-outs at all kinds of elections. Add to that the public's low opinion of MPs and you can see why Nigel Farage believes his party's in with a chance of making a difference at the General Election in May next year.

The two main parties tend to judge the present by the past - 'come the next election voters will revert to type, don't worry old chap'. I hope they get a bloody shock. Both of them are responsible for selling this country out to greedy corporations, the egregious European Union and the United States. If there ever is a referendum on whether we should knock off the EU shackles - which I doubt, for that will take some kind of terrible upheaval - infuriatingly, I probably won't be around to see it.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

2015: A Year of Anniversaries and Landmarks...

Skip Kite's feature-length film about the life and times of the late Tony Benn, Will & Testament, covers most of aspects of his personal and public life - his parents, wartime service in the RAF, the death of his brother Michael, his marriage to Caroline, his renunciation of a peerage and subsequent career in Harold Wilson's Cabinet, his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, his condemnation of Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

But one event is missing, quite important as it happens: Tony Benn's opposition to Britain's membership of the European Economic Community from the late 1960s and all that followed from that, principally his idea for a referendum on Britain's membership two years after the deed was done. What may seem to some an interesting but redundant bit of history is likely to crackle into life once again next year, the year of the General Election.

For those with a taste for historical synchronicity, next year two important anniversaries are due to take place. June 18, 2015, will be the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which saw a coalition of European powers defeat the army of Napoleon Bonaparte and end French dominance of the continent. The other anniversary on June 5 marks the 40th anniversary of the 1975 referendum the result of which saw Britain defeated by another coalition of European powers. The vote to stay in the ten-state ECC, as it was then, underwrote French dominance of Europe at least until the reunification of Germany in 1990.

The difference between Britain now and the Britain in that long hot summer of 1975 when I was 26 is that ordinary people have alternative means of communication to get to the truth of things. I spent this afternoon and half the evening, for example, watching Michael Elliott's 1996 four-part documentary for BBC 2, A Poisoned Chalice, about the formation of the EEC and Britain's various attempts to come to terms with its mutable manifestations - the EEC, the European Community and now the European Union.

Usually, this deeply troubled relationship is pitched as a battle between self-government and government by the EU, in a word sovereignty. The way we would do things over here is not the way they do things over there. Those with a tendency towards this Manichean view of things would not have enjoyed Elliott's second film which explained how Edward Heath's Conservative Government gerrymandered the vote on the European Communities Bill in 1972 with the collusion of the Labour Party - at least the pro-European part of it.

The vote, 309 in favour, 301 against, was accomplished because of a secret deal between the chief whips of the two main parties which meant that during votes on the 12 clauses in the 37-page Bill, sufficient Labour MPs were absent to give the Government a majority. Tony Benn described this as a "coup d'etat by a political class who did not believe in popular sovereignty." He's on film saying this, but oddly, not in Will & Testament.

The 1975 referendum - either in or out - was fought on economics by the pro-lobby which had more than £1.5m to spend on it. There was Shirley Williams, then part of the Labour Government, going round telling housewives that prices would not go up. But, as Heath later admitted, membership of the EEC wasn't about economics, stupid; it was about federalism. Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, from opposites sides of the Commons, both saw that and said so unequivocally. In February 1974, Powell advised Conservatives to vote Labour at the General Election if they valued British sovereignty.

In 1970 Edward Heath assured the public: "Entry could only take place with the full-hearted consent of the British people." Powell said later of that statement: "He knew he hadn't got it and this is coming home to roost on his successors." The ousting of the Iron Lady by the Tory Party hierarchy in 1990 tends to obscure the travails of her successor John Major. Defeated in the House of Commons on the Maastricht Bill first time around, then a vote of confidence and in 1995, 20 years after the referendum, a call-my-bluff resignation as leader of the Conservative Party. Euro-sceptic John Redwood challenged him and lost. Next year, 20 years after that 'back me or sack me' leadership stand-off, 40 years after the referendum on Britain's membership, the issue of the greater European empire (28 states and counting) will be back.  

In spite of all that's happened since June 5, 1975 - including the Exchange Rate Mechanism fiasco, the wars caused by European meddling (first in Yugoslavia and more recently in Ukraine), the bail-outs, the immigration free-for-all - the pro-marketeers, as they were known 40 years ago, still bang on about the benefits of being in 'the club'. The more far-seeing among their opponents are now working out practicable strategies for getting out of this bankrupt institution. To paraphrase the 1975 feel-good pop song in support of staying in, we've got to get out to get on.

The cost to the British taxpayer of EU membership over the next five years is £40 billion according to the Office for Budget Responsibility - more than the £17 billion that Chancellor George Osborne says he still needs to take out of public spending.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Homage to My Fridge

It being National Poetry Day I thought I'd better make an effort. What follows is a piece from a book of mine that was hostilely reviewed ten or so years ago; "rebarbative" was one of the three dollar adjectives the critic used. Any road up here it is: Homage (that's 'omage for passing Guardian readers) to My Fridge. My sister likes it.

Forget love,
especially 
the unrequited kind.
Forget war,
forget peace
which has made you fat,
forget the past.
Instead, poet, 
hymn a panygeric
to the one thing
that has never let you down:

your fridge.

Friends come,
fade away or blow.
Writers are undependable,
artists are self-centred,
selfish, unreliable.
A fridge is different,
self-suffcient, amenable,
never at a loss,
as long as it is plugged in.

The door always opens,
its light always shines on you.
Replete or empty, 
it is faithful, patient.
Like the Good Samaritan
it is content
to give
and give again,
expecting neither gratitude
nor even Mr Sheen.

You don'ty have to pet it,
water it or feed it,
tuck it up or placate it.
A fridge doesn't have tantrums.
You don't have to walk it,
humour it or talk to it.
Indifferent to time and place,
it is content to remain
in the same space
unnoticed,
humming its mantra.

It expects nothing,
neither anniversary presents
nor seasonal gifts.
It doesn't have moods,
it doesn't want children, 
it belongs to no school.
A fridge doesn't aspire,
it is simply switched on.

And when your lights go out for good
your fridge will go on,
hunming to itself,
chilling out,
keepingcool,
while all around 
are losing it.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Waiting for the Bombers...

Early this afternoon, under the awning of a cafe table in the centre of sunny Bradford, I read the last 18 pages of Robert Fisk’s 1,286-page book The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. Getting through it – on trains, buses, in cafes, the office and our back yard – has taken just over two months.

From that sententious opening you would be correct in assuming that I think I am not quite the same man I was on July 24 when, hesitatingly, I bought the book in Waterstone’s. I knew it would be polemical, I knew it would take me to places I did not want to go, above all I knew it would expose me to views of invasions and conflicts, from Afghanistan to Palestine, that I did not want to accept. The fact that Fisk lived in Beirut, had lived there for the best part of 30 years, had risked his neck to interview all concerned in these conflicts and invasions, unlike officially embedded correspondents or those who gaze upon terrible events from afar and pass judgement in the safety of book-lined studies, may have played a part in persuading me to take a chance and buy it.

Yes, all right, it is too long and there were times when I wondered whether Fisk was taking a perverse pleasure in the litany of horror he chronicles, from the massacre of Armenians by Turks, to the torture in the jails of Iran and Iraq and shoot 'em up policies of Israel and the United States. Then I realised that by putting names to the liquidated, the disappeared, he was bringing the corpses back into history. I didn't like it. You may not have the stomach for it. But, at least we have a public record of the things done to real people that have been obscured by silence or jargon - "targeted killings" or Donald Rumsfeld double-speak: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." I was an apologist for these people who talked about Iraq as a line in the sand in thje West's valiant "war against terror". I was a nodding dog because, though I should have known better, I didn't want to listen to those who said the 2003 invasion of Iraq was wrong and that it would lead to greater disaster. Reading this book made me realise that everything I thought I knew about the Middle East was wrong or at least was more wrong than right. If that doesn't satisfy you, tough; you'll just have to take my word for it: that book has made a difference. 

The coincidence of finishing it on the day that MPs in Parliament were debating whether to send in RAF bombers against the executioners of Islamic State merely reminded me of history’s barbed-wire ironies, the snagging statements of intent by presidents and prime ministers whose words cause others to bleed.

As MPs rose to address the nation, and posterity, I read: it was little wonder that as the West’s moral and physical power was smashed in the Middle East, a new wave of al-Queda-style bombings reached us across the world, even taking the lives of more than fifty Londoners on 7 July 2005 when the city’s tube and bus systems were attacked by suicide bombers. Prime Minister Blair still insisted this had nothing to do with Britain’s role in Iraq – a claim that seemed all the more mendacious when it was revealed that the British security apparatus had already warned of just such attacks after Britain occupied southern Iraq...

No one grasped that the leader of the Islamic side in this so-called war – bin Laden – was now irrelevant. The billions of dollars spent in trying to find him proved that we had still not understood the reality of the attacks of 11 September, 2001: bin Laden had created al-Qaeda, but his role was now largely ceremonial, theological rather than military...al-Qaeda now existed in the minds of thousands of Muslims. The monster – as Western journalists like to refer to their enemies – had grown up and propagated.

Who created that monster? We did. Fisk’s book rewinds history back to the start of the Great War and the botched settlements in the Middle East that followed the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and Arabia. But if you read William Dalrymple's Return of a King, you can trace the origins of present day bitterness in Afghanistan back to Britain's first botched venture into the country back in the early nineteenth century. Fearing a joint attack on its Imperial interests in India byTsarist Russia and Napoleonic France, Britain sent out an armed embassy loaded with gifts; but in seeking friends and allies we backed the wrong tribal leaders, which later resulted in military defeat in the first Afghan War followed by British reprisals of such savagery that they would never be forgotten or forgiven by future generations. I bought and read Dalrymple's fine book last year.

The monster emerged in the form of the Taliban in Afghanistan and then al-Qaeda and now Islamic State. Different groups with different agendas perhaps, but all nourished by spilt blood and broken promises.  Professor Paul Rogers, from Bradford University’s department of Peace Studies, suggested as much when he told me: “The Taliban were supposed to be defeated in six weeks; Saddam Hussein in three weeks. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been going on for 13 and 11 years respectively. It is tempting to say we should destroy Islamic State, but you have to be incredibly cautious. The toughest elements of IS are Iraqis who fought against the Americans after 2003. I think they will probably welcome it (US and British bombing) because it supports their case against the West.”

Fisk’s book, published in 2006, concludes with the Iraqi insurgency and its ramifications, the shock waves of which are still making the horizon quiver. Interestingly he includes a quote from T S Eliot, made in 1946: Justice itself tends to be corrupted by political passion; and that meddling in other people’s affairs which was formerly conducted by the most discreet intrigue is now openly advocated under the name of intervention. Nations which once shrank from condemning the most flagitious violation of human rights in Germany, are now exhorted to interfere in other countries’ government – and always in the name of peace and concord. Respect for the culture, the pattern of life, of other people...is respect for history; and by history we set no great store.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then farce. Those who fail to learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them...Given the present circumstance we may extend that dialectic: the only lesson we learn from our mistakes is to repeat them with more expertise.

Today's debate in the Commons was ostensibly about bombing IS in Iraq - at least that was the message from the Conservative chief whip's office yesterday; but I gather that during the seven-hour debate some Tory MPs were bidding up RAF air strikes to include Syria. Well, that's not what the House overwhelmingly voted in favour of. It would be the mother of all ironies if the West ended up bombing the enemies of Syria's Government when just 13 months ago David Cameron was all for bombing the Assad regime. 

Three days before finishing Fisk’s great and shaming ensemble of recollections, press cuttings and polemic, I saw a small story on page 25 of The Independent. The headline, ‘Rabbi’s car firebombed after he criticised Israel’s actions in Gaza’ didn’t prepare me for what I read underneath.
The torching of Rabbi Ahron Cohen’s Volvo estate happened not in Israel but in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, two weeks after the George Bernard Shaw-bearded rabbi publicly voiced disapproval of Israel’s military policy in supposedly independent Gaza. An anonymous neighbour said: “His views have angered a lot of people around here. A lot of families have boys in the Israeli army.”

I don’t imagine that Home Secretary Teresa May will be discussing with her officials whether these fighters for Israeli freedom should be allowed back into Britain, after all Israel is not a threat to our way of life, is it?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Culloden

From a distance it looks like a golf course in Brobdingnag:
tee-green places marked by blue flags and red flags
ten to twelve feet high, cracking in squalls
like plastic shopping bags
snagged on hawthorn hedges.
But these are not fairways for lost golf balls:
the flags denote the places where Charles Stuart's ploy
was scotched by Redcoat grapeshot and musket balls.
Rocks lodged among heather and sedge
on Drummossie Moor
mark the bunkers of the dead.


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Rake and Pilgrim: Hockney's Progress...

The palette knives are out for David Hockney. Judging by the bitchy comments posted in response to reviews in The Guardian and The Independent of Christopher Simon Sykes’ second volume of biography of the Hockney, A Pilgrim’s Progress, blokes with an artistic bent less rich and famous don’t like Hockney. Or should that be less rich, famous and not gay? Oh he’s a great draughtsman – or draftsman if you’re American – but really, they say, he’s just a stylist in search of content.

Hockney, of course, has heard or read all this many times since graduating from the Royal College of art, the gold medal for painting in the pocket of his gold lame jacket. Artists were supposed to be scraggy, bearded and poor. Hockney was smart, young, successful and evidently gay. Pop goes the easel. He was tagged a Pop Artist along with others of his generation. It was his popularity that got up some people’s noses. Even in his hometown, Bradford, there have always been those who seem to bear a grudge. Anything Hockney can do they know seven-year-olds who can do better. J B Priestley ran into this problem - "a great place for discouragement,” he once remarked about his home town. Priestley wasn’t gay, though. We’re not prejudiced in Bradford: gay, straight or slightly wobbly, everybody thought to be a bit above himself gets the Dirty Harry treatment. That self-congratulatory song New York, New York, has the line that if you can make it in the Big Apple you can make it anywhere. Pah. Try swanking here, pilgrim.

I’m old enough to understand the value of unfavourable comments. “Write less, mean more,” a critic once said in a review of one of my books. That remark curdled in my guts for years; but I came to accept that the man who wrote it had a point. I write less now but wish I could write more. Prolific Hockney leaves himself open to a similar criticism because the quantity and variety of his work – the prints, paintings, drawings, photographs, opera sets, electronic drawings and lately films – defy easy categorisation; and ungenerous people are suspicious of gifted all-rounders, jealous perhaps. Slog away at one thing for 48 years and you might glean some grudging respect. Go from one thing to another as Hockney has done all his working life and you leave yourself open to the accusation of ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.

Now while not everything Hockney has done is excellent – I never got on with all those dog paintings of Stanley and Boodge, nor the Very New paintings inspired by his theatre work – he cannot be faulted for being casual or slapdash. Not only does he see more than most, he understands the symbiosis of things – colour, light and space, for example – better than most. Flip through this volume and the one that preceded it two years ago, A Rake’s Progress, and you get a glimpse into the trouble he takes to bring into reality the things in his mind. From all that I have read about him and by him since 1985, when I first met him, I would say that Hockney is most himself when he’s working.  Yeats said artists had a choice: perfection of the life or perfection of the art. Peter Schlesinger, who features in the late 1960s, early 1970s in the first volume, thought Hockney put his work above his relationships. Others make the same complaint in the second volume. Sykes himself found that if Hockney wasn’t in a receptive mood he risked being told to “bugger off”.

Sykes’ book gives a graphic picture of Hockney when his normal Protestant work ethic was disrupted either by illness or distress. Physiologically he wasn’t himself – wrapped up in a dressing gown in front of the fire, falling asleep at dinner parties, rendered almost comatose by narcotics – Sykes doesn’t say which ones. The Yorkshireman capable of sustained bursts of creative energy wasn’t there, wasn’t his-self. The death of friends, many from AIDS, the death of his mother, the death of his two dogs, the loss of hearing in the late 1990s (he seemed to have two miniature hair-dryers lodged in the inner coils of each ear), the occasional bouts of depression that followed, are in sharp contrast to most of the 38 years recounted in A Rake’s Progress.       

I read through most of the book two years ago. I've only had time to read chunks of the second volume. Though compiled and written with respect and admiration, I wouldn't say these books are sycophantic. Hockney temperamentally blowing a gasket in the desert on a drive from Chicago back to LA, Hockney rather cravenly getting somebody else to remove a bothersome acquaintence from his guest house, Hockney disrupting the sleep of guests to lecture them about Picasso or one-point perspective - all this, and doubtless more in chapters I have yet to read, are included.    

Other things don't appear to be. The extent of Hockney's riches, for example - the properties in London, Bridlington, Los Angeles and elsewhere for all I know, the people who depend on him for a livelihood, the cars, the paintings. The man who was raised in Steadman Terrace, off Leeds Road, and Hutton Terrace, Eccleshill, has done very well for himself and for his family and friends. What he's got he has earned. His mother and father didn't have the brass, as they say in Yorkshire, to pay for their artistic son's progress. Nor is there any mention that I could find of the circumstances that led to the death of 22-year-old Dominic Elliott in Hockney's Bridlington house last year. I thought there would be and believe the omission of this, for whatever reason, merely draws attention to the incident which Hockney would prefer to forget, leaving Yorkshire to return to his home in the Hollywood Hills where he spends his days between waking and sleeping painting.

What both books do have, however, is the presence of Hockney's late mother Laura - and they are the better for it. Unlike any other book about Hockney or by Hockney, Sykes' biography is illuminated by extracts from Mrs Hockney's diaries and letters. At the end of one letter she wrote in the early 1980s, a letter in which she referred to Hockney's sexuality for the first time, she says this: "There are many things I shall never know in this life. The world changes every day - but I'll be modern where I can - God bless you my own dear boy." That is touching and gives the reader a different way of looking at Hockney. He was throughout his mother's life a dutiful son. He has always been modern, meaning in the moment.

But it's a credit to Sykes that the happy families light is not always rosy-red. He says Mrs Hockney was irritated by the time and attention her son gave to his friend Jonathan Silver, the owner of Salts Mill in Bradford who was dying of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 1997. Yet it was this relationship which prompted Hockney to return to Yorkshire for seven or eight years and paint the seasonal landscapes of the Wolds.

Hockney the landscape artist, the painter of dachshunds, the flower water-colourist, the optical investigator: all these manifestations of himself appear to have upset a lot of people including art critic Brian Sewell - a man who annunciates his words with the precision of a Guardsman ironing creases in his trousers. Sewell likened the Yorkshire Wolds paintings in The Bigger Picture exhibition at London's Royal Academy to be made to sit under the loudspeakers at Glastonbury. Hockney's life has certainly been colourful and loud. The Sunday Times once profiled him: 'Portrait of the Artist as a Naughty Boy' - but he's never been afraid to risk public ridicule or outright hostility by standing up for what he believes. That's something he got from his parents, especially his father Kenneth. Like everybody else, he is the sum of his contradictions. The man who fills a 70-ft long wall of his LA studio with pictures from several hundred years of Western art also has a penchent for corny jokes and listening to tapes of 1960s BBC radio drama series such as Paul Temple. After lunch in Bridlington three years ago Hockney, who was wont to sign off emails 'Love life', wondered whether it was too early to break out the After Eights. The cigarettes he smoked that day were stubbed after three or four puffs.

Sykes' first book gives the impression of vivacity, intelligence and eagerness for experience - a man with a talent for life who never thought he would fail. Though the pictures get brighter in the second volume, there is more chiaroscuro in the life. At the finale, however, Hockney laughs off mortality by saying in his seventies that he is coming to the end of his middle period. Well, his mother nearly made it to 100 which could mean that, if Hockney's heart holds out and he doesn't have another stroke, he'll be around for at least another 22 years. Is Sykes contemplating a title for a third volume, I wonder?

I'm sure Hockney doesn't give a thought to whether he'll be here in 2036. In Jack Hazan's film docu-drama A Bigger Splash, he tells Cecila Birtwell that though he hasn't much time for nostalgia he keeps going back to the same places, perhaps the same faces. Don't we all? But he leaves all that behind when he's busy picture-making. Tough as that is for those who want his time and attention on a daily basis, those beyond the magic circle can derive great pleasure and not a little happiness from the pictures and the books - as I have over the years. Art saves lives.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Günter Grass: 'What Must Be Said'

Günter Grass: 'What Must Be Said'
Poem published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, created a heated debate in both Germany and Israel

"Why have I kept silent, held back so long,
on something openly practised in
war games, at the end of which those of us
who survive will at best be footnotes?

It's the alleged right to a first strike
that could destroy an Iranian people
subjugated by a loudmouth
and gathered in organized rallies,
because an atom bomb may be being
developed within his arc of power.

Yet why do I hesitate to name
that other land in which
for years – although kept secret –
a growing nuclear power has existed
beyond supervision or verification,
subject to no inspection of any kind?

This general silence on the facts,
before which my own silence has bowed,
seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,
leading to a likely punishment
the moment it's broken:
the verdict "Anti-semitism" falls easily.

But now that my own country,
brought in time after time
for questioning about its own crimes,
profound and beyond compare,
has delivered yet another submarine to Israel,
(in what is purely a business transaction,
though glibly declared an act of reparation)
whose speciality consists in its ability
to direct nuclear warheads toward
an area in which not a single atom bomb
has yet been proved to exist, its feared
existence proof enough, I'll say what must be said.

But why have I kept silent till now?
Because I thought my own origins,
tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel's atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what must be said
may be too late tomorrow;
and because – burdened enough as Germans –
we may be providing material for a crime
that is foreseeable, so that our complicity
will not be expunged by any
of the usual excuses.

And granted: I've broken my silence
because I'm sick of the West's hypocrisy;
and I hope too that many may be freed
from their silence, may demand
that those responsible for the open danger
we face renounce the use of force,
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.

No other course offers help
to Israelis and Palestinians alike,
to all those living side by side in enmity
in this region occupied by illusions,
and ultimately, to all of us."

Translated by Breon Mitchell. You can read the poem in the original German here.
• This poem was amended on 10 and 11 April 2012 after it was revised by the translator. This was further amended on 13 April 2012 to include a link to the original poem in German.

Before anyone tells me that the author of this poem joined the Waffen SS when he was 18, I know. Hence the line "Because I thought my own origins/ tarnished by a stain that can never be removed..."

I copied Grass's poem on to my blog because yesterday the television news showed a picture of a block of flats in Gaza imploding, having been struck by a projectile or bomb fired by Israel.

I didn't think of 9/ll and the World Trade Center. I thought of all the years I have taken Israel's side, its right to exist, its right to live behind the defensive shield not of Iron Dome, but the Holocaust - the conversation stopper, the dialogue killer. The Holocaust does not give Israel the right to do to Gaza and its people what the Nazis did to Warsaw and its people, not in my book. As Grass says in the poem, "the verdict Anti-semitism falls easily."

I'm not surprised that Grass's poem resulted in Israel declaring the old boy persona non grata, though the poem, calling for an independent inspection of both Iran and Israel's nuclear capabilities, seems fair enough to me. It's better balanced than Respect MP George Galloway's recent pronouncement, for example, that Bradford was an "Israel free zone". While that's not an anti-Jewish statement it doesn't acknowledge the Israelis critical of the Likud Government's military policies and its borderland strategy.

George Orwell wrote - what did he write, exactly? Something about true freedom meaning listening to something, an opinion, an idea, you don't want to hear. Have I become so accustomed to the censorship that now abounds in this age of scheissdrek - even fictional dramas on television have an obligatory warning about scenes of violence (imagine that, a drama about World War 1or the Holocaust warning of scenes of violence) that I can no longer instantly bring to mind Orwell's words?

Establishment Israel choosing to be offended by a poem as sane as Grass's, with its reasonable questioning propositions, but offending the world's sight by unreasonably blowing up a civilian apartment block in Gaza doesn't surprise me either.