In memory of Uday Abu Mohsen who lived only one day after being killed during the Siege of Gaza, 2023.
Uday was the baby boy’s name. Uday, it was. He would have known so little but he would have known he was someone with being. He would have been welcomed and loved.
He would have been welcomed with fear and would have known little of the blast that ended his one- day old life, mayfly Uday. Yet he leaves behind much more than a name.
He leaves behind the insanity of surgical strikes, the criminality of collateral damage, the nonsense of precision bombing, the lunatic costs – and profits – of warfare set against the massacre of the innocents.
Uday’s death certificate was bizarrely issued before any birth certificate arrived and the bombing continued after his death. But mayfly Uday must be remembered and not just in Gaza and in Palestine, not just there.
The cry of Uday must be heard in Israel, in Syria, in Iraq, in Russia and Ukraine, in Yemen, Tigray and Sudan. Uday’s little whimper should cross oceans, mountains and plains, teeming cities and deserts, turning louder.
Turning louder all the time so that the whole world begins to realise that without justice there is no peace; that only justice can guarantee peace. Uday, one day peace and justice will reign in your name. Uday, one day.
Sixty years ago, in 1963, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow was on route to Havana and had to stop at Shannon airport due to fog. Shannon, then as now, is famous for fog. At that time an arrangement had been hatched between Shannon and the County Clare town of Kilkee to take passengers by bus to view the marvellous scenery this part of Clare offers.
Kilkee had long been popular with tourists and bathers, and the author of the imperialist novel King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard, had once visited Kilkee as did Charlotte Bronte who spent her honeymoon here. Alfred Tennyson also visited the town. The Irish actor Richard Harris, though born in Limerick, considered Kilkee his spiritual home and spent summers here as a boy. There is a statue to him in the town which was unveiled by Russell Crowe.
Back in 1963 a group of three men dressed in overcoats came in to Kilkee’s Marine Hotel via swing doors to the side entrance. Momentarily, it had that Clint Eastwood feel about it. They had been on the Aeroflot flight and after visiting Limerick they had been bussed here to Kilkee. A young sixteen-year-old student called Jim Fitzpatrick was working here in the bar on leave for the summer from the Franciscan Gormanston College in County Meath he attended.
Che Guevara, I presume?
Fitzpatrick was already a convinced leftist and recognised immediately one of the three men as Che Guevara. The young student had described his college as ‘right wing fundamentalist Catholic’ but he nonetheless admired the missionary work the Franciscans had been doing in South America. This was a period when liberation theology had taken root in this vast continent and Fitzpatrick had also been a keen student of the events surrounding the Cuban revolution, via Pathe News.
Guevara had realised that he had been recognised and asked Fitzpatrick to recommend a drink. While discounting rum, he suggested an Irish whiskey with some water. A Powers whiskey was duly poured and Guevara sipped it slowly. They struck up a conversation in the Argentinian’s faltering English with Guevara telling Fitzpatrick he was proud of his Irish roots. Guevara’s father actually bore the surname Lynch while his great-grandmother was from Galway, and other family members came from Cork.
Che was curious about Ireland ‘from a revolutionary point of view’. He was full of admiration for the fact that Ireland was the first country to ‘shake off the shackles of the British Empire’. He would have been well aware of the large population of Irish descendants, like himself, who lived in Argentina. It is reckoned to be over a million strong and these descendants form the largest Irish community in any non-English speaking country in the world. In fact, Argentina is home to the fifth largest Irish community in the world. The footballer Alexis MacAllister, who plays for Liverpool, is currently the most notable member of this community.
The Irish contribution to South American liberation struggles
Guevara would, of course, have been equally proud of the role played by the Irish during the South American wars of national liberation. The Liberator himself, Simón Bolívar, who not only managed to rid this continent of Spanish rule but had a vision of it being a united whole, had the outstanding support, both as aide-de-camp and as his diarist, of one Daniel Florencio O’Leary who hailed originally from Cork.
In 2010 the Venezuelan Government presented a plaque and bust of O’Leary to the people of Cork. Another bust of Chile’s first head of state who had also fought with Bolívar was Bernardo O’Higgins, and his bust resides in the gardens of Dublin’s Merrion Square. This square was once home to W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Henry Grattan and Ireland’s own Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. Today the fashion designer Louise Kennedy and Dermot Desmond, the major shareholder in Celtic Football Club, live there.
There were even two Irish battalions who took part in Latin American wars. The 1st Regiment Venezuelan Rifles took part in the Venezuelan War of Independence and the Saint Patrick Battalion was an Irish American battalion that deserted and fought on the Mexican side during the Mexican-American War (1846-48).
The Irish writer Tomás Mac Síomón gave a fulsome expression of the extent of Irish involvement in Latin America in his book From One Bright Island Flown: Irish Rebels, Exiles, and Martyrs in Latin America. (Nuascéalta, 2022). As well as mentioning Guevara he also wrote of the exploits of one Guillén Lampart upon whom the legend of Zorro is based. Another Argentinian, Rodolfo Walsh, gave his assistance to the Cuban revolution by managing to decipher encrypted messages at Prensa Latina, the famous Special Services news agency he founded. Walsh passed on the message to Castro and enabled Cuba to prepare for the CIA invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
Sadly, Rodolfo Walsh was to be murdered at the hands of the Argentine military junta (1976-1983) because of his involvement with left wing trade unionism and for his journalism. The Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez described Walsh’s Open Letter to the Military Junta as a ‘masterpiece of universal journalism.’
Guevara would have been well aware of the Irish military diaspora’s exploits in Latin America just as he would have been aware of the exploits of previous Irish rebels throughout the long struggle for Irish independence.
The barman Jim Fitzpatrick would go on to become one of Ireland’s most famous artists. In 1978 he wrote and illustrated the cycle of Irish Myths, the Lebor Gabála Erenn. The book tells of the legends of the coming of the Tuatha dé Dannan to Ireland and their battles with the Fir Bolg. There is a painting by the Scottish Celtic revival artist, John Duncan, which beautifully imagines the coming of the Tuatha dé Dannan called Riders of the Sidhe (1911).
Riders of the Sidhe, 1911
This book, also called The Book of Conquests, is partner to a second book on the deeds of Nuada of the Silver Arm, and Lugh in their fight with the Formor. Both books are wonderfully illustrated by Fitzpatrick with intricate Celtic scroll work and knots. While Fitzpatrick has also produced artwork for the band Thin Lizzy and the late Sinéad O’Connor’s 2000 album Faith and Courage, his Portrait of Che Guevara in 1968 must have gone on to adorn millions of walls internationally as Guevara became the iconic face of world revolution throughout the late 1960s and 70s, and today also in many oppressed countries.
The Motorcycle Diaries
It was a previous photograph of Guevara done by Alberto Korda that seemed to inspire Fitzpatrick. Korda was Fidel Castro’s official photographer and he captured what he would later call the ‘absolute implacability’ of the revolutionary figure. This implacability was engendered by Guevara’s trip around Latin America on motorcycle with his friend, Alberto Granado. Guevara was a medical student and only 23 years old, and from a wealthy though leftist family from Rosario. This trip brought him face to face with the social injustices of exploited miners, persecuted communists, ostracised and excluded lepers, along with the distressed descendants of the once great Incan civilisation.
Guevara’s diaries of this trip seemed to support Bolívar’s vision of a unified Latin America, only this time free from US imperialism. Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries would be posthumously published by Verso in 1995.The book was marketed as ‘Das Kapital meets Easy Rider.’ And a film of the book came out in 2004 starring Gael Garcia Bernal as Che and Rodrigo de la Serna as Granado. Interestingly, the actor who played Granado was the real life second cousin to Guevara on his maternal side.
Korda’s photograph – Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla Fighter) – was in black and white and it came in a chance moment in Havana in 1960 after a fiery speech from Castro denouncing the CIA for the attack on the French freighter La Coubre, which killed over 100 people. Also in attendance was Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir who were both great admirers of Guevara. Korda had also photographed them that day along with many others.
This photograph had been used in Cuba in the early 1960s but would make its way into Europe via Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. He was a publisher and had published Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa as well as publishing the writings of Castro, Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. He had also been a member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) at one time and also a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) on two occasions. He would later support and become involved with guerilla groups. He was involved with left wing and separatist groups in Sardinia and had hoped to turn the island into a socialist republic similar to Cuba.
He died in a botched attempt at blowing up electricity pylons outside Milan as a member of Gruppi di Azione Partigiana or GAP, the second largest militant organisation in Italy after the Red Brigades. As a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, he had gone to Cuba and visited Korda’s home where he noticed the photograph of Guevara. He was given it and after Che’s death this photograph sold over two million posters.
Korda had renounced any copyright of his photo because he wished it to have the widest possible distribution. Korda apparently forgave Feltrinelli for claiming copyright of his photo while praising the fact that the image spread around the world. Of course, crass commercialisation of the image would follow and Korda managed an out of court settlement with Smirnoff over the use of Che’s image and the $50,000 was donated to the Cuban health service.
As Guevara was being chased in Bolivia by the CIA and the Bolivian military, the Korda photograph also came into the possession of Jim Fitzpatrick. It had been sent to him by a Dutch anarchist group concentrated around their magazine Provo, and they claimed it had come to them via Jean-Paul Sartre. There are varying accounts of these details but suffice to say that Fitzpatrick’s Viva Che! portrait/poster would owe a considerable debt to Korda’s photograph of 1960.
With Guevara struggling in Bolivia, Fitzpatrick decided to make Che’s eyes slightly uplifted which seemed to suggest those saintly paintings of the Renaissance. Fitzpatrick has said that he did this subconsciously, no doubt influenced by his Catholic upbringing.
He chose only two colours, the revolutionary colours of black and red with only the badge on Che’s beret coloured yellow by felt-tipped pen. He also gave Che more hair, in keeping with the style of the time when having long hair was an act of rebellion. And also, like Korda, he donated money to the Cuban health service.
Like Korda’s image, Fitzpatrick’s would also adorn countless walls. And like Korda, Fitzpatrick waived copyright so that it could be used by left wing groups and saying, ‘I literally wanted it to breed like rabbits. I wanted it to spread.’
And spread it most certainly did. The town of Kilkee would go on and have annual celebrations of Che and Latin American culture, and an event was once addressed by Che’s widow, Aleida. A mural of Che also appeared in the town and it was removed after complaints from American tourists who said he was a murderer. Clearly these tourists had never heard about Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
In 2008 the Irish postal service An Post issued a 1 Euro stamp of Fitzpatrick’s poster and the initial print run of 122,000 sold out in days.
Sartre had said back then that Marxism was the spirit of the age. Guevara embodied that spirit and Fitzpatrick has also claimed to be Marxist while also still attending Mass. And as for the murderer Guevara, it should also be pointed out that after his journey through Latin America, he did complete his medical studies. He was also extremely well read and loved the poetry of Mistral and Neruda from nearby Chile, Lorca, Keats, Machado, Vallejo, Rubén Darío, Miguel Asturias and Walt Whitman. He was also familiar with the writings of Aristotle, Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, Freud, Kafka, Camus, Faulkner and Gide as well as the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin. He also admired the work of Sartre.
And while commanding in the Sierra Maestra he would read passages to his forces from Cervantes and Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer much admired by his fellow Argentinian, Jorge Luis Borges. And Guevara would always see that the campesinos they came into contact with would be taught to read and write since, for Guevara, ‘ignorance was a battle’ that also had to be won. Predictably, his CIA file of 1958, declassified several decades later, would say that Guevara was ‘quite well read’, and with typical imperialist flourish also added that Che ‘is fairly intellectual for a Latino.’
The images of Che by Korda and Fitzpatrick can still inspire. It should be remembered though that it was Guevara’s Irish ancestry that inspired him. As his father said when his son was killed ‘the blood of Irish rebels ran in his veins.’
Jim Aitken reviews Welcome to Britain: An Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction,edited by Ambrose Musiyiwa and published by CivicLeicester
In 2019 CivicLeicester published Bollocks to Brexit: An Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. This was then followed by Black Lives Matter: An Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction in 2020. Last year they published Poetry and Settled Status for All: An Anthology, and this year they have brought out the ironically titled Welcome to Britain: An Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. All anthologies have been edited by the redoubtable Ambrose Musiyiwa.
This most recent anthology is the culmination of all the previous anthologies, in that Brexit gets a fair mention in this new volume, as do the issues of racism, the dreadful way migrants are treated, and the colonial legacy of the UK that remains silent from mainstream political discourse. The failure to address that legacy enables what Munya Radzi, in her penetrating and insightful Introduction to the book, calls ‘the myths and fictions Britain likes to tell about itself.’ This book contests and subverts such myths in equal measure.
From the first piece in the collection by Sandra Agard entitled Welcome to Britain, we are reminded exactly what it was like for those of the Windrush generation (now 75 years old!) who arrived here and tried to find a place to live. As the man asks the ‘bespectacled English woman in a pink pinafore’ if she has a room, he is promptly told ‘my boarders won’t take to your kind.’
This level of racism has not gone away and that can often be because Britain’s colonial legacy is not addressed or taught. Children across the UK know more about the first half of twentieth century German history than they do about how it was Britannia came to rule the waves. The failure to address this has enabled the racism that accompanied imperialism to fester.
The poem Ola and Victoria by Jo Cheadle explains this perfectly as she notices Ola and her son sitting at the base of a statue to Queen Victoria – ‘its gilded roots running deep, through the Earth, touching every continent.’ For Robin Daglish in Cruel Britannia, ‘what a horror story the grab for empire was’ and he goes on to say ‘Black lives have always mattered.’
Brexit, for many, meant feeling unwelcome. The poem Disciplined by athina k tells how the poet was made to feel unwelcome during the time of Brexit. She noted ‘the repression of emotion’ in England and goes on to confess that ‘My home is here in Brexitland. I feel welcome and unwelcome’ and explains, having learned how to live here, she has herself become ‘emotionally regulated.’ For Fokhina McDonnell, her take on the Brexit negotiations were farcical as she says in Going Bananas – ‘Kafka would have been enchanted by a hard border in the Irish Sea.’
The government, of course, never even considered how their proposed Brexit would affect Ireland, a lack of consideration many would say had been going on for over 800 years. McDonnell puts it more succinctly when she says in the same poem ‘the yahoos are among us yanking us closer and closer to the edge.’ The choice of the word ‘yanking’ seems appropriate and in Max Terry Fischel’s poem England is a hard place, he tells us, ‘we are nearly America now.’
Rob Lowe, in his poem For The Good of Our Country, we are told that ‘For the good of our country/We preserve/ An imagined way of life.’ Such myths continue to abound in a nation that fails to address its history and in Zahira P Latif’s short prose piece The British Way, the myth ‘about a meritocratic British society’ is challenged when a student asks ‘the white middle-class faculty’ why they were passed over for a job that was given to ‘a less experienced British white student’ to be condescendingly told, ’You must be mistaken, because that is not the British way.’
Natasha Polomski continues this theme of a mythical nation when she laments in Pity the nation – ‘Pity the nation whose history is silenced/whose identity is bound up with lies.’ And Trefor Stockwell, in his poem Welcome to This Sceptered Isle, addresses this myth pertinently by saying ‘Sorry, dear migrants, it is such a shame/But you’ve become pawns in a political game/Wrong creed, wrong colour, wrong race.’
The Ukraine war is also touched upon. The poem A Flag Dilemma by Matteo Preabianca notices that ‘every garden has a Ukrainian flag’ but there are ‘no Iraqi or Afghan ones’ on show. Matteo sums the situation up by saying ‘Welcome Ukrainian refugees! /But if you’re Black – please!’ While Ambrose Musiyiwa in What a wonderful war, says ‘the energy companies’ are ‘doing well out of the Ukraine war’, Barrington Gordon noted that during the Ukrainian mass migration at the outset of the war, the trains were ‘only laid on for Ukrainians’ and not for black people. ‘Black children,’ he says in Black & White TV Sound Bites: A Colourful War, ‘now know they are not white.’
And in Tom Stockley’s poem Hummus on Matzo, he recalls ‘Aunt Barbara’ telling him that in the Ukrainian town of Chernigov a theatre now ‘takes the place/of the old synagogue/and laughter fills the space/that fear once knew so well.’ Clearly, there is not one angle only to this dreadful war and Cathryn Iliffe in I Don’t Hate Russians, says she ‘will always salute the battle tattered Red Army flag of victory over fascism.’
Arrogance and racism
This anthology is packed full with keen observation and angled comment and it is impossible to mention all the poems and writers – as I would love to do. I will limit to only a few more writers whose moving poems – along with all the others – make this anthology such an important book for our times.
Kimia Etemadi, in her poem Engelestân, addresses the reader directly by saying ‘You would too’ wish to leave your country if it meant that your six-month-old baby could grow up and ‘ride a bicycle despite being a girl.’ Sadly, after coming to Britain the baby had now become ‘seven years old’ and as she rides her bike she is told ‘by an elderly white woman’: ‘I don’t know what they do in your country, but here/ you’re NOT ALLOWED to ride on the pavement!
Such an arrogant and racist comment many migrants will have heard along similar lines. Implicit in such comments is the myth of greatness about the host and the barbarism of the newcomer. It is rooted in not just individual ignorance but in a state-sanctioned ignorance that perpetuates the idea of civilised norms while ignoring the historical realities of the state.
Kimia tells us she had to leave Iran ‘after five years of imprisonment for being a Marxist.’ She did not want to leave but had to leave, the story of the vast majority of migrants at all times. The Irish and Scots can both testify to this.
What was particularly moving about this poem was the arrival of Kimia’s Persian rug ‘passed from ancestor to descendant.’ The rug represents all the poet had left of her culture and to fit in, to assimilate to her new country she would allow her ‘English friends’ to keep their footwear on: ‘Come in. Keep your boots on. It’s fine./Drink your tea and just try your best to not think about it.
The custom of taking your shoes off in the home is a good one for all sorts of reasons. The fact that Kimia is now forced ‘not to think about it’ simply exposes the lack of value, the lack of cultural tradition of those who claim they are blessed with national exceptionalism and have no need to question the cultural traditions of anyone else.
The poems of Elizabeth Uter are written in stanzas of three lines each and these stanzas are packed full of commentary and insight. In Stitch Up she refers to the ‘hostile environment’ prevalent here with BNP and UKIP along with the Reform Party ‘tea partying/with strange bedfellows both across the pond, and, in Engaland,’ In ‘this green, unpleasant land’ she says ‘black is seen as deviant, not the norm.’ She refuses to be categorised or pigeon-holed and says ‘if it’s all the same to you I’m not BAME either.’
Uter’s poems not only reveal the nature of the racism prevalent here but also show how she reacts to it and deals with it. She says she will not be ‘stitched up by the othered song’ for she is ‘too clever by half to be needled by you, UK.’ Yes to that!
The collection also addresses the nature of a state that is essentially broken economically. Anna Blasiak in How to be an Immigrant speaks for all immigrants when she says ‘Remember that the black mould in the shower/Comes out to welcome you.’ Monique Guz in Helpline talks of ‘the death rattle of a collapsing system’ and in a memorable line Nicollen Meek, in She’s never had it so good, says ‘The oak of social security’ is now ‘reduced to a toothpick.’
What myths the UK has about itself are shattered in this anthology. This is a positive thing to have done because it means there is everything to play for, a new country could emerge. A new country where people are not othered, not classified or categorised by their colour or their faith, their race or their sexuality. This timely collection, as Elizabeth Uter so articulately illustrates, reaches ‘toward each other as we humans are supposed to do.’
First they came for my dear friend, Mr Samuel Gruber, who came originally from Hungary, I think. Then they came for me early one Friday morning. They burst into my attic bedroom as I slept and shouted, ‘Get your filthy foreign fur out of this bed.’ I was terribly shocked and embarrassed for my hosts. The children, Judy and Jonathan, were screaming and Mr and Mrs Brown protested rather profusely, as I recall.
No longer welcome, I was whisked out of 32 Windsor Gardens without even being able to say all my goodbyes and without, more importantly, any marmalade sandwiches for the long journey to Kigali airport. There was to be no legal appeal on my behalf owing to the fact that my anthropomorphised identity was not considered to be legal. I simply could not understand the complexities of it all and found it rather sad for the country I once considered my home.
My biographer, that nice Mr Michael Bond, had once witnessed the Kindertransport refugees on their arrival in London with labels round their necks, and so he simply transferred this to me. It was my lovely Aunt Lucy who had enabled me to stowaway and she placed a message around my neck which read, ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you.’ I did have a wonderful time in Notting Hill, looking back, and I do miss the Brown family and think of them with fondness.
Cleverly, the authorities here in Kigali have requested that my statue in Paddington Station, along with the other one in Leicester Square, be sent over here. It certainly seems that I am marketable everywhere I go. They have built me a nice hut in the Volcanoes National Park and my new neighbours, the gorillas, are extremely pleasant and I understand their language perfectly well. It is similar to the language I spoke in darkest Peru. In these beautiful mountains I am called Pastuso.
This was my actual name at birth. The Bonds and the Browns, terribly nice people as they were, preferred the name Paddington since foreign sounding names were just too difficult, it seemed. And it also seems, looking back, how it was their so called Brexit that tapped into the fear of the foreign and created the madness engulfing the place. With their economy now belly-flopping, it seems they need a constant stream of diversionary scapegoats. It is all such a terrible shame but it’s now time for a jar of marvellous marmalade.
This poem is taken from the Welcome to Britain anthology published by Civic Leicester and edited by Ambrose Musiyiwa.
Liberties by Peter Bennett does what E.M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel (1927), says a novel must invariably do: ‘The novel – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’ While Forster wishes the novel could be ‘something different’ like ‘melody or perception of the truth,’ he nonetheless concedes that telling a story is the ‘highest factor common to all novels.’
There have been countless attempts to challenge what the novel can do, but it seems that ultimately Forster was right in saying that novels must tell a story. How the reader judges the success or failure of any novel, however, is dependent on certain criteria. For example, is the characterisation recognisable and credible? Is the dialogue sufficient to understand the characters? Are the settings well imagined and conceived? How effective is the language used? Has the writer managed to lift the novel above the level of mere storytelling and say something else that is important or needs saying about our condition?
Bennett’s novel is set in the year 1998. He uses three narrators who are also characters in the action. They are Arthur Coyle, a grandad in his 70s, his twenty-year old grandson Daniel Coyle, and Stevie McShane who is young like Daniel. Each narrator pushes the action forward and by about a third of the way through their stories begin to morph into one another.
This triple narration worked extremely well with each character being fully realised. And the fact that Bennett chose to cross the generations gave his text an added dimension by showing how the young and the old apprehend their world. Arthur has roots in Glasgow’s industrial past whereas the younger ones are part of the post-industrial world we know today. What raises the novel above the telling of a tale is the way these contrasts in outlook are expressed. Arthur’s values belong to the togetherness and solidarity he experienced during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders' campaign of the early 1970s. The young narrators seem much more rootless and lost.
The novel is also written in Glaswegian Scots throughout and Bennett – and Rymour Books – should be applauded for pulling this off. The language is distinctively from Glasgow, along with many Scots words that are not peculiar to Glasgow alone which are also used. The language convinces and the three main voices of the narrators – along with the voices of others – all ring true.
The novel is set in Glasgow’s East End, particularly around the Shettleston area. Though there have been many attempts at renewal, the area is still known for its social inequality and all the accompanied ills that go with this. Sadly, the No Mean City (1935) of Long and McArthur is still alive and literally kicking in Glasgow today. The razor gangs of the 1930s have now given way to Stanley knives and baseball bats.
Add into this mix the continuing blight of sectarianism, drink and drugs and you may be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed since the 1930s. It is a bit more complex than that though. Bennett’s novel is fully aware how the industrial past of this great city once defined it and how its post-industrial reincarnation struggles to fully affirm. Young Glaswegians like Daniel Coyle are well aware of this. And the precariousness of employment through agency work for lads like Stevie McShane convinces him that today’s workplace is a game for losers and selling drugs is a better option.
A theme that runs through the novel is the role played by market forces. Where there is a demand for something then a supply is obviously required. Bennett applies this to drugs and he seems to suggest that these market forces are out of control. The extent of the demand is so widespread. Yes, the demand in the housing schemes stem from misery and deprivation, and Bennett paints a grim portrait in this regard:
… the underbelly ay society; the wans that faw between the cracks. The forgotten tribe. Social misfits. The miscreants nae cunt wants, nor needs, cast asunder oan tae the pile ay social security numbers, social workers case files an their ever expandin criminal records – the only documentation tae validate their sorry existence.
However, the demand has grown further up the food chain as well. We know this from reports of cocaine being found in the toilets of the House of Commons; and recently Prince Harry has confessed to using cocaine.
While we can understand how drink and drugs may seem to alleviate suffering – though both actually add to it – in areas of deprivation, the fact that people from more affluent backgrounds feel the need to use drugs shows that the stresses and strains associated with our economic and political model is clearly out of control.
The drug business is every bit as vile as every other business under capitalism. Why should it not be? Down at the bottom it is particularly brutal for those on drugs but this simply mirrors the state’s brutality towards the poorest in our society with zero hours contracts, food banks, demeaning fitness for work interviews, sanctions, cuts to benefits and pre-payment energy meters.
The local gangster and hard man is called Mullin. He parasitises on his clients and terrorises the neighbourhood. There are many Mullins all over Scotland, England, Europe and elsewhere. While he comes from the neighbourhood himself and grew up between the cracks, Bennett clearly implies that there are other gangsters who seem outwardly respectable who wear suits but whose actions are every bit as brutal as the Mullins of this world. One thinks of Bezos, Musk and so many similar others. McShane tells us ‘the bankers an the politicians, they’re the biggest crooks ay the lot.’
It turns out that Mullin had murdered Danny’s dad, John Coyle, who was also the son of Arthur Coyle. Mullin was also responsible for the death of Arthur’s mate, Tam O’Henry. Tam’s daughter has fallen on even harder times and Tam accepts money from Mullin but every time he pays some back Mullin increases interest payments. By doubling up as a money lender as well as a drug dealer, Mullin has enormous power in the area.
Arthur and Tam go to the bowling club and also to the Portland Arms. They have been friends since they worked on the Clyde as apprentices. Tam has a disability – ‘a gammy airm’ – from his time working as a welder. He had been on Invalidity Benefit but this got changed to Incapacity Benefit and Tam, at 63 years old, is told to find a job. This is the background to Tam’s life becoming embroiled with Mullin.
There was, at times, a sense that Arthur and Tam were a bit like the two most famous pensioners in Scotland, namely Jack and Victor from the TV programmes of Still Game, but any similarity is short lived as the lives of Tam and Arthur become deeply troubled by more serious events.
Another parallel that could be made concerns Danny Coyle dropping out of Glasgow Caledonian University. He now goes around with his former mates, McDade and Pearcey, and Danny’s mum castigates him – ‘ye decided tae drap oot ay university tae piss aboot wae yer nae good, waster pals.’ This is incredibly similar to Tom Leonard’s mum, in his poem The Dropout:
well jist take a lookit yersel naithur work nor wahnt aw aye
yir clivir damm clivir. but yi huvny a clue whutyur dayn.
It is a strength that Bennett’s novel raises such comparisons. Another one could obviously be made with Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993). Like Welsh’s novel, Liberties looks at the drug scene in a deprived area. Bennett also focusses on the music that was around in the 90s and pays attention to the clothes and trainers his characters wear. On one occasion Danny, McDade and Pearcey head off to a bothy out by Ben More and this scene was reminiscent of when Renton and his mates in Trainspotting decide to go north for fresh air and to temporarily get away from Leith.
The famous lines by Renton as one of his mates suggests that the beauty of the Highlands make you proud to be Scottish still resonate:
It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low! The scum of the fucking earth… some people hate the English, I don’t. They’re just wankers! We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers! Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by… it’s a shite state of affairs to be in Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference.
Danny Coyle, like Renton, is more intelligent than his mates and sees how basic they are. Rather than comment on the state of being Scottish, however, Danny is more aesthetically appalled at the total lack of awareness of the beauty that can be found in such settings:
There’s some rarely spoken ay, unwritten code amongst cunts like us that dictates that ye cannae openly express awe an wonder at that in life that elicits such a response… the majestic flight ay a golden eagle… tae openly express wonderment is tae invite ridicule.
This reaction by Danny seems more acute and psychologically aware. In this sense it appears that Danny, while having some similarity to Renton, has much more in common with the leading characters of previous Glasgow novels.
Eddie Macdonnell in Edward Gaintens’, Dance of the Apprentices (1948), tries to rise above the chaos that surrounds him in the Gorbals and he reads widely and talks of socialism. So too does Mat Craig, in Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place (1966), who wishes to become a writer despite falling into extreme poverty. A similar case can be made for Duncan Thaw in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark(1981) and Joe Necchi in Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book (1960) who both fail to realise their artistic ambitions.
'There’s mare that unites us than divides us'
At the end of Liberties we are told that Danny is going back to university, this time to Heriot Watt in Edinburgh, and his girlfriend Tracey is also going to transfer there. This is optimistic and such an ending places Bennett’s novel much more in the proud tradition of Glasgow novels that have gone before. Learning is the best antidote to help you raise yourself from your environment. Crime or sporting success are only temporary measures, whereas learning will always be more sustainable in the longer term. You may not achieve your artistic vision but learning and the artistic urge are always of a higher order regardless of how events may turn out.
Arthur is proud of his grandson, as is his mother. Yet, it is Arthur who has to caution Danny and his friends over a sectarian outburst by McDade as they watch a Scotland football match when Gordon Durie, a Rangers player, misses a chance. Arthur, with his history of working-class solidarity forged in UCS, responds to McDade’s ‘orange bastart’ comment by telling the lads ‘There’s mare that unites us than divides us, son… That’s whit they want, ye know – us aw bloody fightin wae each other.’
The novel is set in the year 1998 and this was the year Celtic managed to stop Rangers winning 10 in a row league titles. Every young Celtic fan born after this date will be aware of this fact. Even in a more secular era, the sectarian attitude still exists. The Portland Arms pub has separate ends for fans of Rangers and Celtic and this was arranged by the those who frequent the bar themselves. Like every other Glasgow writer who has raised this issue, Bennett regrets how this tradition still divides.
Bennett also uses some fine descriptive writing to paint certain Glasgow scenes:
A great cliff of charcoal grey cloud rolls across the sky like some huge megalithic wall of dark, volcanic rock drifting through the air, bloated and swollen, stubbornly retaining its precipitous essence until it can no more.
Often the dreich, damp weather Bennett describes which is so common to Glasgow and other parts of Scotland, appears to hold a certain echo of Edwin Morgan and his Glasgow Sonnet 1 – ‘A mean wind wanders through the backcourt trash/Hackles on puddles rise.’ The fact that Bennett’s writing evokes other Glasgow writers is an enormous strength and places him in this proud tradition.
Bennett also gives us a few examples of the customary humour that is associated with this city. Arthur tells us that one of the guys he knows at the bowling club is known as The Blacksmith. This is because every time it is his turn to buy a round ‘he makes a bolt fur the door.’ And when it is pointed out that McDade always seems to have some luck about him, we are told if McDade ‘fell in the Clyde, he’d come oot wi a fuckin salmon in his mooth, nae danger, man.’
Liberties has much to recommend it. The title refers to not taking advantage of someone and not allowing anyone to take advantage of yourself. Arthur gave this advice to Danny. However, this novel uses the title metaphorically in that the economic and political system we endure takes liberties all the time with us. The desperation of the drug scene experienced in poor areas did not suddenly fall out of the sky. It has been orchestrated by imposed economic disadvantage.
Bennett has done an invaluable job in exposing this. His debut novel is convincing in terms of his credible characters, the triple narration works superbly well, the dialogue is recognisably Glaswegian and his knowledge of the drug scene also seems entirely accurate. He has fulfilled Forster’s dictum and told an altogether riveting tale. All of this is no mean political and aesthetic achievement.
‘Liberties’ by Peter Bennett is published by RymourBooks, 2022, and can be bought here.
In the ancient world it tended to be the most trusted slaves who were put in charge of the care and service of the wine cellar. The word ‘butler’ comes from the Middle English word bouteler, and morphed into the Old Norman butelier, itself corresponding to the Old French botellier meaning ‘bottle bearer.’
The artist Hogarth had a painting done of his six most important servants called Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants (c 1758) and this was placed on his dining room wall where his visitors were said to be outraged. Portraiture was considered only fit for aristocratic, upper-class representation. In Hogarth’s painting the butler is in the middle of the painting with the five other servants surrounding him showing the hierarchical nature within the servant class itself. Such portraits were highly unusual for this period but the heads show the simplicity and honesty of the individuals and present Hogarth as a man worthy of such loyalty.
Throughout the nineteenth century, and more particularly during the late Victorian era, the number of butlers and domestic servants grew as a result of the largesse made from imperial expansion. The social historian Barry Higman pointed out that a high number of butlers and other domestic servants rose in accordance with a high level of economic inequality within society. This may explain why, in the twenty- first century, a TV and film version of Downton Abbey is proving so popular today.
This world of hierarchical privilege should long ago have been banished but literature, it seems, has kept it alive and thriving. Not only as something quaint, however, but also with the added cultural and hegemonic influence it has to still keep everyone in their allotted places.
There have been countless tacky novels, whodunits and melodramas where butlers end up being the killers – thus the catchphrase ‘The butler did it!’ The fact that in such cheap literature it was the butler only confirms his low breeding and class status.
Jeeves and Wooster
However, there are also quite a few texts that present butlers with plummy voices, such as in the novels of PG Wodehouse. Jeeves, we are told, is not really a butler, but more ‘a gentleman’s gentleman.’ Many of these novels were made into dramas for TV with Stephen Fry playing the part of Jeeves and Hugh Laurie the part of Bertie Wooster. They all followed a familiar pattern with the upper-class twit, Wooster, having to rely on the superior intelligence of Jeeves to get him out of countless scrapes.
Oscar Wilde satirised such people in his plays during the Victorian era and Wodehouse and others were simply carrying on this tradition. English literature’s fascination with the follies and foibles of class simply reveal how enduring class division in England has been.
The Admirable Crichton
The play The Admirable Crichton (1902) by JM Barrie was made into a film in 1957 starring Kenneth More as the butler, Crichton. This film regularly appears on TV today. The liberal-minded Earl of Loam asks his three daughters to treat the staff as equals over an afternoon with tea. Lady Brocklehurst arrives and strongly disapproves of any change to the natural order of class rule. Interestingly, so too does Crichton. As a loyal butler who knows his place in the scheme of things, he too protests against such folly. Service, for him, means serving those better than yourself.
Lady Catherine, one of the Earl’s daughters, is arrested at a suffragette protest and the Earl decides that the family should take a trip on his yacht to the South Seas. Hopefully, the scandal will have died down by their return.
The yacht’s motors explode during a storm and they all end up stranded on a desert island. The abandoned yacht drifts into an offshore rock formation and Crichton swims out to salvage what he can. Class differences are initially kept until the Earl and his daughters, together with vicar John Traherne and Ernest Wooley realise their uselessness and come to rely on the butler for virtually everything required to stay alive.
There is also a maid called Eliza who is soon known as Tweeny. Because of Crichton’s abilities as someone who has had to work for a living, he goes on to become known as Guv. He creates a division of labour for everyone and this is the first time the upper-class castaways have ever worked in their lives.
Both Lady Mary and Eliza fall in love with Guv Crichton and all the other men fall for Tweeny. Lady Brocklehurst would be appalled at such a turn of events. With a clear division of labour, they all thrive and Crichton and Lady Mary intend to marry and vicar Traherne carries out the ceremony. Just before their vows are taken a ship appears. Everyone wishes to ignore it except Crichton. They return home and reverse into their former class divisions. This was at Crichton’s insistence. Knowing his place is, after all, part of the DNA of being a butler. Crichton, to protect the family, decides to leave the service of the Earl and he takes Tweeny with him. The Earl decides to move across the floor to the Tory benches as a result of his mistakes on the desert island by forgetting his superior position. The paradise they created on the desert island turns out to have been a Never-Never Land belonging only to the realm of dreams.
The tale of Crichton shows how deep those ruling class values have shaped those who have served their masters and they look up to them as their betters. This is precisely what gives us Conservative governments time and time again. Each presentation of a butler – whether in literature or in film – serves to embed the values and the rule of the upper-classes.
Similarly, the drama series on TV during the 1970s, appropriately called Upstairs, Downstairs, presented the butler, Angus Hudson, as authoritarian and irascible. He was the enforcer of hierarchies downstairs among the staff, on behalf of his masters upstairs. Like Crichton he believes in the class divisions as somehow natural. He sees his place as enforcer of values which should be inimical to him if he could only think for himself. He doesn’t seem to realise that such values serve others and not himself.
Even in more popular culture we meet butlers who seem simply as those born to serve. Batman has a butler called Alfred Pennyworth and he too has the Rees-Mogg voice similar to Jeeves and Crichton (Hudson was Scottish). His surname Pennyworth seems significant in that butlers are generally only ever allowed a pennyworth of their opinions. And in the Gothic horror films of The Addams Family there is the tall and scary figure of butler Lurch, a figure I would suggest less scary than Rees-Mogg or any of the other members of the Tory party.
The Remains of the Day
However, for a portrait of the most abject deference and servility there can be no figure that embodies these qualities more than the butler, Stevens, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (1989). This work was made into a film in 1993 starring Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.
The novel begins in 1956 as Stevens is given a day off from Darlington Hall by his new employer, the wealthy American Mr Farraday. As Stevens drives to meet with Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn, he has a series of flashbacks about his time working as butler to the mansion’s former owner, Lord Darlington. Miss Kenton had also worked at Darlington Hall with Stevens in the 1920s and 30s.
Ishiguro builds up a portrait of a man who lived and breathed for his employer. Stevens had a mind only for his employer and to serve his needs and wishes. His being was given over to service and he was, like Crichton and Hudson, the enforcer of protocols for the staff which had always to be obeyed and never questioned. This proved delicate when Stevens and Kenton seem to be attracted to one another. However, the iron will of Stevens ensures that there will be no blossoming of romance or passion. There must be no relationships of any romantic nature between the staff.
Lord Darlington had arranged for high-ranking Nazi officials, along with his aristocratic chums, to dine at Darlington Hall and discuss politics. Stevens arranges things as he would for any other visitors. He has no beliefs or opinions of his own save the opinions of his employer, Lord Darlington. He must know best because he was privately educated, speaks with Received Pronunciation and simply knows what is best since he is the best.
Rees-Mogg, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, as well as Kwasi Kwarteng all attended Eton while George Osborne attended Harrow, Jeremy Hunt attended Charterhouse and Rishi Sunak attended Winchester. Between them and the comprehensive-educated Liz Truss, the damage done to lives of millions of people is incalculable. Yet for many people these posh boys are still to be looked upon as knowing better than others of a lower social standing. This is how a class-ridden society works.
Stevens, just like his butler father before him, knows never to question the opinions of those above. It is simply not done. Ishiguro should be commended for such a portrait of unquestioning acquiescence because he showed how such subservience can lead to fascism. There were, of course, several aristocrats who did flirt with Nazis. Lord Halifax and the Duke of Argyll spring to mind – as well as King Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, after his abdication. The ruling class will do whatever it takes to see that their interests and privileges are looked after. Right now, after the demise of four Tory PMs since Brexit 2016, they will do anything they can to hold on to power rather than have a General Election. This is in no way surprising.
Interestingly, it was mentioned in the obituary of Charles Stewart of 27th August 2022 (another Old Etonian) in the Daily Telegraph, that he believed The Remains of the Day to be based on Mount Stewart and his great-grandfather, the 7th Marquis of Londonderry, Charles Vane-Tempest Stewart. This figure regularly visited Germany to meet with Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Goebbels and von Ribbentrop. He was described as ‘a controversial figure in Conservative and Unionist politics.’ With figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon, along with climate activists, Black Lives Matter activists and striking trade unionists derided as dangerous and a menace, it seems that being in bed with Nazis is no more than controversial.
In the film The Servant (1963), written by Harold Pinter, and re-worked by him from a novella by Robin Maugham, we do see the tables turned. James Fox played the wealthy Londoner Tony who employs Hugo Barrett, played by Dirk Bogarde, as his manservant. All seems well until Barrett suggests that the house could do with a housemaid. He suggests his sister Vera, played by Sarah Miles, would be excellent in the position and she is taken on accordingly. However, Vera is in fact Barrett’s girlfriend and he encourages Vera to seduce Tony. Tony has a girlfriend of his own called Susan, played by Wendy Craig. But he duly falls under Vera’s charms.
Like Bertie Wooster and Earl Loam before him, Tony can do little for himself and relies heavily on both Barrett and Vera for all his needs. He is plied with drink and he becomes a hopeless alcoholic who begins to exhibit the infantilism associated with people from this class background.
Barrett and Vera take over the house and have parties where prostitutes are invited along. Pinter’s work is generally associated with strong currents of violence and menace and his script for The Servant certainly bears this out. This was effectively a revolutionary reversal of the class order. Barrett is no decent bloke but Tony is reduced to a pathetic figure when his position of power and privilege is usurped.
No such thing happens in Downton Abbey. The butler, Charles (‘Charlie’) Carson, started at Downton as a young lad and has worked his way up. He embodies the unquestioning mentality associated with service. His values are handed down to him from above. He fears the election of a Labour Government, he loves royalty and detests being called liberal. Carson is clearly made out to be anti-woke before wokery ever came along. The series first aired in 2010 so the writer, Julian Fellowes, was keenly aware of the character he was creating and the current debates going on.
It is a sad reflection that such a film can have had such success since there is so much poverty around; a poverty created to protect today’s Woosters, Loams, Darlingtons and Crawleys of Downton. It also shows that such films exist also to perpetuate class division. Stevens and Carson both look back to the better times when their respective households seemed much more secure before the advent of modernity and post-modernity. Both figures possess the conservative nostalgia for a halcyon past – a bit like the Brexit architects who promised Empire 2.0.
The figure of the butler seems a quintessentially British/English one. In a contemporary twist to this image Oliver Bullough has written Butler to the World:How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals. The choice of the word butler seems a perfect one for a book such as this. As the rich have destroyed the economy for the many, their own interests are now served serving others, however unsavoury the others may be. These others now own chunks of our land, our football clubs, properties and businesses and as long as they bank their cash with us then that seems fine.
Born to rule or born to serve? It really is time for this relationship to be severed before more damage is done. The rich have only ever cared about their riches. Nothing has changed today. The image and figure of the butler should be relegated to history just like the class the butler once served. Walter Benjamin said that he ‘came into the world under the sign of Saturn – the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays.’ We really have had enough detours and delays and far too many representations of butlers. Things need to be speeded up!
Ach, big man, Ah’m fair chuffed tae see ye so Ah am. Ah’ve luved the wey ye deal wi the mediya an tak the piss oot ay them aw, an the wey ye mak aw us black folk feel aboot oorsels. Ye’ve chainged the gemm for us wi yer patter an yer cairryin oan. Ah jist luve it so Ah dae. An ye get awey wi it cos ye have talent an the rerr style thit abody envies, ay an yer niver flustert. Ah couldnae dae thon but whit we hae in common is bein sae guid at whit we dae. But get this, big man, yer ainly the greatest wi the mitts oan , Ah’m the greatest wi the togs.