Saturday, 29 January 2011

Thoughts on Evil

Ideas and themes swirl in a complex, confused cloud around me. Rarely enough, beginning to write this, I have no idea where it’s going to go. Sixty-six years ago this week, Auschwitz was liberated and the ghastly reality of what the Nazis had actually been doing to the Jews (not to forget other groups too, like the gypsies) started to become clear. A few evenings ago, following the death of Bernd Eichinger, the film producer, German TV showed the 2004 film Der Untergang (Downfall), his masterpiece about the last days in Hitler’s bunker in April 1945.

I do not find it easy to write about evil. Oh, I have no problem sounding off about things I regard as being wrong, or stupid, or incompetent. I don’t even have great problems about taking the position of the moralist; letting rip at the (often criminal) deficiencies of the great and the powerful and the damage they do in the world. But, at the same time, I suppose I tend to see such things generally as the result of weaknesses, short-sightedness, selfishness, lack of intelligence, vision or moral maturity – all the imperfections to which human nature is heir and which are part of our basic make-up. But evil is something else – a difficult, uncomfortable and amorphous subject for people like me with a rational, liberal bent. We tend to think that we can explain and understand everything; that if we approach things more sensibly, with more tolerance, openness, intelligence, generosity and humility, most problems can be solved.

It is the way we generally approach things in our modern world, an enlightened approach, an approach which is the root of most of the genuine advances humanity has made in the past few hundred years. It is, in my view, preferable to the alternatives humanity has tried; the various theocracies, dogmatic ideologies and unquestioning loyalties with their versions of absolute truth, their anathemas, persecutions and exclusive righteousness. And it is an approach which comes up short – baffled and silenced – when suddenly faced with the reality of evil.

Many years ago I visited Auschwitz. It was a beautiful summer’s day and the whole place seemed still and peaceful. In the chaotic, oppressive political uncertainty of Poland in the mid-eighties, there weren’t the throngs of visitors the place gets now. We saw the barracks, and some ovens, and the execution place of Maximilian Kolbe and then moved on to the photographs and exhibits. There were huge glass display cases filled with suitcases and satchels, with clothing and human hair. And then we came to a case full of children’s shoes and boots and suddenly the dimensions and the horror of the evil whose traces we had been seeing became clear to me. I remember just standing there, unable to go on, silently weeping. Faced with this kind of mute testimony of sheer inhumanity, words, concepts, everything fails – just aren’t enough … inexplicable, incomprehensible.

Tragically, even such examples don’t seem to be enough to teach us, as more recent events in Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur show. Confronted with such examples we are stunned, speechless before the reality of the evil of which our species is capable. And we ask ourselves how such things can happen.

It would be easy to proffer some kind of diabolical explanation; satanic power overwhelming basic humanity, dehumanised, possessed beings raging through the world perpetrating unspeakable horrors. But this is not how it happens. Watching Der Untergang a different – in many ways much more disturbing – picture emerges. One of the great strengths of the film is that all the characters work as real people, even the most horrific ones like Magda Goebbels and Adolf Hitler. On consideration, I believe only Germans could have made this film and it is no surprise that sixty years had to pass before it could be made; it took this long for German people generally to reach the stage of honest detachment from their horrific definition through the Nazi past and at the same time retain the familiarity to make the film work. The vast majority of Germans alive today can no longer remember the war, yet they know that this is the world of their parents and grandparents – even if those generations were not particularly willing to talk about it (but that’s another story).

There were doubts and some criticism expressed in Germany (the great director Wim Wenders being a prominent example) when the film was released about the risk of showing Hitler and the others as “real” human beings. Reservations which were understandable but, in the end, unfounded because (in my opinion) the film manages to successfully walk the tightrope.

The critic Roger Ebert puts it very well:

Admiration I did not feel. Sympathy I felt in the sense that I would feel it for a rabid dog, while accepting that it must be destroyed. I do not feel the film provides a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did, because I feel no film can, and no response would be sufficient. As we regard this broken and pathetic Hitler, we realize that he did not alone create the Third Reich, but was the focus for a spontaneous uprising by many of the German people, fueled by racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear. He was skilled in the ways he exploited that feeling, and surrounded himself by gifted strategists and propagandists, but he was not a great man, simply one armed by fate to unleash unimaginable evil. It is useful to reflect that racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear are still with us, and the defeat of one of their manifestations does not inoculate us against others.

We can watch Hitler (brilliantly played by Bruno Ganz) being charming, worrying about his dog, and even showing kindness to his uncertain new secretary without abandoning our fundamental moral disgust. We can understand the internal twisted reasoning which leads Magda Goebbels to kill her six children in one of the most ghastly heartrending scenes ever filmed, while not in any way surrendering our horrified repugnance. But, as Ebert points out, the film also makes another – in many ways even more horrifying – point with its depiction of the dozens of “ordinary” characters in the film. They all work as basically decent human beings, showing acts of individual kindness, humanity, even heroism during Hitler’s final ten days, at the same time as they are all (more or less) willing collaborators in a system of gruesome moral depravity.

Which brings me back to Auschwitz and my uncomfortable question about the nature of evil. Reflecting on Der Untergang, I find myself coming to the conclusion that there is, in fact, nothing particularly special about evil except its dimensions. It is, in the end, only “normal” human flaws written large, cosseted and nourished, worked through various levels of magnitude, pushed to their logical conclusions. What starts as the very human tendency to refuse to take responsibility for our own mistakes and failings moves along the easy path of giving others the blame; solidifies around suspicion of those who are other, different; becomes institutionalised in attitudes like anti-Semitism; until finally particular historical circumstances make the Shoah possible.

The story of Faust and Mephisto is, in the end, much too dramatic. We do not exchange our soul for the world with a signature in blood, given on a dark and stormy night, abandoning good for evil with a portentous symbolic act. Instead, we deny incrementally, in tiny steps, the responsibility for our deeds which is the inevitable consequence of that freedom we claim for ourselves. Or we surrender, piece for piece, that freedom to others because we find the responsibility too hard. Either way, the result is the same – Mephisto collects his signature (and the soul it signifies), only not given at once but gathered through many little, often unwitting, pen-strokes over time. Evil does not spring fully-formed into existence; it grows instead like a mould, feeding on all our weaknesses and faults, sending out myriad, often largely unseen tendrils until it finally poisons a personality – or a whole society.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011


She never wanted to talk about what had happened. If pressed, all she would say was that it was “an accident,” or “a stupid thing.” Even years later, I believe, she still found it too embarrassing for words. We had heard from other sources that it had been a failed suicide attempt, but we had no written records of what exactly had happened. Whatever it was, it had basically left her paralysed from the neck downwards.

When she came to us, the event in question was already nearly a decade in the past. She had lived for years in a nursing home in Cologne but over the course of time her strength had gradually deteriorated. She contracted a serious chest infection and after it had been finally treated she was no longer able to breathe continually on her own and had to be put on a respirator. The nursing home wasn’t equipped to deal with this kind of continuous intensive care so she moved to the house our company runs in Remscheid – long-term intensive care, particularly of people with artificial respirators, is our area of specialisation.

She was not your typical suicide; she was too strong-willed, too much the fighter for that. I always believed that it had been a spur of the moment thing, that she had been deeply offended in her vanity and had acted spontaneously. I suspect that there was an unhappy love affair in the mix and that she had been pretty drunk at the time. The forties can be a dangerous decade for fun-loving, single women who have never met Mr. Right, or for whom Mr. Right has turned out to be Mr. Seriously Wrong. They proved to be very dangerous for Hannelore at any rate.

Her first couple of months with us were extremely stressful for everybody. Much of her strength of will expressed itself in a monumental inflexibility, which made developing the intense nursing relationship and routine necessary to care for her very difficult. She could exhibit a stubbornness which was so extreme that it defied any rational attempts to find solutions to conflicts. The fact that she was daily swallowing enough medication, most of them psycho-pharmaceutics, to knock out a middling sized ox with little apparent effect (despite a body weight of less than 45 kg.) didn’t make things easier. Getting her off most of the pills would have been impossible anyway; she’d been on them for so long that she was, effectively, a junkie. The prospect of her going cold turkey was so horrifying it didn’t bear thinking about.

But slowly, gradually, we learned to work with her, and she with us. The very intensity of the care she needed helped actually, because if she was your patient then you necessarily spent literally hours with her when you were on duty. For one thing, she had deep extensive pressure sores on the back of both thighs which would have been excruciatingly painful if she had been able to feel any sensation. Sometimes paralysis can be a mercy – though the lack of sensation had probably contributed to development of the sores in the first place. They were a challenge to our nursing professionalism – she had brought them with her, I hasten to add, for such wounds are generally seen as a sign of bad nursing – and over the course of five years we tried just about everything possible to try to heal them. All we succeeded in was in keeping them from progressing further. But changing the dressings daily (sometimes more often, as she was incontinent) and carrying out the various attempts at treatment took a lot of time and effort and was difficult for her.

She could move her arms somewhat, but she had little strength and no fine control so she was no longer able to eat or drink on her own and had to be fed. I actually came to enjoy the mealtimes I spent with her. They took time – if she had ordered a salad, lots of time – for she chewed every mouthful extensively, but it was time I used to get to know her. In the early years she was with us she could spend long periods daily without the respirator and during these periods she was able to talk. She had a keen intelligence and a sophisticated (sometimes deliciously dirty) sense of humour. She told of her work – she had been a secretary in a large company in Cologne – and of the holidays she had had (she had particularly loved Kenya) and the books she had read. She had moved from Northern Germany to Cologne as a young woman and had no family living except for a brother with whom she had fought a long time ago and with whom she no longer wished to have any contacts. Over the years he sent her a couple of letters but she refused to have them opened and read to her. That stubbornness again. As we got to know each other better, I trusted myself increasingly to fight with her about such things, but on this subject I had no success, the lady was not for turning.

She had one good friend whom she had got to know after her “accident” and he faithfully took care of her few affairs. A visit from him was always a high point, a break in her monotonous routine. Though much of this monotony was entirely her own doing, something self-chosen. She developed an iron-clad daily and weekly schedule, alterations to which were very unwillingly accepted. She watched TV, for example, every afternoon till about five thirty; always the same channel, usually mindless, sensational talk shows. When asked why she never switched channels, or had the TV turned on at other times to see something she might find interesting, she explained that she needed the stringent routine to help her assure herself that she “was not going mad.”

There was one exception to that routine, which became a routine of itself; Formula 1. She loved to watch motor racing and was well informed about all the drivers and teams so every second Sunday during the season when there was a race on she would watch it. She and I were united by a cordial dislike for Michael Schumacher – something very uncommon in Germany(!) – and if he lost we would share our jubilation with civilised, understated satisfaction. If he won, which unfortunately happened quite frequently, she dismissed him as an uncouth rowdy.

She was subject to panic attacks which could last for hours, frequently for a whole night. Those nights were hell – for all concerned. She could not use an ordinary bell to summon help but because she was on a respirator our standards demanded that her vital signs, pulse and blood oxygen satiation, be continually monitored. To summon a nurse, all she had to do was remove the finger-clip (something she could do) so that the signal to the monitor was interrupted and an alarm was triggered. Doped to the eyeballs and dead tired, her panic still prevented her from sleeping and she was capable of summoning us every five minutes – just for reassurance. And you always had to go, because there was always the slight chance that the alarm from the monitor actually meant something “serious.” I spent more nights than I care to remember with her in such situations. She knew perfectly well that her panic was irrational but she was powerless against it. And she possessed the genuine magnanimity to sincerely apologise for her behaviour the following day; something which (at least for me) made the whole thing easier to bear. The night-long aggravation transformed itself in retrospect into a difficult battle we had fought together which somehow served to fortify our mutual respect and liking.

Three mornings a week she visited our day-care department, for which I was responsible for two years up to last summer. She enjoyed those visits enormously, as did we. As much as she was an intensive-care patient while she was in bed; when she had been cared for, dressed in clothes she had chosen herself, lipstick applied and transferred to her wheelchair, she became a lady, in the best sense of the word. Amid old people, most of whom suffered from dementia and/or depression, she was like a breath of fresh air for those of us who worked there, her keen sense of observation and humour, as well as her intelligence giving rise to wry, clever and pertinent comments. Or simply gestures or a curl of the lip or flash in the eye as her ability to communicate verbally slowly disappeared.

For she was weakening. Like a cunning, wily, old general, trying to defend his territory with troops too few and too undependable, she fought long delaying actions and strategic battles with her traitorous body, having to surrender a little more territory each time. The time she was able to spend without the respirator daily gradually shrank and even when she was breathing independently she no longer had the strength for the strenuous effort of speaking through a tracheotomy tube. Various crises led to her spending intervals in hospital and from one of these she returned with an MRSA infection. It took my colleagues over half a year to get that cleared up (I was with the day-care group at that stage), during which she had to be confined to her room. Apart from the frustration at the enforced quarantine, that battle also took most of her remaining strength. The MRSA finally defeated, she returned once more to the day-care centre. It was like a triumph for us all, another battle won, against great odds. But she came ever more rarely; she had simply become too weak and it was slowly dawning on us all that her time was running out.

Shortly before the day-care centre closed for good, she had to be hospitalised again. She never returned. But, being the fighter she was, even unconscious most of the time, she went on struggling for life, beyond all borders of reason or strength. Immersed as I was in new, difficult, challenging, time-consuming work, I could only hear of her last battle from a distance. The ethics committee in the hospital had to be consulted. Typical, I thought, her stubbornness and strength of will was always her greatest asset – and, at the same time, her greatest foe. She was never good at bending like a reed; instead, like a proud oak, she stood against the storm until finally the winds brought her to a fall.

I couldn’t go to her funeral in August; I was working that day and couldn’t get off. I decided instead to write this – though I’ve needed quite some time to do it. It is not all that often that a nurse makes genuine friendship with a patient but over the five years we knew each other Hannelore and I became friends. A formal, reserved friendship it is true, I never used her first names nor did we move from the formal German Sie to the familiar du, but a genuine friendship nevertheless. Which is why in writing this now I refer to her by her first name, because somehow, after her death, it’s how I think of her. And, as a friend, I miss her – while at the same time being glad for her that her purgatory is over.

More than anything else, perhaps, Hannelore taught me a very deep lesson about the nature of human dignity. Hearing a description of her condition; her paralysis and bed sores, the tubes going into her and the tubes coming out of her, her absolute dependence on others for all the simplest and most basic and most private of human actions, one tends to recoil in horror, to ask, “What kind of life is that?” Yet through all this Hannelore retained her personal dignity; more she radiated it to all who came into her orbit. She could drive you mad, but you could never fail to take her less than seriously or even consider treating her without respect; she was possessed of too much raw presence for even the most ignorant to dare it. From her I learned – no, more, I experienced daily – that dignity is, finally, not something that is defined or determined by extraneous factors but rather something intrinsic, something definitive about being human. It is something we can perhaps give up (I have a suspicion that this is a lot of what despair is about) but it is nothing that events or other people can take from us without our own assent.

Hannelore retained her dignity to the end and through that she enriched my life and that of all the others who encountered her. And for that I can rejoice in her memory and feel honoured to have known her.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges

In a series of events best described as curious serendipity, I bought Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges this week. Curious because my cousin Maureen had told my mother that I had recommended it. Which I hadn’t, but that’s something I want to correct now and, in doing so, thank Maureen for the roundabout recommendation. I bought it … and have read it in less than a day.

Hedges’ book, published in 2009 is an extended essay, written (it seems to me) in a white heat of passion and indignation at everything that is sick in our society. Its basic premise is that our contemporary culture and society are in a state of terminal decay. We have replaced literacy with instant tasteless spectacle, individual moral responsibility with feel-good illusion, and constructive critical thinking with conformist conditioning. Our possibilities for real democratic involvement and reflective engagement have been hollowed out and left meaningless by a continuous subversion by a small elite of the rich and powerful, driving a global grasp for total control by supremely irresponsible corporations.

Hedges is writing about America in particular, but most of his criticism can be applied one-to-one to Western Europe as well. In the first four chapters he examines the moral and intellectual vacuity in the TV-driven media, the porn industry, the academic establishment and what can best be described as the psychology industry. From a German perspective, things don’t look all that different here. Europe is perhaps more fortunate in that public state involvement in the education area has not been pared back as drastically as in the USA; on the other hand, this does not mean that education is particularly healthy in Europe, Britain being a prime example. Hedges’ fundamental concern over what he calls “the assault on the humanities” is one that I have shared for a long time. The interesting thing here is that this has not been to the benefit of the hard science and engineering and technology; in fact many of the countries in the developed world are having trouble finding enough college applicants with the sufficient secondary school qualifications for studies in this area – in marked contrast to the emerging industrial and economic giants of India and China.

Today the most desired places and consequently those most difficult to get into (right up there with medicine and law) are those in the whole area known as “business studies.” This is not surprising in a culture in which getting rich has been elevated to the highest attainable value but it has drastic long-term consequences. Instead of exposing the cleverest and most talented young intellects we produce to an academic environment which would encourage the widening of their intellectual boundaries, the growth of their moral and cultural sensibilities, the fostering of their creativity, they are being encouraged to devote themselves to an arcane world of amoral pseudo-science, the new quasi-religious orthodoxy whose deeply-rooted fallibility has been amply demonstrated in the past few years. While I am not so naïve and idealistic as to argue that the securing of basic material security is a not a prime issue – indeed right – for everybody, at the same time I would argue that other values, above all basic moral sense but also cultural creativity, are also essential to society and are areas worth engaging our most talented young people in.

And we are not. Hedges’ opening chapter on the desolate, all-encompassing world of the modern mass-media is particularly powerful. The cult of celebrities, the worship of image, the 24/7 obsession with cruel triviality, as exemplified by Jerry Springer, Big Brother and all the other “reality soaps” is pilloried in all its shallowness. Real engagement in the depth, the complexity of issues has become non-existent. It is exploitative “bread and circuses” at its most sensationalist banal, appealing frequently to the worst in us and finding a ready echo. The disrespect and cruelty towards others often involved is a theme he expands in the following chapter on pornography. Indeed, the comparison between present-day America – I would expand this to cover much of what globally goes under the name of mass culture – and the degenerate late days of various previous empires comes frequently to mind. Late in the book, Hedges himself draws the comparison explicitly:

“Cultures that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die. The dying gasps of all empires, from the Aztecs to the ancient Romans to the French monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have been characterized by a disconnect between the elites and reality.” (p. 143)

In a world where Paris Hilton is an icon and people make pilgrimages to the tomb of Elvis, where Michael Jackson can generate a billion dollars in revenue after his death and the second-long exposure of his sister’s nipple causes a US-wide controversy, it’s hard to deny him.

And yet … At times, reading the book I found myself feeling slightly irritated. While I wholeheartedly recommend it, this doesn’t mean that I completely agree with it all. Empire of Illusion is the work of a moralist, someone so indignant at and disgusted with what he sees in the world that he feels himself to make an impassioned statement in the sense of Zola’s J’accuse. Everything he says is true, yet there is perhaps more truth to which he does not give sufficient weight. While mass media culture is increasingly illusionary, mindless, trivial and sensationalist, there are other realities too. The internet can be seen as a platform for the extension of this pabulum, with Twitter and Facebook as its current apotheoses, but much more also happens on these platforms. The whole WikiLeaks phenomenon and the millions of supporters who galvanised in its support, movements like Avaaz and Direct Action which have specialised in organising support on-line are, perhaps, signals of new counter-(mass)cultural possibilities. Text-messages, twitter and internet seem to have played an important role in the almost successful revolution in Iran in 2009 and in the recent events in Tunisia. And, perhaps beyond the main-stream, there is a an awful lot of serious analysis, dialogue and creativity going on all over the web – in discussion groups and blogs and all sorts of other forums.

The problem is that the more serious, the deeper, the more nuanced and critical disappears in the cacophony of the vastness of triviality. It used to be the case that other, critical opinions had to be censored or forbidden; this is no longer necessary. The small controlling elites and the corporations in parasitic relationship with each other control nearly all the means of mass access – their critics, like Hedges (and Nader and Chomsky and all the others), must no longer be silenced, they can simply be ignored because their voices are no longer heard above the orchestrated symphony of mass-marketed illusion.

Yet even in the particular US context which is Hedges’ focus, there is more. In the heat of the mid-term elections last autumn, over 200,000 Americans attended the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington. It was basically, for nearly all who attended it, an appeal for reason and decency in public discourse. It is, perhaps, indicative in another way of the deep dysfunction in society Hedges is addressing, that the rally had to be called and organised by Jon Stewart, someone who is basically a comedian. But it can also be seen as some sort of sign of hope.

Hedges’ deepest criticism is that the professed, public values to which we give lip-service have long been hollowed out and made meaningless by corporate capitalism. Democracy has become a ritualistic farce and public morality has been emasculated in favour of the profit motive. Lulled by illusions, brutalised by sensationalism, controlled by manipulative shallow psycho-techniques, we collaborate in our own exploitation and the rape of our world. And we do. But we also resist and – at least to an extent – seek to empower ourselves by other means.

At the end of the book Hedges too recognises this and professes his belief in the ultimate supremacy of hope and love. “Love will endure, even if it appears that darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.” (p. 193) Perhaps I am just more optimistic by nature, but I would like to hope that this can happen before nothing but wreckage remains. It is true that the stakes are becoming horrifyingly high and that the (inevitable) fall of empires is usually accompanied by vast suffering and misery. But we have to try, if only for our children and grandchildren. Hedges’ conclusion is too apocalyptic for me. Maybe the best we can hope for is that we somehow continue to muddle on, still balancing on the knife-edge. After all, who would have taken bets in October 1962, at the height of the Cuba Missile Crisis that we would still be here today, over forty eight years later?

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Science Fiction: Alternate History

In an earlier post I mentioned that I have been addicted to reading for most of my life. I cannot imagine not having at least one book going – and it is often more – and like any good, prudent addict, I usually have my next couple of fixes lined up before I actually need them.

Though I will read books in German (again, like any addict, in case of emergency I’m prepared to read almost anything in preference to having nothing to read at all) and although my German is fluent – after a quarter of a century in the country it should be! – I much prefer to read in English. For that reason alone on-line shopping with Amazon has proved to be a great blessing. I also frequent the local library but after ten years in the same town I’ve pretty well read everything they’ve got in their not-so-vast English section that I’m interested in.

To keep my rather strange, quirky conscience quiet, I do make regular efforts to read what an earlier generation might call “improving” stuff, particularly history and philosophy but also other “serious” literature. But primarily I read for entertainment and relaxation and so my staple diet is fiction and particularly what is called “speculative fiction”; science fiction and fantasy, often simply referred to as sf.

It is perhaps excessively old-fashioned and oversensitive to confess that there is a part of me that feels slightly ashamed to admit this preference openly. The time is long past when science fiction and fantasy were regarded as something inferior and slightly vulgar by the arbiters of literary taste. In my youth, however, something of this attitude still remained and I have, perhaps, been slightly tainted by the view that fantasy was something childish and science fiction sensationalist pulp rubbish, devoid of any deeper literary significance. So there is still that lurking feeling in me which believes that professing a preference for science fiction and fantasy is like a well-born elderly lady declaring in a fine restaurant that she’d rather have beer than wine with her dinner. But as I’ve decided to be honest, I’ll even shock my own enlightened liberal left-wing sensibilities by outing myself as a closet fan of military space opera of the kind written by David Weber, David Drake and (oh, the shame of it!) that militaristic reactionary who scatters his books with the corpses of millions of both humans and ghastly aliens alike, John Ringo. But further elucidation of this is perhaps best left for a later post after I’ve come to terms with my own honesty.

Speculative fiction has become so popular and accepted nowadays that it has spawned all sorts of sub-genres; hard sf, soft sf, cyberpunk, sword and sorcery, epic fantasy, space opera, magic realism, steampunk, dystopias, space opera, etc., etc. However, such genres are not hard and fast and many of the best authors switch effortlessly between them or produce works which can be categorised in many genres simultaneously. It can even be difficult to find a definition of speculative or science fiction on which all can agree. Personally, I like the comment of Mark C. Glassy, cited in Wikipedia, best; the definition of science fiction is like the definition of pornography: you don't know what it is, but you know it when you see it.

Of all the various wonderful thematic byways of sf, alternate history is a particular favourite of mine, perhaps because I have always been fascinated by history (and indeed have a degree in the subject). Alternate history generally takes as its starting point a particular event or moment in history and asks what if it happened differently; what would the world look like as a result?

There are various ways the theme can be introduced. Sometimes something unexplained happens so that timelines get tangled up. In Eric Flint’s 1632 series, for example, an act of incompetence by technologically vastly superior interstellar beings sends a late 20th Century small town from West Virginia back to Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years War. John Birmingham sends a naval task force from 2021 (led by the aircraft-carrier USS Hilary Clinton, named after an assassinated US president) back to the middle of World War II in his Axis of Time novels (in this case it was a scientific experiment someone got spectacularly wrong). While Flint’s series has expanded to several books, some by other authors, and seems to be getting lost in the sheer complexity of working out all the ramifications of the changes the people of Grantville work in the intricate history and society of 17th Century Europe, Birmingham develops a tight and very well thought out plot to bring the Second World War to an end in three volumes.

World War II is a favourite theme in alternate history books. Frequently Germany wins. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, published in 1962 is set in a USA dominated by Japan and Germany. Robert Harris has produced a more recent treatment of the subject in Fatherland, a detective story set in a victorious Germany in the early 1960s, in a world in which the USA is ruled by President Kennedy; President Joseph P. Kennedy.

The master of alternate history is the U.S. author Harry Turtledove. His magnum opus is the 15 book long “Timeline-191” series, an alternate history of America in which the South wins the Civil War and which runs to the victory of the USA over the CSA at the end of a different Second World War in 1944. (The theme of the South winning the Civil War was also treated by Winston Churchill in an essay written in 1931; alternate history can claim many prominent “guests.”) Turtledove has a doctorate in history and his research into and knowledge of “real” history is stupendous, making his complex alternate history completely believable. One of the fascinating aspects of Turtledove’s story is the way he involves figures who played an important role in our history in his alternative; General Custer is not killed by the Sioux but has a successful military career in the Great War, General Patton is a racist fighting for the Confederacy in World War II and the young Confederate sailor, Jimmy Carter, dies defending his home town of Plains, Georgia in 1942.

My favourite work by Turtledove is Ruled Britannia, in which William Shakespeare becomes involved in a plot to free the captive Queen Elizabeth and expel the Spanish for England, years after the success of the Armada. Apart from an exciting story line and a very adroit use of Shakespearian language, Turtledove also manages to create two new plays by the Bard himself, “King Philip” and “Queen Boudicca.”

But if I had to recommend one work of alternate history it would have to be The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. A book with a span of 700 hundred years, the basic premise is that the Black Death carries off 99% of Europe’s population instead of the estimated 30% it actually killed. Henceforth European culture and religion no longer plays any role in world history. Renaissance, Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment all take place, but within Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic contexts – with a more open and enlightened form of Islam than we know basically taking much of the place Christian influenced culture has in our world. Robinson, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the writings of Philip K. Dick, is interested in social and environmental issues as well as the development of science and The Years of Rice, with its vast canvas, its non-eurocentric approach and its strongly Buddhist-influenced context is so different to most other works in the genre that it will continue to rattle around in your head long after you have finished reading it.

I could go on and on about science fiction books worth reading but unfortunately I have to catch a shuttle to the regular hyperspace liner to Arcturus VII, which is due to leave Earth orbit in a few hours time. See you soon in another dimension!

For reasons I do not at all understand, I've always liked this fluffy pop one-hit wonder with a science-fiction flavour from the 80s!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Where I Live (2): Remscheid

Seven months ago I published a post here about the Duchy of Berg, the area of Western Germany in which I live. At the end of it I promised a further post about Remscheid, the city in which I have lived for nearly ten years now.

Remscheid is the smallest of the three neighbouring cities which are locally described as the Bergish municipal triangle (Bergische Städtedreieck) – the others being Wuppertal and Solingen – with a population of around 111,000. As such, it is the smallest independent incorporated city in Northrhine-Westphalia. The three cities, which were only given their basic administrative forms eighty years ago, flow almost imperceptibly into each other and there are those who would argue that they should join together to form one large unit, with a combined population of over 600.000. The advantage of such a move, claim its proponents, would be substantial savings on the administrative level as well as increased influence in regional politics and other synergetic effects. But local patriotism is much too strong and so the most the three cities can manage is cooperation in certain areas of local administration.

Remscheid itself was formed through the amalgamation of three neighbouring towns in 1929, Remscheid, Lüttringhausen and Lennep. Of the three, Lennep is historically the most significant, having a town charter since the thirteenth century and being for hundreds of years one of the four major towns of the Duchy. Lüttringhausen and Lennep have both retained their historical town centres which are well worth a visit – Lennep, in particular, is a pleasant place to spend a few hours of a summer afternoon, having a late lunch or a coffee at a table on the street in front of one of the many restaurants and bars.

Remscheid itself became significant later, through the early Industrial Revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century. Metal-working had a long tradition in the area, a result of some small local iron ore deposits, fast flowing streams and rivers for mill power and plentiful wood for charcoal. While the making of blades and cutlery became a world-renowned speciality in Solingen, on the other side of the Wupper across the deep Müngsten valley, the Remscheiders started to concentrate on tool-making. If you have a look in your domestic toolbox and find (usually older) spanners, hacksaws or chisels with the slogan, “Made in (West) Germany,” the chances are they come from Remscheid. Today however, those Remscheid firms which continue in this tradition are more likely to be specialists, making individually designed tools and tooling systems for industry worldwide.

Those who are still in business and have managed to ride the difficult currents of market changes, that is. Like similar towns in the North of England, or New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, Remscheid has not found modern globalised competition easy, particularly that with low wage countries in Asia, and has had to struggle with population shrinkage and stubbornly high levels of unemployment in the past quarter century. And in the boom time before most old-fashioned manufacturing industry abandoned Europe for more salubrious economic climes to the east, a large number of immigrants had settled in the city. 15% of Remscheid’s population today is non-German and the majority of these are from Turkey. In addition, the city is more or less broke (though it has this in common with many German cities, a result of a disgraceful funding imbalance where the federal and provincial governments regularly legislate for responsibilities to be carried out at local level but don’t do anything about arranging the necessary payment for them).

In other ways, too, Remscheid is a typical old industrial town. It has a strong working-class tradition and during the twenties had the reputation for being a “red” town. Old people I know have told me stories of street battles between the local Socialists and Communists on one side and Nazi groups on the other – battles which the leftists usually won – before Hitler came to power and repressed anything remotely left-leaning in 1932. And the period under Nazi rule brought further woe to the town.

On July 31 1943, a group of British bombers, who were supposed to be heading for Essen in the Ruhr area, dropped their bombs on Remscheid instead. The result was over a thousand dead in one night and more than half the population homeless. Densely populated working-class areas were particularly badly hit and the night remains a traumatic memory for all who experienced it. I remember nursing one old lady, who suffered from dementia, who would regularly awake from nightmares in which the bombs still exploded, the fires still raged, and her family once more died.

City Hall
The town was gutted (though at least the old town centres of Lennep and Lüttringhausen, a couple of kilometres away, were not hit) and the rebuilding after the war took until the 60s. In the rush and struggle to rebuild German cities architectural finesse wasn’t always at the top of the priority list and in Remscheid’s case, unfortunately, it tends to show – a lot of square, functional buildings, four to six floors high, built mostly of rubble and concrete. In many cases the main priority was to build fast – quality, understandably, came second. Well, that’s not quite fair; the houses are generally well built, given the materials available and the haste in which many were erected, and most of them are still in use. I lived in one, in fact, up to a few years ago and everything was fine until you wanted to hang something on one of the walls that weighed more than a kilo or two – then you experienced the joy of using a drill with an 8 mm bit and getting a 32 mm hole. And, as I said there wasn’t a lot of slack left over for aesthetic architectural considerations and by the time people started to think about these the world was entering the tasteless wasteland of sixties architectural sensibility. At least most of the public buildings – town hall and churches, for example – were replaced as they had been before the war.

It wasn’t the last time horror was to visit Remscheid from the air. On December 8, 1988 an American fighter-plane (a Fairchild-Republic A-10, better known as the Warthog) crashed into a street in Hasten (the district where I know live); the pilot and six other people were killed and fifty people injured. In the years following the crash, the proportion of people who lived in the immediate neighbourhood and subsequently developed cancer increased enormously, though the authorities denied reports that the plane was carrying munitions which contained depleted uranium.

The weekly market in Lennep
I am not infrequently asked by wondering locals – who will all cheerfully admit that their city is not Germany’s most beautiful – what on earth brought me from Ireland to Remscheid, of all places? For some reason, since coming to Germany in the mid-eighties, I never seem to have been able to get far away from the river Wupper, which winds its way through much of the Duchy of Berg before flowing into the Rhine just north of Leverkusen. Nearly ten years ago I was living in Solingen but already working in Remscheid and when the woman I was living with at the time, whose family came from Remscheid, expressed a wish to move back to her home town we came here together. We are no longer together but I’m still here and probably will be for the foreseeable future. I have family and friends here, my work is here (or in the neighbourhood at any rate) and I see no great reason to move elsewhere. It’s not an expensive place to live, there’s plenty of nice countryside not far away, the basic services and amenities are all there and the major cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf (with their airports) are both less than an hour away.

This may seem like a less than full-blooded enthusiastic endorsement of my home town, but if this is the case, it has a lot more to do with me than with Remscheid. My own personal history involves relatively frequent moves from one town to another, starting in my childhood and, as an adult, including moves between different countries and I suppose I have learned to orientate myself on people more than places. If there is one place I tend to regard more as home than any other, then that’s probably Dublin, though I only lived there for six years up to 1984. But that’s another subject.

For now, home is the district of Hasten in Remscheid – the place where I live. 

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Tucson Shootings and Moral Responsibility

“Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?”

With these lines the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats wondered about his portion of moral responsibility for the suffering and death caused during the Irish War of Independence. Many years before the 1916 Rising, during a period of intense personal nationalistic fervour, he had written a play called Cathleen Ní Houlihan, the message of which could be interpreted as a call to armed resistance against British control of Ireland, and which was performed in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Those familiar with the course of Irish history at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century would probably counter that Yeats had a somewhat inflated sense of his own importance and significance – at least with respect to nationalist circles in Ireland at the time – but his lines came to my mind when I heard of the shootings in Tucson, Arizona last Saturday.

The blogosphere, the internet and the media (both in the USA and worldwide) are today full of discussions about the role the present culture of political debate in the attack on Congresswoman Giffords and the killing of six other people, including a nine year old girl. In particular, the language and rhetoric of the political right, personified above all by Sarah Palin, has come in for criticism. Attention has been drawn to her “Crosshairs” advertisement and her tweet referring to it specifically in last year’s election campaign: ‘Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!" Pls see my Facebook page.’ This is presented as the most prominent example of many instances of extreme rhetoric targeted against President Obama and the Democrats, since the elections of 2008, some of which have described Obama’s Health Care project (and other administration projects) as Second Amendment questions. Given that the right to bear firearms is seen in America as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, such phrases can be understood as incitement to armed resistance, even if those making them formally deny that such is their intent.

Those who know me or who read this blog regularly will know that I am no great fan of Ms. Palin and the political right in the USA (or anywhere else, for that matter). From all the evidence which has been presented up to now, the killings on Saturday were the work of one isolated, extremely disturbed individual – a car crash looking for somewhere to happen. Every society has its share, unfortunately, of such nuts. It can, of course, be argued that they are more prevalent and have it easier to express themselves in a deadly fashion given the whole gun culture in the USA, something which is hard for most of the rest of the world to understand, but I don’t want to go there; in my experience, the firearms issue is one about which it is very difficult to discuss rationally with the majority of Americans anyway. So the indignant replies of right-wing supporters of Ms. Palin, defending her from charges of co-responsibility for the attack would seem to be justified. Loughner was deranged, a typical amok killer, exceptional only in the fact that he could be apprehended before he managed to kill himself or get himself killed. This kind of thing happens, the silicon chip inside his head got switched to overload, no-one else is responsible.

And yet … The fact remains that he chose to attack Congresswoman Giffords, who had been one of those “targeted” by Ms. Palin (and who had specifically protested about just that targeting) and whose office had already been attacked, and that six others had to die because she was selected by the twisted reasoning of the attacker as his goal. And, perhaps even more significantly, this attack by (probably) a madman on a politician happens before a backdrop in which metaphors of violence and war have become increasingly popular and common in public political discourse, particularly from the right in the wake of the Democratic victory of 2008.

Don, a friend of mine from Texas who describes himself as a conservative, has assured me in the past that such rhetoric is simply part of a rambunctious political culture traditional in America and that (most) people are intelligent enough not to take it seriously. And it is indeed true that politicians the world over have a strong tendency to the inflation of language. So we have the phenomenon my fellow blogger Susan referred to recently as “the war on nouns.” There’s the war against terror, of course, and the war on drugs, but we’ve also had (this one more generally from the left) the war on poverty. Of course, it’s not so easy to win a war on a noun, but that’s another matter. Still, it is my impression – and it’s a view I’ve also heard expressed by many others, American and non-American – that there is a different quality to the language which many on the right have been using towards Obama since he began to campaign for the presidency and the Democrats in general, and that quality is best described with the word “hatred.” Hatred is a very dangerous emotion in public discourse. It is infectious. It sets aside a basic attitude of respect for others, for the possible sincerity of their positions, for the presumption of their integrity, for their right to their opinions. And the distance from hatred to violence is small.

And if it is not hatred, then it is the language of hatred and this is, in some ways, even worse because it is cynical and manipulative. Perhaps it is a reflection of our age that hyperbole has become commonplace and that it is no longer possible to win attention with measured speech. We are confronted with sensation at every turn and have become jaded as a result. So it no longer means anything to say, “I think my opponent is mistaken in some of his positions,” no, instead one has to say, “My opponent is a liar whose positions are anathema to everything decent people stand for.” And then when some misguided crazy actually takes what I say literally and goes off and kills my opponent, I defend myself by saying, “I really only meant that I disagreed with him, I didn’t want anyone to kill him!”

And this is the position in which Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and others find themselves and where the question Yeats asked himself comes into play. The kind of access they have to the public media gives them immense power over the formation of individual and collective opinion and power always has the corollary of responsibility. Think of the well-known story of Henry II and Thomas à Beckett, and imagine the king giving a present-day press conference after the murder in Canterbury Cathedral:
 “Even if we didn’t always see eye to eye, I had the greatest respect for Archbishop Beckett and condemn his murder completely. When I said, ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’ I was simply expressing a feeling of personal vexation and giving voice to the hope that he would give up his political opposition to me. I never meant for him to be killed and I certainly never ordered anyone to do so.”

Demagoguery is reprehensible because it appeals to the baser instincts of those who are addressed by it, but it seems to me that demagoguery and cheap sensationalist media tricks have become all too common in contemporary political discourse. Palin’s “Crosshair” poster is a typical example of this. I don’t believe for a second that Sarah Palin wanted anyone to shoot Congresswoman Giffords but the imagery the poster used was cheap, offensive and irresponsible and the argument some of her supporters are currently using to claim that the symbols are geological rather than those of gunsights is grotesque and in appalling taste. So although she never meant to incite a lunatic like Loughner, nevertheless Ms. Palin could well take a little time to think about issues of power and moral responsibility and will hopefully moderate her language and imagery in the future.

And perhaps in this context we could also think a little about the whole way we organise our political structures. We base them around competition, around parties, on principles like winning and losing. We set up a basic dialectic but, instead of solving problems in a dialectical fashion by achieving a synthesis which incorporates the best of both positions and transcends their opposition to each other by going beyond it, we simply say that one side wins and the other loses. There’s something seriously questionable about a system which makes something wrong simply because the other guy says it’s right – but that’s the basis of the form of democracy most countries have given themselves.

Parliaments evolved as an alternative to having people literally fight over things, so there’s a large element of formalised, unbloody war as a method of conflict resolution to them. We can go beyond this – and have done in many other areas. Imagine a business run by a board of directors who had to face a shadow board of directors who spent four years criticising everything the board did as a matter of principle, until the shareholders met again to elect a new board! Personally, I’d like to see more constructive consensus between politicians, governments trying to access all the human resources and creativity available to them in order to govern well, elected representatives looking at the issues involved and discussing ways to reach optimal solutions in the interests of all those they are representing rather than beating up on each other. So that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not vanish from the earth. But yes, I’m a bit of an idealist. And even at that, I’m not holding my breath.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Hippies, Hair and the Baby Boomers

On one of those lovely lazy replete evenings over the Christmas holidays my daughters and I decided to watch a DVD. Going through a pile of films I’ve amassed over the past years I dug out an old classic treasure and we spent nearly two hours enjoying Hair (one of my four favourite musicals, along with West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Watching the antics of Berger (played by Treat Williams) and his group of merry pranksters I started thinking about that magnificent, confused, creative period known as the sixties and, in particular, the phenomenon known as the hippies.

As a teenager I had a deep feeling of being cheated by destiny. Born in 1960 I was too young to have experienced the most wonderful phase history had ever thrown up, the late 60s. Marooned in the hungover aftermath of the 70s, a world suffering under Nixon, the oil crisis, recession, the break-up of the Beatles and musical excrescences like the Osmonds and the Bay City Rollers, I was convinced that the best had already happened and I had missed it. This sense of cosmic deprivation and unfairness was reinforced by a reading of The Drifters by James Michener at the age of around fifteen – a friend of mine told me once that her grandfather, a rather old-fashioned gentleman, had warned her mother that she should on no account allow her daughter to read it; it would be her ruin (it was!).

If, in the summer of 1967, I had been seventeen rather than seven, I was certain that I knew to where I would have been underway; with flowers in my hair (which would be hanging down to my arse) and my guitar strapped to my back, straight to San Francisco – to Haight-Ashbury, there to tune in, turn on and drop out, feeding my head and practicing thoughts of love and peace to the tones of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. It was a time when a real change in the world seemed almost possible; the Age of Aquarius was dawning and the old tired world of the establishment, the world of those perpetually blighted by World War II, the sorry inhibited world of those with short hair and suits, who believed in self-defence through the bomb and resisting Communism in Vietnam and looking neat and clean, the world of the Man, would be swept away. It was a Golden Age, destined to last only a short time, weakened and finally killed by series of events starting in 1968 with the killings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, going on through the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968 and the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and receiving the final nails in its coffin with the rampage of the Manson Family, the killings at the Altamont Speedway concert and the Kent State killings. And in the middle of it all, surrounding and encompassing it, the gentle people, the flower people … the hippies.

Gentle people with flowers in their hair
All across the nation, such a strange vibration
People in motion
There's a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion, people in motion 

So Scott McKenzie sang it in his May 1967 hit (written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas).

It was, of course, a far too simple – even simplistic – dream, one not even completely true while it was happening. But the story fits so well into familiar patterns; A group of young people liberating themselves from the staid, dusty, tired, cynical realities preached by older generations, committing themselves to a new expression of age-old ideas of freedom and simplicity, love and peace begins to live out these values, gaining acceptance but also provoking counter-reaction until it becomes a millennial struggle between the generations for the soul of the world and, particularly, America as its cultural motor, leader and avatar. And, of course, the story ended as such stories usually end, with the defeat of the unrealistic idealists, beaten down by the older realists who had learned the primacy of power and its practical applications and the loss of faith by many of those espousing the counter-culture, worn down by time, inevitable disillusionment and the practical need (beyond all idealism) to simply make a living. Man does not live on bread alone but without bread, man, it’s difficult to survive at all. Defeat, yet not total defeat, for many of the ideals of the hippies lived on, working through the cultures of the increasingly globalised societies to become, forty years later, part of the mainstream – ideals like a plurality of individual modes of self-expression and lifestyles, much more tolerance in issues of sexuality, openness to diverse spiritual philosophies beyond the traditional Christian ones of the west, a growing realisation of the importance of ecological balance, to name a few.

Of course this is only one interpretation. There is another, less flattering one. After 1945, a generation tempered and traumatised by youthful experience of depression and war set out to build a better world for their children – and succeeded. For the first time in history a generation of millions of children in Western Europe and the USA grew up in relative prosperity and security. Their parents had had a glimpse of hell and were determined that the same should not happen to their offspring. These grew up in “homes fit for heroes,” well fed, well educated and, thanks to radio, cinema and rapidly spreading television, entertained as never a generation of children had been before them, a generation of children now known as the baby boomers.

A generation of children who were spoiled rotten. A generation of children who started to come into young adulthood in the early 60s who had never experienced anything but the fulfilment of their wishes. A generation who had never learned anything other than the supremacy of the realisation of their own desires, a generation more self-absorbed than any before them. And a generation who, with the unthinking callousness of youth, thought nothing of throwing the values of their parents whose efforts had attained the prosperity and security they had enjoyed all their lives back in their faces. Refusing to grow up and accept the responsibilities of adulthood, they elected to remain in a childhood Peter Pan Never-never Land – but one made even more exciting by the sexual liberation made possible by the development of the pill and the instant, artificial, often deadly dangerous thrill provided by drugs like pot, peyote, acid and heroin.

Well could they afford to drop out, since even while they were “doing their own thing” and living for the moment, this life-style was only possible through a parasitic dependence on the society whose values they rejected – and often through the continuing financial support of those they ridiculed as hopelessly “square.” They rejected the scientific world-view, preferring to accept the ‘truths’ postulated by astrologers and all sorts of manipulative peddlings by Oriental charlatans, while simultaneously having no problem enjoying electric music produced on instruments and amplifiers which were a product of  electrical engineering and finding artificial enlightenment in lysergic acid diethylamide, which Owsley Stanley would never have been able to produce had it not been for detailed research and knowledge in organic chemistry.

It’s easy to knock the hippies as naïve, self-indulgent, layabout, stoned dreamers. It’s easy to admire them as gentle idealists, cutting through the cynical sophisticated established bullshit with a simple message of love and peace. The reality encompasses both these interpretation and goes beyond them for, as Oscar Wilde once said (in a phrase I will never grow tired of repeating), “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Watching Milos Forman’s filming of Hair, I was struck this time, above all, by a sense of confusion, a confusion created by the dichotomy between ideals and reality, a confusion fuelled by the many contradictions implicit in all the positions shown in the film; from Sheila’s conservative, rich bourgeois family to Hud, the black hippie who doesn’t want to have to worry about supporting his young family. And, from the retrospect afforded by the distant heights of 2011, I see this confusion as one of the major motifs behind any attempt to understand “the sixties.” Confusion … but also exuberance, vitality and creativity. I mean, like, if you can dig it, a description which suits the hippies as well. I mean … far out, baby … truly awesome …like, righteous, man …just … cool.

Peace, baby …

So much music I could have chosen to illustrate this one. I considered Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco”, “I will follow” from the Byrds, “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” before deciding for the conclusion to Hair. The version here has Spanish subtitles because Sony won’t let me access any others from Germany (the record companies have been becoming increasingly fascist towards YouTube in Germany in recent months). I mean, man, that’s a serious bummer … like, very uncool …

(Note: If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, over at internation musing, Hans also wrote a number of quite humorous spots about the hippies recently which are well worth reading!

Monday, 3 January 2011

Songwriters and Poets

Every time I tried to tell you,
The words just came out wrong.
So I had to say I love you
In a song
Jim Croce                              

Those involved in creatively making pop and rock music can be divided into a number of categories. There are the classical bands, whose members (or some of them at least) generally write their own songs, record and perform them – bands like the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, REM, U2, Coldplay, etc. There are bands, often put together for commercial purposes, who don’t produce original material and often don’t have much to do with playing it either, a lot of boy and girl groups for example, like New Kids on the Block or The Spice Girls. There are also many solo artists who fall more or less into this category, like Brittney Spears or Justin Timberlake. These need the support of professional songwriters, session musicians and – above all – producers. Producers can indeed be seen as an almost separate category and some of them are of legendary genius; like Phil Spector, George Martin, Brian Eno, Alan Parsons or Quincy Jones.

Alanis Morissette
And then there are the singer-songwriters, in many ways a crossover group into modern music from a much more ancient tradition, the bards and the minstrels. The Germans have a lovely term for them; Liedermacher, songmakers. They are the original man or woman with a guitar (or often a piano – though pianos have the disadvantage of not being particularly portable), the successors of the men with a lute or harp. There’s something pure and honest about them, their whole art being predicated on their original individual ability to create a song and personally reach out to enthral and delight others with their performance of it. Firmly rooted as they are today (well, most of them anyway) within popular music, they form an unbroken tradition going back to Orpheus and Oisín, Homer and David. And what a roll of honour they present to us in the past fifty years!; Billy Joel and Sheryl Crow, John Denver and Joan Armatrading, Donovan and Melissa Etheridge, Don McLean and Kate Bush, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Enya and Elton John. A disproportionate number of the very best are, for some reason, Canadian (and I would be very grateful if anyone could offer a good explanation for this phenomenon); Avril Lavigne, Gordon Lightfoot, Bryan Adams, k.d. lang, Neil Young, Alanis Morissette.

Ah, but you are certainly thinking, he has left most of the very greatest out! This is because, in my opinion, there is only a small group of true royalty among the musical aristocracy of singer-songwriters who can also be truly regarded as poets.

Spontaneously one might tend to regard every songwriter as a poet, yet good poetry and songs do not necessarily go easily together. Of course, at a very basic level, the lyrics of every song are a kind of poetry, dependent as they generally are on very strict adherence to rhythm and, usually, rhyme. But the poetic possibilities of songs are limited by the very form of the song itself and the poetry becomes just one element among many in the synergy of factors which makes a song “work.” This is even more the case in modern pop or rock where the character of the performers, the interplay of the instruments and all the digital possibilities of the sound-studio come into play – not to mention issues like video or the theatrical planning and execution of live shows. And sometimes, working too hard on the poetic possibilities of a text is just pretentious and silly. Consider

Sweet Loretta modern thought she was a woman,
But she was another man.
All the girls around her say she’s got it comin’
But she gets it while she can.
Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged;
Get back, get back, get back to where you started from.”

It’s stupid, pretty devoid of any deeper sense and certainly not the most poetic of Lennon and McCartney’s efforts. But it’s not important because, in the whole musical context of the song, it does its job. (As an aside, Lennon – the better poet of the two – jokingly suggested the alternative, “Sweet Loretta modern thought she was a woman, but she was a frying pan.”)

But the greatest of the singer-songwriters are possessed of the genius to be able to marry good poetry with arresting images and language, metaphors and expressions which pull you up, leave you amazed, wondering, awestruck, wanting to weep, with the music so that the whole becomes something very special indeed.

Looking at a few of these true creative giants, I suppose you have to start with Dylan. The only problem with His Bobness is that some may regard it as a little charitable to describe him as a singer-songwriter, since his singing prowess is … limited (I’ve written on this before here). But as to his poetic qualities – when he is at his best – there can be no doubt. Out of dozens of songs which I could take to illustrate that, let’s just revel in one verse of Mr. Tambourine Man – though if you really want a good jingle jangle version of the song, listen to the cover by The Byrds

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin'
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

The next musical poet I want to take a glance at is Paul Simon. Simon has a beautiful sense for language and themes and a genius for mixing them with an unerring sense of melody and subtle and refined musical arrangements. One could take half a dozen examples from his time with Art Garfunkel – I am a Rock immediately comes to mind – but the opening line of his solo hit Graceland stands alone as sufficient witness to great poetic skill

The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar …

These nine words have so many resonances they just leave you dizzy.

Suzanne Vega
Although she’s not as famous as the others I’m looking at here, Suzanne Vega is one of my favourites. She too is a poet-singer-songwriter with a great feeling for themes and the language and music to give them deep expression. Luka is a heart-wrenching treatment of the theme of child-battering and the wonderful voyeur image of the woman hitching up her skirt to straighten her stockings in Tom’s Diner gives the picture-poem a realistic immediacy which is unsurpassed. As a small example of her poetic prowess I’ve chosen an extract from one of her less well-known songs, playing with an arresting image which leaves you savouring it for a long time afterwards

Today I am
A small blue thing
Like a marble
Or an eye

With my knees against my mouth
I am perfectly round
I am watching you

I am cold against your skin
You are perfectly reflected
I am lost inside your pocket
I am lost against
Your fingers

But at the summit of this musical Olympus, playing the roles of Hera and Zeus are – inevitably perhaps – two more Canadians, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

Joni’s music is exciting, challenging and, for someone who sings and plays a modest bit of guitar himself, often quite difficult to cover. This is because, like every singer-songwriter, Mitchell writes primarily for herself and her own voice and style and her music, with various influences, is multi-layered. She is also renowned for using numerous strange open tunings on her guitar, a phenomenon she herself calls “Joni’s weird chords.” But she has also written beautiful more accessible songs and Both Sides, Now belongs for me to that select number of songs the singing of which have helped me win a way to a girl’s heart. The example I’ve chosen here is an excerpt from Chelsea Morning, a sensuous celebration of spontaneous unworried love

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and
the first thing that I knew
There was milk and toast and honey
and a bowl of oranges, too
And the sun poured in like butterscotch
and stuck to all my senses
Oh, won't you stay
We'll put on the day
And we'll talk in present tenses

When the curtain closes and the rainbow runs away
I will bring you incense owls by night
By candlelight
By jewel-light
If only you will stay
Pretty baby, won't you
Wake up, it's a Chelsea morning

And the greatest of them all, at least for me, is Leonard Cohen. He’s been back on the road for the past couple of years and his concerts are reported to be something very special. Cohen has always been a poet and writer, as well as a songwriter and performer. It’s over thirty years since I came across his novel Beautiful Losers in a second-hand bookshop and I remember being deeply impressed at the beauty of his literary style. But even before that I had been deeply impressed by his music.

Leonard Cohen
I started teaching myself guitar at the age of sixteen and some of Cohen’s songs were among the earliest I attempted. They were good, not too difficult to play – rudimentarily at least – and offered the additional hopeful prospect (never far from the male 16-year-old mind) of helping win the way to girls’ hearts – and other interesting parts of their anatomies. What I did not know then – how could I? – is that while it’s quite easy to play and sing Cohen, it is another matter to play and sing Cohen well, not because the songs are so musically difficult in themselves (they aren’t) but because the depth and beauty of his songs demand respect, practice, hard work and a certain degree of self-knowledge and honesty to begin to interpret them adequately. You’ve had to have some experience of love, and women, and the world before you can even begin to understand what songs like So long, Marianne, Hey, that’s no Way to say Goodbye, or Suzanne are really about.

Some can write and sing beautifully and frankly about sex (arguably Cohen’s most famous musical description is that of his affair with Janis Joplin in Chelsea Hotel: “You were talking so brave and so sweet, giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street.”) Some can write beautifully and frankly about God. Only Cohen can do both in three short lines (maybe you have to be Jewish to be able to do this!)

And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah is an amazing song, written by Cohen in the 80s, long after he had composed most of his other classics, and at the foot of this post I’m putting a sublime live cover of it by k.d. lang. I have one friend who never tires of quoting

There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

And there’s depth enough of meaning in that to meditate on for quite a while.

But I’ll finish this with the last verse of Suzanne, another marvellous word-picture in a song-poem full of beautiful images. They don’t get better than this

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body with her mind.

If you really want to pig-out on music, there’s a song behind every link - though because Sony won't let me access stuff they have title to in Germany, I wasn't always able to get the YouTube version I wanted -  (just click on the words in purple, but do it with a right-mouse click and open a new tab, otherwise you’ll have to keep reloading here). If you don’t have the time or inclination for that, do take the time at least for k.d.’s Halleluja. Believe me, it’s worth it.


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