Friday, 28 March 2014

The Picture: Munition Girls at Lister's

The Picture

I think that there are about 350 of you
Facing the camera in a variety of poses,
Some leaning affectionately on shoulders,
Some yearning to hide with modest self-effacement,
Some looking the camera right between the eyes,
But few of you are smiling with your own eyes,
Or indeed with your mouths;
Legs and arms vary in position too,
The individuality of each woman denoted,
Within a composed setting, redolent
Of a country house historical record,
The Lady, be-hatted, in the centre,
Surrounded by a retinue of servants -
Is she a hard faced woman
‘Doing well out of the war’?

But what did they all see when they gazed at the cameraman?
Dearly loved ones out there serving at the front or at sea,
Or lost, wounded, blinded, gassed, half-drowned or dead
Brothers, sons, husbands, fathers, nephews and uncles,
Out there, ghost marching on the summer sward.

And what are the thoughts going through all your varied minds?
Who is fretting about working such long hours?
(Finding it hard to keep up with the cooking, shopping, cleaning, washing, ironing)
Who is enjoying the escape from domestic service or the farm?
Who is enjoying the feel of a wage in her purse?
Who is enjoying a night out with the girls?
But some of you girls and women with tans:
Is anyone worried that her skin is a little yellow?
Is the face and head quite what it was?
Or are any of you thinking that there might just be German women
Who might just be posing at that very same moment,
Positioned in a very similar way,
Thinking the same thoughts and having the same feelings.

None of you know that the war will end in just over a year,
You might be thinking that this could go on
And on and on until 1921,
You don’t know how many of you will get the vote
In the ‘Khaki Election’, a year after this picture.

Just the one, I think.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken

She was eager to talk with us,
Hurrying up from her garden chores,
Pleased that we should take a picture
Of her thatched home: Old Fields House,
Where Edward Thomas stayed before the ‘War;
She pointed out Robert Frost’s house: Little Iddens,
And showed us a path there in the field on the right,
Where the water table looked as high as Flanders’ fields’.
She said the path would be better defined
When the crops grew taller:
It passed the oak tree on the rise.
But we took the road more travelled,
And that made all the difference,
For we met the literary lady from Ledbury:
‘Are you Frost and Thomas too?’
But if we had crossed that field,
We would have walked a ghost-road,
And trudged through muddied layers of time,
When all roads led to France.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Memorialisation and Cultural Control

Memorialisation and Cultural Control

I’ve just re-read the old Marxist maxim about the philosopher’s task being to change the world rather than merely interpret it, and that took me back to my 21st year when I chucked in a Phd to join ASLEF, re-join the working class, and drive trains in an act of solidarity with my family history and culture.
That Marxian adage also got me thinking about the relevance of the study of history to the general context of today’s mess of capitalist potage and also to the specific debate about the 1914-2014 WW1 centenary: a what’s the point of the past sort of thing.
All that other earlier life stuff about Gramsci and cultural hegemony (artisanal bread?) is also bound to surface in the head when pondering on this question and particularly all the 1914-2014 brouhaha. Political control of the meaning of the past is part of the liminal and subliminal agenda of any government – and would seem to be particularly the case with this one, if Mr. Gove’s speech is anything to go by.
His speech ruffled a lot of red and white feathers and smoothed a lot of blue ones – but what he said is surely not controversial. He said, in essence, and somewhat tautologically, I suppose, that WW1 was a good war, a just war, a necessary war, a war worth fighting; he also said that the much-derided strategy of attrition was correct, both piecemeal and in total, and ultimately justified by victory.
Well, he would say that wouldn’t he?
What else could he say?
Once a society collectively questions the necessity for, and utility of, a war that resulted in two and a half million casualties, then, by implication, that society questions the whole legitimacy of its rulers at that time. And once that particular legitimacy is questioned, then, by implication, all the consequences and entire subsequent history resulting from that rule are also questioned. And that chain of consequence carries right on down to this present moment.
So to question WW1 is to question our present day political arrangements and all the objectionable economics of capitalist modernity. To question WW1 is to question the whole edifice of current ruling class control, the distribution of wealth and discriminative social inequality.
That is why it is so important to get involved in the memorialization debate about WW1: questioning interpretations of the past can help change today’s world.
That’s the point of the past and its study.

Further to this debate, Jeremy Vine conducted a phone-in discussion on his Radio 2 show. Callers voiced their opinions about the impact of ‘O What A Lovely War’ with Gary Sheffield and Michael Billington crossing swords over whether the show was/is ‘left wing propaganda’ or a realistic portrayal of the war from the point of view of the common soldier. Gary Sheffield takes the line that the show tells us more about the 1960s than it does about attitudes a century ago. He didn't contextualise his own interpretation, of course.
Neil Faulkner says the following about this process of memorialization in his ‘No Glory’ booklet:
He writes of the last veteran, Harry Patch, who announced that ‘war is organised murder’; he then adds that ‘Now he is gone, the ground is clear for politicians like Michael Gove, broadcasters like Jeremy Paxman, and military historians like Max Hastings to ‘revise’ the history of the First World War.’
 Neil Faulkner thinks that the Commons vote against military intervention in Syria had a huge effect upon Mr Gove; he points out how Mr Gove blamed public opinion for this: Gove said the Iraq conflict had ‘poisoned the well of public opinion’. So Neil Faulkner asserts that ‘This is the context for the row about the First World War. This is why Michael Gove kicked off the New Year’ with his speech about the Great War.
Faulkner derides Gove’s declaration that the UK was fighting to preserve a liberal-democratic order: ‘…the underlying aims of the rulers of all the great powers were identical: to carve up the world in pursuit of profit and power. The First World War was an imperialist war.’ Tariq Ali, in the Guardian on March 14th 2014, referred to the conflict as ‘an inter-imperialist war’ – every age rewrites history, and that’s just what this age of migration, multiculturalism and globalisation is doing, perhaps.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Stroud Cemetery

“Are there no workhouses?” asked Mr Scrooge,
(In a manner of speaking)
“Well, yes there are”, she politely replied,
(In a manor of speaking)
“Do you know Stone Manor on Bisley Road,
Near Stroud Cemetery’s Pauper’s Path?”
(Rattle his bones over the stones,
He’s only a pauper who nobody owns)
Here comes the creaking wheelbarrow,
With the open hinged, burnished coffin,
The shrouded corpse ready for the open pit,
An abrupt incarceration on the hard rock,
Without ceremony or by your leave,
Anonymous resting place for the restless dead,
Feeling gravity’s pull down the steep scarp,
And the noxious effects of the acid soil;
But with soil so thin, rock so hard, pits so shallow,
Cotswold storms raining in from the sea
Would disinter corpses, the slipping dead,
Strange meandering memento mori,
Gewgaws, bones, trinkets, keepsakes,
Grave work for Old Father Time in his sou-wester,
Leaching the dead down rain-washed rivulets,
Down to the Frome, thence the Severn and the sea,
While forget me nots waved goodbye in the wind.


Saturday, 8 March 2014

Review of 'We Will Be Free!' The Space, Stroud, March 7th.

A most enjoyable night watching ‘We Will Be Free!’ in Stroud; tremendous performances from Neil Gore and Charlotte Powell who played a variety of characters from both the agricultural labourers and the ruling class.
Interesting to hear the usual response from the squire to a plea for more wages – that would bankrupt the farmers and then where would you be, eh? Worse off, Loveless, eh? That sort of thing.
When I used to dig my gran’s garden in the 1960s for ten bob a time and talk about the old days, then my grannie would always try to counter my stuttering Marxism with the Daily Express line that if we didn’t have rich people then there wouldn’t be the money around to pay the workers, would there? A speaker from the audience pointed out that she had just heard the same thing in the morning on the media.
This is why the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, the Ant-Poor Law Movement and the Chartists and so on is so important. The decades of the 1830s and 40s were an ideological as well as material battleground, as different persuasions tried to understand and explain the dynamics of this new industrial capitalist society.
How could the rich get richer and the poor get poorer when more wealth was being created each year? How could this economic conundrum be understood?
In the blue corner: the trickle down neo-liberal ruling class explanation.
In the red corner: the profit is stolen wages explanation.
It could have gone either way – when I was at school, the commonly used (but objectionable) term used to describe the 1850s was ‘The Age of Equipoise’. The decade was described thus because the blue corner had won the material and ideological battle. If you were poor it was your own fault, nothing to do with low wages; you just weren’t trying hard enough.
But just think if it had gone the other way; just imagine a counter-factual world where collectivist, egalitarian principles governed society, the economy and the polity. The United Kingdom, the most powerful model to emulate at that time, would have been consequently copied elsewhere… and so, no Age of Empire, no Age of War, no Stalin, no Hitler, no Cold War, no ecological catastrophe…the list is endless… So go on, imagine…
That’s why this seemingly familial, parochial tragedy down in rural Dorset is part of a so much wider picture: part of a global chain of consequence. Thank you Neil and Charlotte for a thought-provoking evening, full of tragedy, comedy, pathos, song and music. The production is next on at the Rondo Theatre, Bath, on March 12th-13th – highly recommended. You will have a heartfelt but heart warming evening - Neil and Charlotte build a rapport with an audience from even before the word 'Go'.