Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Poet From Zima Junction

On Saturday night the writer who probably should have been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, died in the United States at the age of 84. That was also the night that Bob Dylan, the man who got the prize instead, was in Stockholm to collect his medal and the cheque worth about $900,000. Nice work if you can get it. Perhaps the protean Dylan, whose latest recording is a triple album of American songbook classics, should add George Gershwin's Nice Work if You Can Get it song to his sad old crooner's repertoire.

Yevtushenko's poetry made him world famous long before Bob Zimmerman from Minnesota changed his name in New York City. I read somewhere that the Russian, born in 1934 in the Siberian district of Zima, on the Trans-Siberian railway, near the Oka river, was nominated for the Nobel poetry prize in 1963 when he was just 19. By that time he had been to America and had recited his poems at the Oxford Union. W H Auden also recited by heart, or rather chanted in that trans-Atalantic twang that he had, but without Yevtushenko's fist-clenching, finger-pointing charisma.

I've Googled him up and heard him recite in both Russian and English. In his native tongue he accentuated consonants, grinding them together like techtonic plates in the way that Ted Hughes used to do in the Sixties. Maybe Russians naturally roll their 'r's'. I've also heard the late Andrei Voznesensky recite and he was much the same, relishing the hard consonants and the softer vowels. 

Poetasters in this country can only look back in envy. To be acknowledged as a poet in the former Soviet Union, during the period after Nikita Krushchev's denounciation of Stalin and Test Ban Treaty preceding the Cuba Missile Crisis of 1962, meant that the public had high expectations of you. This is part of a biographical note on the end-papers of Yevtushenko's 1963 book A Precocious Autobiography, a work of prose which should have been written as poetry:-

In the moral crisis which followed the revelation of Stalin's crimes, Yevtushenko,an ardent believer in the ideals of of the early Revolution and the need to 'restore their purity', found his public role as the poet of the young people, whose response was overwhelming. His editions of 100,000 sold out instantly, crowds of 14,000 flocked to hear him read at the Moscow Stadium. His controversial poem against anti-semitism, Babiy Yar (set to music by Shostakovich) brought him 40,000 letters from all corners of the country...

That 61-line poem is among the selection of his work published in this country in 1963 in the Penguin Modern European Poets series (it cost two shillings and sixpence for me to buy, just over 12p in today's decimated coinage). Babiy Yar was the site of a massacre of about 30,000 Jews by the Nazis in World War II. The young Yevtushenko used the past to make a jabbing point about the present in his country, brashly identifying himself with the persecuted:-

Today I am as old as the Jewish race.
I seem to myself a Jew at theis moment.
I, wandering in Egypt.
I, crucified. I perishing.
Even today the mark of ther nails.
I think also of Dreyfus. I am he.
The Philistine my judge and accuser...

The person who irritatedly annotated in red pen the copy of A Precocious Autobiography that I bought for £2.50 in Oxford in 1984 migh have thought those lines pretentious and self-conscious. I didn't uinderstand the true import of Yevtushenko until I remembered the Russsian man I saw striding along either the King's Road or Fulham Road in Chelsea. He was bare-chested, wore a folksy cap perched on his head and was bellowing out what I took to be opera. I can imagine Ernest Hemingway doing that. I can't imagine Alan Bennett doing that. Russians, I concluded, must be like Americans: larger-than-life. Not the average English writer's cup of tea.

The slim Penguin volume is largely taken up with a poem of greater length and stature, I think, than Babiy Yar. The autobiographical Zima Junction, 32-pages long, chronicles a long visit home to his family and friends at a time when the young Yevtushenko had come under fire from Communist Party hacks. It is reflective, lyrical and observant. It's as remarkable as some of the young Bob Dylan's songs of the 1960s: Don't Think Twice, It's Alrigh; One Too Many Mornings; Chimes of Freedom; My Back Pages; It Ain't Me Babe; Bob Dylan's Dream. The precocious Dylan too wrote autobiographically about escaping from expectations and definitions laid on him by others.

Unafraid of sounding sententious, Yevtushenko described how Zima Junction the place had spoken to him and told him not to be afraid of his emotions:-

Don't worry. Yours is no unique condition,
your type of search and conflict and construction,
don't worry if you have no answer ready
to the lasting question.
Hold out, meditate, listen.
Explore. Explore. Travel the world over.
Count happiness connatural to the mind
more than truth is, and yet
no happiness to exist without it.
Walk with a cold pride
utterly ahead
wild attentive eyes
head flicked by the rain-wet,
green needles of the pine,
eyelashes that shine 
with tears and with thunders.
Love people.
Love entertains its own discrimination.
Have me in mind, I shall be watching.
You can return to me.
Now go.

That poem is immediately followed by one that opens:-

Telling lies to the young is wrong.
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
Telling them that God is in his heaven
and all's well with the world is wrong.
The young know what you mean. The young are people.
Tell them the difficulties can't be counted
and let them see not only what will be
but see with clarity these present times....
To hell with it. Who never knew
the price of happiness will not be happy...

I'll take that any day instead of the infantile nonsense, the prattle, that comes at me from radios and loud-speakers in shops, offices, the gym, everywhere I go in fact.

I would prefer to believe that Yevtushenko's Russian nationality had nothing to do with the Nobel Prize committee's decision to give the big one to Bob Dylan, after all his antecedents were Russian Jews. The old Yevtushenko might have swanked a bit, but what would he have been without that swagger of self-confidence? 

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Lady's Not for Turning - Back

March 29: the day British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May officially informed the European Union of the UK's intention to withdraw from the project.

Significant rather than historic, I think; Mrs May's letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, merely 'triggered' Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, formally the first day of a two-year divorce.

The truly historic day happened nine months ago on June 23, 2016, when the British people voted in a referendum to leave the EU. Today only happened as a result of that event. Had the referendum gone the other way today would have been more or less like any other, except that David Cameron would still be Prime Minister.

Why Mrs May chose today to kiss off the EU on behalf of the nation rather than May 29 or July 29, is anybody's guess. She may have felt that delaying an announcement would only be the cause of more irritation among hard-line leavers within the Conservative Party and uncertainty nationwide.

A political bonus for the Prime Minister is the determination of Scottish Nationalists in Edinburgh to whip themselves up to fever pitch about a second Independence referendum for Scotland. They lost the first one in 2014 and on the evidence of what I've seen and heard in the Highlands over the past few years the SNP will lose the second one as well. I wouldn't be surprised if they even lost the next General Election.

I spent today reading a proof copy of The Gallows Pole, a novel by Ben Myers based on real events in West Yorkshire's Calder Valley between 1767 and 1770, a period of transition when industrial England was taking shape in the form of factories, roads and canals. The old ways for the rural poor, including defrauding the currency, were ending.

At no point during today did I feel the hand of history on my shoulder. I may not live long enough to see the day when Britain really does cast off from the European Union's political project. Many other events are likely to happen between now and then that will determine the eventual outcome: elections in France and Germany, for example; the stability of other EU members such as Greece and Italy; the state of the euro as a currency; to say nothing of events in the United States, Russia and the Middle East.

Mrs May said there is no turning back for Britain; but who's to say what will happen behind her back? She would do well to remember the fate of Margaret Thatcher. She got the Julius Caesar treatment from Tory patricians like Edward Heath, Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine, because she wasn't as keen on the European project as they were. Some of them are still able to make a nuisance of themselves. Are they going to sit back and await the outcome of events?

I was around when the late Tory MP and former cabinet Minister Enoch Powell urged Conservative voters to support the Labour Party in the 1974 General Election because at that time Labour policy was to seek withdrawal of Britain's membership from the European Economic Community, as the project was then called. Mr Powell thought it was a stitch-up that we would come to regret. Labour's Tony Benn held the same opinion.

Winning occasional battles does not guarantee ultimate victory. The bloodiest slaughter on British soil occurred on March 29, 1461. Thousands of men were killed and maimed when supporters of Edward, Duke of York, overcame the forces of Henry V1 at Towton in Yorkshire. But the House of York only reigned supreme until the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Goodbye Richard 111, vivat Henry V11 and the Tudors.

And on March 29, 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, died in a tent at the South Pole, having been beaten to his objective by Norwegian explorer Roal Amundsen. "The end cannot be far," he wrote in his diary. It wasn't for Scott. His body is still out there, under ice, snow and a cairn of rocks.

For Britain it's neither the end of the beginning nor the beginning of the end. Until the decree nisi is formally declared in March 2019 or later, this country is still a member of the European Union. To paraphrase blogger and FLEXCIT author Richard A E North: Brexit is a process, not an event.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

On Westminster Bridge...

"The world has not anything to shew more fair," wrote William Wordsworth after returning to his London lodgings from Westminster Bridge.

What the poet saw on that early September morning in 1803 is warmly described in the remaining thirteen lines of his sonnet.

His poem came to mind after I watched the television news about the killings and injuries inflicted on Westminster Bridge and inside the grounds of the Palace of Westminster by Khalid Masood, a follower of IS. Islamic State reportedly called him "a soldier of Islam". And that's maybe how he saw himself as he drove the car towards his target, justifying to his conscience what he intended to do.

IS and all the other jihadist righteous brothers bent on annihilating infidels make a great deal out of putting the love of god beyond all other considerations. Their interpretation of struggle embraces self-sacrifice and murder; the taking of life is their ticket to paradise.

I have remarked before on the absolving attraction of fatalism for those who find modern life fearful, complicated and demanding. Removing all responsibility from yourself, and hence culpability for what you do, is not simply the behaviour of the religious fanatic of a particular kind: throughout history it has been the mark of every zealot.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper gave a name to this kind of depersonalised idealism: historicism. Only he had in mind not Muslims of a certain stripe, but Marxists, at least those who worshipped the trinity of Marx-Engels and Lenin, for whom the grand march of history, irrespective of human cost, over-ruled every other consideration. "One death is a tragedy: a millions deaths is a statistic," said that great 20th Century cynic Joseph Stalin.

Stalin was many other things as well, but he best fits Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: One who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

That could be applied to the bearded leaders of IS, the Taliban and other jihadist movements, though one has to say, if paradise is as desirable as they claim why don't they offer themselves as suicide foot-soldiers? In the various forms of Christianity a martyr gives his own life to save the life of others, not take it. The embodiment of this belief, as reality and symbol, is Jesus Christ.

Whether or not the people in the vicinity of Westminster Bridge yesterday afternoon were practicing Christians doesn't matter. In the confusion and terror of the moment it is what those people did that counts. I saw the television-footage of people running towards those who lay on the bridge; I heard the same exclamations that I heard when the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center imploded on the morning of September 11, 2001: "Oh my god, oh my god, my god, Jesus Christ."

Today I was deeply touched by some of the sentiments expressed both inside and outside the House of Commons. All the big talk about liberty, democracy, tolerance belonged to yesterday in the ambiguous aftermath of ill-reported events. Realistically, you wouldn't expect anything else. Today I didn't hear many big words. Instead the talk was of ordinary people getting on with life, staying together, helping each other. Practicing curmudgeon that I am, my heart said yes to that although my mind remains on alert for the usual excuse that such attacks are a reaction to Islamophobia. I have been hearing that since the burning of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses in Bradford in 1989.

I could have taken the entirely cynical view that what happened in Westminister was a beneficial crisis as a result of which all manner of restrictions and curtailments of personal freedom would be justified by the authorities as a necessary part of the continuing war on terror.

This, by the way, was the very theme of three BBC film documentaries made in 2004 that I watched yesterday and the day before. The Power of Nightmares contended that ever since the United States aided the Mujahideen insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a symbiotic relationship has developed between neoconservatist and liberal values in the West and Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The power and influence of both relied on creating and maintaining a climate of fear.

It was asserted, for example, that the idea of an international network of Islamic terrorists called Al Qaeda, ready and willing to rise up and strike the West at the behest of Osama Bin Laden and others was a phantasy deliberately connived and perpetuated by politicians in Washington and London.

In the blood-light of the bombings, shootings, car-kills and stabbings all over the world after 2004, including those in London in July 2005 and May 2013, that thesis sounds specious.    

More convincing to me was Antonia Bird's 2004 film The Hamburg Cell, a dramatisation of the recruitment of the 9/11 jihadists in Germany and their subsequent undercover training as pilots in the United States. Reportedly made after two years of research, the film showed that an extensive network of jihadists did indeed exist. This network supplied money, equipment, ideological support and auxiliary backup. The men chosen to fly the planes were all encouraged to believe fervantly that they were heading for paradise. The American Airlines jet planes would be their firey angels, their chariots of fire, carrying them to everlasting bliss.

The Power of Nightmares ends with a summary statement to the effect that fear of a phantiom enemy is all that politicians have left to assert their power and influence. A society that believes in nothing is more liable to be frightened of people who believe ardently in something.

Up to a point Lord Copper. A year ago today a dear friend of mind died. Lesley and I were on our way to London on the morning of his death at home, a place we had come to love. This man, John Pashley, always professed to be an atheist. But in terms of his behaviour in the lives of others he was a practitioner of the values of the Sermon on the Mount. From what I saw and heard on television, I would say the same applies to the people on and around Westminster Bridge yesterday.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Great Bastards

According to the BBC, Great Bustards are "on the point" of becoming self sustainable in the UK for the first time in 185 years.
"The world's heaviest flying bird was hunted to extinction in the country, with the last bustard shot in 1832. Over the past 13 years, a population of about 50 birds has been established from chicks brought in from Russia and Spain. It is hoped that by 2019 the number of "release birds" will have reached 100."

At first I mis-read "Bustards" for "Bastards", an understandable mistake in the circumstances; I had been glancing over the headlines about George Osborne's six jobs including the editorship of the London Evening Standard.

If the published salary estimates are accurate, David Cameron's former "Iron Chancellor" can be expected to clock up about £1.86m over 12 months. That's quite a stack of chips for Mr Austerity although nowhere near the pre-tax pay of footballers Wayne Rooney and Paul Pogba.

Three or four years ago Rooney and his agent persuaded Manchester United to agree a five-anad-a-half contract reportedly worth £350,000 a week, more than £80m for the duration.

Pogba, sold by Alex Ferguson for £1.5m to Juventus, was brought back to Old Trafford by Jose Mourinho for a reported £89m which surely makes the Frenchman the most expensive haircut ever to leave Italy.

Mourinho is very protective of the giraffe-like midfielder who has only shown flashes of ability in the matches he has played for United: against Chelsea in the FA Cup he was utterly outplayed by the smaller but more energetic N'golo Kante. The manager declared that people were jealous of Pogba's salary and so had it in for him.

My annual income is a single shred of orange in a jar of marmalade in comparison with what Osborne, Rooney and Pogba can spread on their toast every morning. But am I jealous of them? Not a jot. I don't live in their world, so you cannot judge like with like.

The only expectation I have is that they should be worth the dosh; for the money they are on they should be able to make a positive difference.

Lest that sound Gradgrindingly grudging, let me conclude this inconsequential post with a bit more of the BBC's news about Great Bustards (which reminds me of William Boot, the hapless bird-fancier-cum war correspondent in Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop).

"An adult great bustard can be up to a metre (3ft) tall and weigh up to 44lb (20kg). Its wingspan can reach nearly eight feet (2.4m).The bustard's size made it an easy target for hunters, leading to its extinction."

Thursday, 9 March 2017

A Dog's Breakfast

What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back? Answer: A stick. What is a party Manifesto pledge? Answer: Balls. What do you call a tax on pay that isn't officially a tax? Answer: An increase in National Insurance.

What is National Insurance for? Answer: State pensions, welfare benefits for sickness and unemployment and allowances. It's all part of the comprehensive safety net envisaged by William Beveridge seventy years ago to combat the the Five Giants of squalor, want, ignorance, disease and idleness. It wasn't intended to be a way of boosting central government reserves to pay the European Union up to £60 billion for leaving the European Empire.

Which brings me to an associated part of Philip Hammond's Spring budget announcement in the House of Commons: the £2 billion for extra social care provision over the next three years that the National Insurance hike for the self-employed is supposed to pay for.

Former Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbitt has said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's explanation - to equalise the contributions of the self-employed who pay a lower rate of tax with the tax contributions by the employed - is reasonable. Nevertheless, he described the budget as a "dog's breakfast".

What is a dog's breakfast exactly? Something that cats and human beings would find undigestible? The real question is this: Local authoritities already have the power to raise extra money from Council Tax to pay for Social Care. In view of the £2 billion tax grab from the self-employed for the same thing, will this power be removed from local authorities for the next financial year?

To this bear of astonishingly little brain, the uncertainty (a subject already covered in a previous blog) over Brexit is being used as an excuse to rack up price increases all round. The power company cartel, for example, is getting away with rises of up to 15 per cent. They blame mandatory carbon capture and lower emissions costs imposed by the European Union and signed up for by Ed Miliband when he was Gordon Brown's Secretary of State for the Environment.

The BBC, though, doesn't appear to be interested in the connection between higher energy prices and the cost of European Union legislation to the tax-payers of old Britannia.

The Corporation's bevvy of political and economics editors, though, have yet to find a way of blaming Donald Trump for the Chancellor's dog's breakfast. Give them time.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Trump, Trump, Trump...

Brexiteers continue the civil war that's been going on ever since former Prime Minister David Cameron announced the unbelievable news that UK voters would actually have a referendum on membership of the European Union.

Mr Cameron's successor, Theresa May, set the warring factions against each other again this week - intentionally or otherwise - by making a speech at London's Lancaster House in which she declared that Britain would be leaving the EU single market, at some time, in some way. Lancaster House was the place where Margaret Thatcher declared emphatically that membership of the single market was a really good thing. She may even have believed that, for a while.

While some Brexiteers like Nigel Farage cheer on Mrs May and, with Donald Trump as President of the United States, look forward to another Thatcher-Reagan era, others, some of whom publicly welcomed her as the best possible successor to David Cameron, are now prophecing catastrophe. Is it a car crash? No. Is it a train wreck? No. Is it a Jumbo Jet explosion? Almost certainly. What, then, does that make President Trump? Why, a nuclear holocaust of course. According to Polly Toynbee at least.

So, Brexit doesn't mean Brexit after all: it means Exit. The main thing that struck me about Mrs May's speech, though, was the outfit in which she chose to make it. The blue-green tartan bum-freezer jacket and matching trousers, hitched high round her middle, instantly reminded me of the Bay City Rollers, the 'tartan teen sensations' from Edinburgh whose biggest hit in the 1970s was Bye Bye Baby. The main difference between Mrs May and Les McKeown and the boys was that she wore flat shoes rather than boots with big heels.

Forty-odd years ago, while young Fionas, Daphnes and Theresas were leaping up and down with tartan scarves tied to their wrists, the man with a nose like a ship's rudder, Edward Heath, was tying Britain up to the European Economic Community, as it was then designated, assuring the nation that 'twas but a trading agreement, a market of six sovereign states. Thirty years later Uncle Ted superciliously admitted to BBC television reporter Michael Cockerall that it was in fact a political union.

No it wasn't. The 1972 European Communities Act was a web and sitting in the middle of it was the European Commission, spinning out ever more sticky strands to bind more and more member states together. The six became 28 or 27 plus 1. More nations need even more sticky rules, regulations, directives, thousands and thousands of them, many of them from international conglomerates a long way from Brussels. A great sticky ball of rules and regs larger than the Gordian Knot that Alexander the Great is said to have loosened with a single blow of his sword.

Is that what Theresa May has at the back of her mind, a single low to slice through thousands of strands of sticky red tape? Is that what President Trump has in mind as outlined in his inaugural speech attack on Washington's governing elite? - the talkers who do nothing but prosper while swathes of America turn into rusting tombstones. An unlikely image if you think about it, but President Trump is more a man of phrases than images. "The American carnage," was the phrase he used to describe the white collar crimes against America's blue collar industries.

Because I am easily distracted by trivialities, phrases from a popular song from the 1950s pinged into my mind before President Trump's big show in Washington. It goes:-

Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk

And said goodbye to the circus
Off she went with a trumpety-trump
Trump, trump, trump
Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk
And trundled back to the jungle
Off she went with a trumpety-trump
Trump, trump, trump

Nellie ended up on the road to Mandalay. Donald Trump unpacked his trunk in Washington, specifically at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I imagine him, the fuss of the great day over, taking off his trousers in the master bedroom, a day after ex-President Obama had put his on in the same room, perhaps, and turning to the First Lady, saying: "Melania honey, did you ever hear of the Bay City Rollers?" Chances are, of course, that Trump's pants could be tartan in honour of his mother's Scottish connection.

In response to all the Apocalypso Now doom-mongers, the time has come to echo that world-weary voice responding to the hapless J Alfred Prufrock in T S Eliot's poem and repeat:-

That is not it at all/ That is not what I meant, at all.

While it may be a mistake to impose the pattern of the past on the future, seeing in May-Trump another Thatcher-Reagan, I well recall that 1980 to about 1987 was a time of trouble, turbulence and fear, from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan. America was in retreat while the clunky Soviet Union was on the advance. Few foresaw in the mid-1980s the way things would work out by November 9, 1989 - the day when the German Democratic Republic accidentally abolished the Berlin Wall.

Perhaps it's not the great set-piece policy statements in London and Washington that make the real difference, except to the money changers, so much as unforeseen events along the way.   

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Bow Wow Factor

Some people are apt to get really boring about the misuse of words and phrases on radio, television and in the press. I'm one myself. I can't watch or listen passively. The frequent misuse of 'iconic', 'awesome', 'fantastic' and lately 'wow' is yet another indicator, to me at least, of the way the public is being treated like a regressive infant.

Only the testy old Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge appears to have any expectation of audience intelligence or at least a ready willingness to understand. But I don't suppose many would think of judging the nation by the standards applied to University Challenge, more like Gogglebox.

The willingess to use ready-made words and phrases as unthinking expressions of surprise, shock, incredulity or amazement exists against a soundtrack of Munchkin muzak in supermarkets, gyms, cafes and other public places. So no surprise that at a time of emotional cliches in popular music, invariably about love, the tendency to talk in cliches, like, is bound to be more noticeable. That doesn't make it any more tolerable, though.

I've just watched a programme on BBC2 about home make-overs in which amateur designers are given £1,000 and a bit of help to change a room in a house in the space of 48 hours. In every instance, two of the three judges inspecting the make-overs uttered 'Wow' as they walked into the room. Not a short, to the point, 'wow' but a lingering 'wo-o-ow', as though Greg Wallace had fed the entire prodution team of Master Chef with five loaves and two fishes. When God surveyed the created universe you may be sure he did not say 'wow, 'awesome', 'fantastic' lor even, 'wow, thar's iconic.'

I have a family relative who, last time I saw her, had a really annoying way of using the expression 'okay'. In response to virtually any new piece of information she replied, 'okaaaay?' interogatively, as though what you had told her was subject to some kind of commission of inquiry for validation. This is the same as saying 'right?' That little qualifier so common in conversation nowadays which indicates that the person using it is checking constantly that you are following his or her drift. Usually the subject is not at all difficult to follow, just bloody tedious, right?

Listen dog, next time you talk to me leave your wows in the kennel where they belong. Likewise awesome, fantastic and iconic. Either find a way of expressing what you think or feel or, if you feel and think nothing worth saying, then keep your mouth shut. Nod instead or shake your head.