Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.

Your Solidarity be Praised: Review of 'The Orgreave Stations' by William Hershaw
Sunday, 26 May 2024 08:30

Your Solidarity be Praised: Review of 'The Orgreave Stations' by William Hershaw

Published in Poetry

Jim Aitken reviews The Orgreave Stations by William Hershaw, illustrated by Les McConnell, some of whose images in the book accompany this review

The Orgreave Stations’ , published by Culture Matters, is the companion set of poems to his earlier work The Sair Road’ (2018).

The Sair Road Scots Cover resized

These earlier poems remain the finest poems written in Scots this century. These two books of poems complement each other in that they both use the Stations of the Cross as an organising structure, and in both books Jesus is a miner at the heart of the struggles in the Fife and South Yorkshire coalfields.

In both books Hershaw’s Jesus has been stripped of any hint of organised religion and there is no attempt at any point to proselytise for any religious faith. However, the Jesus we witness in Orgreave offers a religiosity that is remarkably similar to our understanding of what socialism should be. This Jesus would certainly be recognised by the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Keir Hardie. For Jesus of Orgreave ‘a Christian has to be a socialist.’  

Yet the Stations remain purely structural and the appearance of Jesus as a miner serves to add a moral dimension to the story of Jesus handed down from the New Testament. Each Station uses an opening quote from the Gospels to add further context to the moral imperatives that Jesus of Orgreave proclaims.

Hershaw tells us in his Introduction that the use of the Stations and the role of Jesus as miner in the action is for the purpose of ‘symbolic religious imagery’ so that the poem can bring out ‘the full moral implications’ of what the destruction of a once proud industry meant.

The NUM – the 'enemy within'

Orgreave is 40 years old this year and for those miners who were there it must seem as if it was yesterday. It was a deeply traumatic event for the striking miners, to be met on one side by mounted police and on the other by police handling dogs to form the welcoming party. Orgreave, as Hershaw tells us, was ‘a pre-planned ambush.’ All the resources open to the British state were used to smash an irritant trade union that Thatcher at the time labelled ‘the enemy within.’

 As well as the 14 Stations, Hershaw gives us a poem called Early Doors: At the Cross which precedes the Stations, and After Hours: Fear No More which comes after the Stations. Much of the poem is written in iambic pentameters, and Hershaw also uses a version of the sestina rhyme scheme (ABABCC) for his final poem. These poetic devices bring seriousness and gravitas to the sequence of poems, since the subject matter clearly demanded nothing less.

S1 resized

Station 1: The Road to Gethsemane Allotments

In the first Station Jesus calls his fellow miners ‘comrades’ and tells them to forgive those who seek their demise – ‘love the lousy lot.’ He also uses a couple of mining metaphors to labour this point. In one he says they should think on their own ‘slag heap of faults’ before they condemn others. And in another he asks them to make sure ‘their lives are pit-propped with love.’

While love remains the essence of the Christian message, it is also the basis of socialism. People, after all, become socialists because they care about others. A genuine socialist society would be one without hatred or division and the Jesus of Orgreave gets himself into deep trouble for preaching such a gospel of love.

S4 resized

Station 4: Big Pete

Jesus is duly arrested – ‘You’re lifted, Trotsky – in the fucking van’ and he is sent to jail. Jesus’ comrade, Big Pete, is shown to have his doubts as he seems to fall victim to what the right-wing press are saying, ‘The papers say that Thatcher will not turn.’ And he worries about the fact ‘There’s even some in Labour who agree.’ The then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, now an unelected Lord, argued at the time for a ballot just as the Tory press told him to do. It has ever been thus with Labour, just as it is today with Starmer praising Thatcher and saying he will stick to Tory spending plans if elected, so that nothing will really change. The poor, marginalised and oppressed will remain unloved.

S4 Pilate resized

Station 5: Judged by Pilate

In Station 5 Jesus is judged by a smarmy Pilate who tells him, ‘Instead of helping losers, help yourself.’ Pilate recognises the strengths that Jesus has and asks him to come on board – ‘there’s room for those like you.’ Jesus can even become ‘a stakeholder in days to come.’ Jesus of Orgreave stands firm but these lines make us think about all the former Labour MPs and trade union leaders who have taken ermine, becoming so-called stakeholders in a system that continually exploits others at home and abroad.

After the brutal battle at Orgreave where the police ‘Brought batons down upon unfended heads, and sent dogs on the miners and called them ‘commie scum’, the action changes to an earlier time. Jesus was once the Safety Rep., approaching the pit manager to tell him about poor ventilation down the pit. He gets nowhere and is told by the boss, ‘I’ve seen your sort/ Out to create bother, always complain.’ In these short but prescient comments we can think of other miscarriages of justice – Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough and Grenfell, Windrush, the Post Office, the blood transfusion scandal, and many more besides. Bosses are especially chosen because they can be relied upon to put Caesar first.

The case of Paula Vennells, the former CEO at the Post Office, is an excellent example in recent times. It makes the comment of Hershaw that a Christian has to be a socialist somewhat ironic in her case – at the time she was CEO at the Post Office she also served as an Anglican priest. The Christian message is to love one another, and she obviously loved the Caesar she served more than the sub-postmasters beneath her.

The solidarity of the miners

Also, in another time Jesus recalls when he was saved by Simon of Cyrene after he slipped. Together they managed to lift a pit prop and the message here was,’ When they both worked as one, their load was light.’ These ‘other’ sections enable Hershaw to follow the original Stations but also allow him to show us the importance of solidarity. The miners were a workforce defined by their solidarity due to the nature of the job underneath the earth.

S8 resized

Station 8: Simon of Cyrene

That solidarity was dangerous when it was expressed above ground, when miners demanded better wages and conditions and were prepared to strike to save their jobs and their communities. As Shelley said in those famous lines ‘Ye are many – they are few’: working together workers can change the world, they can inherit it. The Pilates, however, seek only to divide worker from worker and in this they are aided by a class-compliant press and media.

S9 resized

Station 9: The Women

Similarly, in following the original Stations, Hershaw can make important mention of the work done by the wives and partners of miners during their year-long struggle. For him the Government was, ’Furious at your will to make ends meet.’ Their contribution must never be forgotten. Just like the faithfulness and loyalty of women like Mary Magdalene in the Gospels, it was the selflessness of the women against pit closures that shamed the ‘shallow lives’ of the Government and of all who supported them.

The crucifixion of Jesus is brought about through a pit accident; this recalls the thousands of fatal pit accidents that happened to miners down the years. Many of these accidents, of course, could have been prevented had bosses acted on advice given by Safety Reps and others. The miners of yesteryear are in fact no different to the football fans at Hillsborough, the sub-postmasters or the residents of Grenfell – all are sacrificed on the altar of Caesar.

Orgreave was our bloody Calvary

In Station 12 Jesus is on the cross, and he speaks to his mother. This speech is essentially what has happened after Orgreave and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. The victory of deep reaction has brought ‘Cultural and material poverty.’ It has brought the rejection that Society exists and all ‘To serve a selfish ideology.’ And this has been achieved through the violence of the state as their ‘dogs of war’ were used to attack ‘its own helpless folk… unleashed on communities.’  Universal Credit, homelessness (a lifestyle choice, according to Suella Braverman), zero hours contracts, student fees, drink and drug addiction, denial of the right to strike or protest and so much more besides – all these things flow from what happened after the Battle of Orgreave and the defeat of the strike.

S10 resized

Station 10: The Crucifixion

And yet, in the immediate post-war world there was hope for the working class. Jesus, we are told, ‘was born in a post-war dream/Jesus was born in a housing scheme.’ At that time, he had been born ‘with the highest of hopes.’ The defeat for the miners at Orgreave has given rise to a lived nightmare now for many. For this reason, Hershaw says, ‘Orgreave was our bloody Calvary.’

In Station 14 Jesus has died and there is an inquest into his tragic death; a death like so many miners before him. Hershaw mentions the names of Joe Green and Davie Jones, two miners who died during the strike while picketing to save their jobs, their communities and their class. Hershaw gives a telling line when he says, ‘Profit’s never mentioned at an inquest.’ How sickeningly accurate this line is.

The question now, of course, is will there be a resurrection for the working class? Hershaw offers two differing outcomes. In the pre-Station poem Early Doors: At the Cross he muses that ‘a new Happyland will come.’ But at the end of the Stations in After Hours: Fear no more he looks back on the great struggle of the miners to say, ‘May all your struggles now be past/ All souls like coal must turn to ash.’ While the earlier quote of a new Happyland sounds promising, the latter one suggests the opposite. Hershaw is being deliberately ambiguous because we do not know what will happen in the future. He is not saying we will be saved by believing in him though he does say, ‘Your solidarity be praised.’ Until that solidarity grows and people begin to realise that the state in which they live is geared only to the few and not the many, then a Happyland will come – but if this is not realised, then it will all turn to ash.

The Orgreave Stations is a profound reminder of how great the stakes are. The heroic struggle of the miners has to be remembered and celebrated precisely because it tells us about the need for solidarity. At the same time Hershaw’s Orgreave Stations makes us realise how he has lifted the poetic bar to a higher level by invoking the figure of Jesus the miner. This Jesus preaches socialism and his creed is dangerous to the ruling classes. The message of the New Testament is remarkably similar in that both creeds place love at the heart of their message.

Marxism is about political love

In a recent article in The London Review of Books (25th April) by Terry Eagleton (republished by Culture Matters here) called ‘Where does culture come from?’ he discusses the issue of ‘clashing self-fulfilments’ which he resolves by reference to Marx. Marx, he tells us, gives the name ‘communism’ to what Eagleton calls ‘reciprocal self-realisation.’ He then goes further and quotes from The Communist Manifesto – ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

This is the high moral ground upon which any socialist or communist society should be based. No-one is excluded or victimised in such a society. There is recognition that we are all one body. Eagleton comments further:

When the fulfilment of one individual is the ground or condition of the fulfilment of another, and vice versa, we call this love. Marxism is about political love.

This is precisely what Hershaw is saying in The Orgreave Stations. Jesus of Orgreave embodies this kind of political love through his solidarity with the miners. This solidarity, of course, extends to everyone who wishes a better, fairer society, even to those who do not wish it. Such generosity is unthinkable in a class-based society where a ruling class decides on who the winners and losers will be.

In Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, we see something similar when he says, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ Comments like this had been around in the early days of the socialist movement and Marx simply refined it. However, a remarkably similar comment can be found in Acts of the Apostles where the lifestyle of the community of believers in Jerusalem is described as ‘communal.’ This meant that no-one retained any individual possession of goods – ‘distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.’

The Jesus of the New Testament and the Jesus of Orgreave recognise this communality. This is what makes them dangerous, precisely because their views challenge the vested interests of the few. Socialism is the higher creed in terms of morality since it represents sharing, fairness, kindness and care. These are lethal values for those who represent greed, selfishness, expropriation and exploitation.

Jesus of Orgreave, Grenfell, Windrush and Hillsborough

The Orgreave Stations expresses a high moral level, a socialism that stands as the antidote to all the profanities in our late capitalist world. It should also be remembered that when we consider the Stations of Jesus of Orgreave, we are also talking about his Passion, the short final period before his death. The Passion comes from the Latin patior meaning to suffer, bear, endure. That is what the miners did at Orgreave and throughout their strike. That is also what the working class continues to do. Jesus of Orgreave is also Jesus of Grenfell, Jesus of Windrush, Jesus of Hillsborough, of Ballymurphy and the Bogside and of the sub-postmasters.

Hershaw’s text makes us think about the renewal, or the resurrection, of socialist ideas and practices. Such is the power and the implications of these poems. They make us return to source, to the Christian values that set out to change the world. This poem makes us think of the words of Nikolai Ostrovsky:

Man’s dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying, he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world – the fight for the liberation of mankind.

Jesus of Orgreave has no burning shame or torturing regrets. He sought the liberation of mankind and he did so without the baggage of any denominational dogmatics. His story lives as the story of the class he came from lives on. It has to, after all, since it remains the only hope for humanity and for our world.

Hershaw’s poem has been blessed by wonderful illustrations, by Les McConnell, some of which illustrate this review. They not only enhance the pages of the text but give it an updated twist, by illustrating ordinary people who are recognisable and relevant to the period of the strike. The artistic solidarity of the poet and his illustrator could be said to be a match made in heaven.

The Orgreave Stations is available here. There will be a launch of the book at a memorial event on Saturday 15th June, at 2pm at the Willie Clarke Centre, Lochore, Fife. 

'Poetry is the Last Stand of the Soul': Out of Gaza, New Palestinian Poetry
Wednesday, 03 April 2024 19:07

'Poetry is the Last Stand of the Soul': Out of Gaza, New Palestinian Poetry

Published in Poetry

Jim Aitken reviews the new antholgy from Smokestack Books, edited by Alan Morrison and Atef Alshaer 

‘Poetry is a duty because it records the last stand of the soul.’
- Atef Alshaer

Smokestack Books, together with editors Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison, have produced not only an anthology of new Palestinian Poetry, they have produced both a living testimony and a memorial to the siege of Gaza which began in October 2023 and is continuing at this moment. The publication of Out of Gaza is a major achievement that deserves justifiable praise for bringing together fifteen Palestinian poets from Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora.

Tragically two of the poets in this collection died in the siege. Refaat Alareer, prior to an Israeli airstrike, had said that if the Israeli Defence Force attacked his house he would ‘throw my pen in the faces of the soldiers.’ Alan Morrison relays that according to Euro-Med Monitor (and other reliable sources) Professor Alareer was deliberately targeted with a so called ‘surgical bomb’ like so many other writers, intellectuals, doctors, academics and journalists.

The Palestinian poet and novelist Hiba Abu Nada was also killed by an Israeli airstrike while in her home in Khan Yunis. Grief-stricken at the onslaught against her people, and the rising levels of death and destruction, she said in the poem 'We are in the heights now

There is a new Gaza in heaven
without siege
taking shape now.

Understandably, the level of grief at what has – and is – being done to the people of Gaza is palpable. This is expressed in this collection with deep emotion and a moving sincerity. While we may be horrified at what we see on our TV screens, the people of Gaza are undergoing something deeply traumatic that we can only barely imagine.

The sense of grief and sadness and of desolation at what has been done causes Hala Alyan to suggest in her poem 'Naturalised' that ‘When this is over there is no over but quiet.’ Her sense of grief is so over-powering that in another poem called I don’t hate sparrows she movingly affirms –

We bear what we bear until we can’t anymore.
We invent what we can’t stand grieving
.

This is the human response to what is going on by those on the receiving end of such horror. Ali Abukhattab in his poem 'Discourse of I/You' tells us ‘I build the kingdom of crying’ while Mohammed Mousa laments ‘there are no playgrounds for Gaza children/and cemeteries are always available.’ Mousa also states in I can’t keep up with the rhythm of war that ‘We wash in the rubble, we breathe under the rubble, we fight death as we gasp and fight for a life that’s ready to go.’

In Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem 'Moon Over Gaza' she writes of ‘A landscape of grieving ’and Farid Bitar in 'Unexplained Misery' tells us ‘The wars of Palestine are never ending… millions of olive trees uprooted… I keep thinking this is a bad dream/ And when I awake/ Everything/ From the previous day/ Is just the same.’

You have to experience the trauma of Gaza by being there to write such lines. While grief and sadness are clearly the likely sentiments to be expressed in such a collection, it was noticeable that there was nothing expletive or lines of invective directed against the Israelis or against Jews either. However, there were lines that compared the Siege of Gaza to what once happened to Jews. Refaat Alareer in his poem 'I am You' addresses Israel by saying: ‘The victim has evolved, backward, / Into a victimiser… I want you to stop hating.’

This insight comes close to what psychologists would describe as the once abused becoming the abuser. Alareer does not deny the Holocaust, he acknowledges it and is saddened that the Israeli government has learned nothing from it. He goes on to say at the end of this poem:

I am you.
I am your past.
And killing me,
You kill you.

These are powerfully succinct sentiments being expressed. Similarly, Farid Bitar in 'The Journalist' says ‘This enemy is insisting to relive/ Days of Warsaw ghettoes of WW11/ Vengeance is their calling.’ And Tariq Luthan shares such a view in his poem 'We Already Know This' when he writes ‘Genocide… did not start, and did not end at the Holocaust… everyone needs a place on the planet.’

What is so interesting about these lines is the tempered restraint that they have. There is no obvious hatred, no foul-mouthed rants at oppressors and no racism. When Alareer said 'I am You' he implies that not only is the suffering of the Palestinian people comparable to the suffering historically of Jews, but that both Arab and Jew are fellow Semites. This is rarely said. Hatred of Arabs is also anti-Semitism.

Mohammed Mousa in the poem 'Three military vehicles drive by' raises the question of identity, of being a Palestinian under occupation and attack when he tells us ‘I refuse to hand my body to a white soldier who has no identity and asks me to leave for having one.’

Palestinians know that they are Palestinian, and that is the same whether they are living in the horror of Palestine today or are part of her burgeoning diaspora. The restraint of the lines in this collection would still inevitably be deemed anti-Semitic since, it seems, no-one is entitled to compare the Holocaust to any other atrocity. As Pankaj Mishra said recently in his essay in The London Review of Books (21 March) called 'The Shoah after Gaza', the Israeli government ‘weaponises’ the Holocaust to justify all that it does:

Memories of Jewish suffering at the hands of Nazis are the foundation on which most descriptions of extreme ideology and atrocity have been built. But these universalist reference points are in danger of disappearing as the Israeli military massacres and starves Palestinians.

Though the poets in Out of Gaza show a commendable restraint in their language toward their oppressors, the same cannot be said about some former Israeli Prime Ministers towards the Palestinians. In 1969 Golda Meir said ‘There are no Palestinians’ and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Menachem Begin, described Palestinians as ‘two-legged beasts’. Yitzhak Shamir referred to Palestinians as ‘grasshoppers who could be crushed’. At the outset of the Rwandan genocide, leading Hutu politicians described the Tutsi population as ‘cockroaches’.

This is the dehumanising language of racism that implies others are less human than you are. It brings to mind the Nazi persecution of Jews as ‘vermin’ and ‘lice.’

On 7 October 2023, after Hamas launched its lethal incursion into Israel, the Israeli Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, said of Hamas 'We are fighting human animals'. And Benjamin Netanyahu went on to cite a biblical reference in the context of Hamas by referring to the ancient Amalek, to ‘eradicate this evil from the world.’ Of course, such a reference was designed to appeal both to ultra- right religious forces that support him, and to the Christian Zionists within the USA. The ‘annihilate Amalek’ theme brought favour from some 60 conservative evangelical leaders in the USA who all sent a letter of support for Netanyahu to the White House.

Rather than the endless smiting of others, it was humbling to read that the poets in this collection do not wish for more vengeance and bloodshed – but nonetheless, they do show their resistance to a brutal oppression. Marwan Makhoul, aware that writing poetry does not stop the devastation of Gaza, acknowledges ‘we may not change the world with what we write/ but we may shame it’. That is undeniably the case. Later in this poem he contemplates the idea of having to write politically and concludes:

in order for me to write poetry that isn’t
political, I must listen to the birds
and in order to hear the birds
the warplanes must be silent.

These fitting lines adorn the cover of the collection. In a perfect world there would be no need of political poetry but in a world of deepening injustices Atef Alshaer tells us ‘poetry is a duty because it records the last stand of the soul’. While it may well be the last stand as experienced by those in Palestine, it has to be the first stand everywhere else, especially in the Western countries complicit in this horror.

For Sara M. Saleh, in her poem 'Say Free Palestine', she includes an array of everyday comments we may make to one another, but for her we should dispense with such frivolities set against what is happening to Gaza, and just say ‘free Palestine’ instead:

don’t say ‘rush hour’ say free Palestine
don’t say ‘Happy Birthday’ say free Palestine
don’t say ‘humanitarian pause’ say free Palestine
say no justice, no peace,
from the river to the sea, then say free Palestine.

Resistance can clearly take many forms. Dareen Tatour tells us in 'The General, my brother and me': ‘I resist with the letter and with the poem’. Also, in the poem 'I will not die', Tatour states ‘the dead are those who do not dream… I will not stop my dreams’. This too is resistance. And in the poem 'Grisaille', Lena Khalef Tuffaha informs us that in the rubble of Gaza ‘Our children learn the maps of homeland in war time’.

The October 7 attack by Hamas is neither celebrated nor even mentioned by any of the poets in the anthology. This is because as Marwan Makhoul seems to imply in 'Lines Without a Home':

to be a ’48 Palestinian means
being the strangest citizen in the world:
you beg the world’s states to protect you
from your state.

Since the Nakba of 1948 Palestinians have only known displacement, death and occupation. Their plight is remarkably similar to what once happened to native Americans and native Australians. These people were similarly dehumanised and labelled ‘savage’ but they would rebel and fight back. Their actions were predictably ghastly. This also went on in Ireland for over seven hundred years. The actions by Hamas must surely be seen in the same light. Subjugated people, history tells us, will find the means to fight back. Unless, of course, you annihilate them – and this is why we use the word ‘genocide’ in relation to the Israeli response to the October 7 attack.

The absence of any mention in this anthology to the Hamas attack nonetheless speaks loudly. It does so because what is going on in Gaza just now is simply more ferocious than what has been happening before. Despite what the people of Palestine have gone through and have to endure, their tenacity, determination and resilience is incredibly uplifting. This is how they resist. While some will fight back with guns, the rest will fight back with a profound inner dissent, affirming their right to exist and exist in Palestine. This is what we see in these poems. They are all powerful testimonies of endurance, of resistance and of a belief in a better world.

Mohammed Mousa in 'They ask me who I am' describes Gaza as the ‘largest open-air prison’ but this does not prevent him from holding on to hope:

nothing I want more than a homeland,
unrestricted birthplace,
no fences of tyranny,
no walls of oppression,
no checkpoints to undress my fears,
with clouds heavy enough to carry my soul.

These are not only moving lines they are phenomenally brave lines. Dareen Tatour seems to encapsulate the existential condition of being a Palestinian when she says in 'When Gaza was killed':

my people still say: either martyrdom or steadfastness,
freedom then life.

Dareen was imprisoned for publishing a poem on YouTube and Facebook entitled ‘Qawem Ya Shaabi Qawemahum (Resist my people, resist them)'.

This anthology is a living testimony to resistance. The harrowing situation in Gaza also reminds us that without justice there will never be any peace and this is the call from Sara M Saleh to us all, to all those who believe in both Palestine and in a better world – say no justice, no peace.

The need for counter-currents: 'Class and Culture', by the Communist Party of Britain
Sunday, 18 February 2024 10:57

The need for counter-currents: 'Class and Culture', by the Communist Party of Britain

Published in Cultural Commentary

The CPB recently published a short pamphlet with brief essays or 'provocations' on a sample of cultural activities, which is available to download below. Here, Jim Aitken reviews it.

This timely publication by the Communist Party of Britain comes out as the Arts Council of England (ACE) has just advised the organisations it funds to be wary of ‘overtly political or activist statements.’ While trying to maintain that ACE still supports freedom of expression, it tends to look a lot more like censorship.

Culture is now a battleground. It always has been, of course, but now this has become more heightened than ever before. There are several reasons for this. The first one is that capitalism won the Cold War, and rather than usher in an era of peace and prosperity for all, other enemies have been found to keep the lucrative arms industries happy. Not only that, but we can all see how the insatiable drive for more and more profit has destroyed our public services in order to maintain those profits. And in this mix conservative philistinism has also seen fit to cut arts spending as well.

Politically, since the end of the Cold War, the reformist parties have all moved further to the right. We see this with Labour today and we should recall that the party of Rosa Luxemburg, the SPD, though now in power in Germany, had previously been part of Angela Merkel’s CPD coalition government.

For Conservatives, the victory over the Soviet Union meant a victory politically, economically and culturally. And while the world economy is clearly capitalist in orientation and run politically by capitalist-minded politicians, the irritant for such people is that there is still far too much thought around that is socialist. It seems too many people are just far too decent and consider others as well as themselves. And regardless of how powerful and secure Capital may feel, inequality and the struggle for better wages will always endure and working people will always make up their own minds politically.

This is why culture today is such a contentious issue. In many respects it is the last bastion for alternative thought. Several contributors to Class and Culture stress that culture is a weapon in the class struggle. Scott Alsworth, however, in the section A Virtual World to Win, goes further by saying that ‘Culture is important not just because it unites us but because it’s an inviolable arena, belonging to the mind.’

It is almost like the Conservatives are saying that we should all be conservative in our thinking now. And that socialist, communist or even liberal thought is so last century, so passé. This is why there is a culture war going on today and this is why culture should always be allied to class as it is in this publication.

It was unfortunate that only a pamphlet could be produced by the CP since the topic of class and culture is so vast. Essentially, this is what the literary and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton has been writing about his entire academic life. Nonetheless, this pamphlet should start important discussions around this vital issue.

There are 10 areas covered in Class and Culture, all written it seems, by men which is unfortunate. The view of women is crucial here since their lives are so often under-represented in the cultural field or more invariably misrepresented.  A woman’s voice could have addressed this.

The topics covered range from the demand for cultural democracy that cites the thorny issue of access within an unequal society, to funding for classical music, poetry, literature, television, the virtual world, the bourgeois press, popular cinema, religion and the position of state monopoly capitalism.

All pieces are insightful and well analysed but it was disappointing that there was little mention of the role theatre can play in the class and cultural struggle. The recent TV drama Mr Bates v The Post Office (this may have come out after the pamphlet came out) is a case in point. This drama had the Tories on the clear defensive in Parliament. There was no reference to the Small Axe dramas by Steve McQueen on the difficulties that faced the Windrush generation on their arrival here. Similarly, the TV drama It’s a Sin by Russell T Davies explored what it was like for the gay community during the AIDS crisis.

There was no mention of how more popular music has impacted on the sense of how divisive society is, and the music of, say, Public Enemy or Stormzy not only reaches black audiences but white ones too. Everyone who reads this pamphlet will no doubt realise other omissions but the pamphlet itself is responsible for this because it engages in the way that it does.

Kevin Patrick McCann tells us in Poetry Matters of a desire for a ‘poetry of dissent, of rebellion, of revolution’ and he makes the point that ‘poetry is as natural as breathing.’ What militates against this as far as the ‘hostility to poetry from ordinary people’ is concerned ‘is the result of bad teaching.’ The education system is also picked up by Eddie Maguire when he tells us that the bourgeois press ‘continues the work that the education system has started.’

It was alarming to read that workers in the gaming industry can work more that 80-hour weeks without overtime payments and have to sleep in their offices during intense spells. And both the Army and arms manufacturers are involved in this industry with the Army actually advertising to gamers, ‘Binge gamers, the army needs your drive.’ And the games industry also reinforces racist stereotyping with good guys and bad guys with the bad guys ‘generic Middle Eastern terrorists. Or Iranians. Or nowadays, the Chinese or Russians.’ 

James Crossley in Religion and Culture argues convincingly that religion should be opposed to ‘reactionary and oppressive tendencies in all religions’ while at the same time promoting ‘freedom of religious belief.’ This is clearly true, but I couldn’t help thinking that Crossley missed an opportunity to take on the Christian nationalists in the US and elsewhere who act as a theological front for US imperialism. Just as culture is a weapon in the struggle, so too is religion.

It was also heartening that Maguire saw fit to make clear his republican credentials. Too often on the left it is assumed that republicanism is embedded but this is not always made explicit. Maguire bemoaned the large crowds mourning the late Queen and realises that royalty is an ‘excellent example of cultural hegemony.’ This was well said.

The Civilisation series that Kenneth (not Alan) Clark produced for TV in 1969 was informative, as Brent Cutler says in A Marxist Critique of Television. However, its patrician manner and elitist pronouncements so enraged John Berger that he wrote Ways of Seeing (1972) as a riposte. In this book he cut right through the mystification of all the professional art critics like Lord Kenneth Clark. It is Berger’s book that has enabled millions of people to look at and appreciate art for themselves by concentrating simply on how we look at paintings. It is Berger’s book that has undoubtedly had the greater effect. Berger, of course, was a socialist and Clark was not.

This pamphlet will hopefully create a great deal of discussion.  That must surely be its ambition and by linking culture to class the pamphlet deserves a wide focus. Alsworth spoke of there being ‘counter-currents’ within the gaming industry and there needs to be counter-currents created in all the arts. And these counter-currents must seek to link up with one another. Just as the ruling class fights on all fronts, including culture, linking the counter-currents in the arts becomes the challenge ahead. 

One final aspect occurs and that is the fact that we live in a multicultural society. Cultural links obviously have to be made across all areas because all cultures face the same issues of chronic underfunding. Not only that but some groups in society face racism and where that happens solidarity has to be shown. Cultures of the world, unite!

The John Maclean Centenary Concert
Wednesday, 24 January 2024 11:11

The John Maclean Centenary Concert

Published in Music

Celtic Connections put on a wonderful concert recently, in memory of Scotland’s great Marxist revolutionary, John Maclean (1879 -1923). Glasgow’s magnificent concert hall had the 2,000 strong audience deeply engaged with poetry readings and songs all commemorating a figure who entered Scottish folklore and legendary status after his untimely death, at the hands of a British state that had reduced him to appalling poverty and ill health.

Maclean’s parents were Highland clearance folk and came south to Glasgow to find work. Maclean became a primary school teacher in the city and was imprisoned several times for his anti-war activity in opposing the First World War which he said was –‘a bayonet… with a worker at both ends.’. He was given a brutal stint in Peterhead jail of five years hard labour and maintained his food was poisoned while he was there.

Large crowds turned out to meet him when he returned to Glasgow after his release. He founded the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party, Scotland’s first pro-independence party. Maclean also supported Irish independence and would speak at meetings in Glasgow in support of Irish and Scottish independence.

After his death his memory entered Scottish literature with Hugh MacDiarmid and Hamish Henderson, Edwin Morgan and others all writing poems and songs in his honour. In 1973 a pamphlet called Homage to John Maclean came out to commemorate him 50 years after his death. This pamphlet was published by the John Maclean Society which formed in 1968.

The centenary concert featured songs and poems from this pamphlet including Matt McGinn’s Dominee, Dominee, which is the Scots word for teacher. MacDiarmid had several poems in the pamphlet and at the concert his poem John Maclean was beautifully read by Scotland’s former Makar, Jackie Kay.

John maclean 5

The evening was put together by Siobhan Miller and Henry Bell. While Siobhan is a singer who is well known in Scotland, Henry Bell is the author of possibly the finest biography written of Maclean which came out in 2018 called John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside, published by Pluto. Both should be congratulated for putting together such a fantastic evening with terrific performers.

John maclean 6

Everyone who performed on the night was superb. Karen Casey, an Irish singer, caught the mood when she said she felt she could say whatever she wanted to say to such an eager audience. Karine Polwart, Karen and Siobhan came together to sing Mrs Barbour’s Army, written by Alistair Hulett, and recalling the struggle of Glasgow’s women in refusing to pay increased rents as their husbands fought in WW1. Mary Barbour was a formidable woman and a comrade of Maclean’s. A sculpture to her and her women comrades stands proudly outside Govan tube station.

Billy Bragg was well received but the best cheer of the night was for Dick Gaughan who has been singing and campaigning for socialism over decades in Scotland and beyond. He has performed at previous Celtic Connection events and the crowd seemed to give him such deserved applause precisely because he has been such a champion for socialism and internationalism over so many years. He told the crowd with pride that he was a Scottish Republican which went down well with them. He sang The Red Flag with Billy Bragg to its original tune of The White Cockade by Robert Burns. Eddi Reader sang Burns’ A Man’s a Man for a’ That in her very distinctive way of singing Burns’ songs. She has become by far the best singer of Burns’ songs in recent times.

What was rather moving was to see and hear Maclean’s granddaughter, Frances Wilson, who came on stage to read out one of her grandfather’s letters to her mother. That was a really special moment and she was clearly delighted to receive such applause and to realise that so many people still held her grandfather in such high esteem.

Maclean’s speech from the dock was also read out in which he says ‘I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.’ Such words are as relevant today as they were then.

John Maclean 4 

Speaking to people after the concert, it was clear that many lamented the fact that such radical, internationalist politics is sorely lacking today. And after folk left the hall, they could have bought a copy of Now’s the Day, Now’s the Hour: Poems for John Maclean, published in late 2023 by Tapsalteerie. This book contains many of the poems and songs from the 1973 pamphlet along with new material from another generation of Scottish writers. The book is edited by Henry Bell and Joey Simons and was first launched in The Griffin bar near where Maclean would speak his anti-war, socialist and internationalist message.

The concert was very much a Scottish night but also an internationalist one. At the end of the concert both The Internationale and Henderson’s The Freedom-Come-All-Ye were sung by all the performers and by many in the audience.

John Maclean has been dead for one hundred years but his spirit clearly lives on in poetry and in song. If only his politics could live on too!

To breathe the air of peace: a review of 'Tomorrow's feast', by Gerda Stevenson
Monday, 08 January 2024 15:52

To breathe the air of peace: a review of 'Tomorrow's feast', by Gerda Stevenson

Published in Poetry

Tomorrow’s Feast by Gerda Stevenson is her third poetry collection. It is presented in several sections with a prologue called Albatross that tries to understand why the mariner in Coleridge’s great poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, decided to take up his bow and shoot the bird. By way of the sections called Heartwood, Corona and Collective Breath, the collection ends with the section Bought and Sold. The last poem in this section is called Mariner, a libretto in verse which offers a contemporary twist on Coleridge’s poem. By beginning the collection with a monologue from the dead albatross and ending with Mariner, the collection has clearly been cleverly choreographed.

The collection is dedicated to ‘all the young ones at tomorrow’s feast.’ Tomorrow is the future and for there to be a feast in the future we obviously have to come to terms with today’s world, and this is exactly what Stevenson attempts to do in this essentially optimistic collection. 

The local is the international

Stevenson travels widely, traversing continents and using both English and Scots, along with smatterings of Gaelic, to say what she says. This makes Tomorrow’s Feast international in its reach while still dealing with national, personal and local concerns. It was Tom Leonard who once said that the local is the international, and this is played out well in the poem Russian Gloves.

Life is beginning to open up, says Stevenson, ‘after the virus’ when a ‘red coffee van’ appears in her village. She is wearing a pair of gloves made and given to her by a Russian woman ‘who lived for a while/ over the hill.’ The gloves are admired ‘for their intricate pattern, Fair Isle style, with a Tatar touch.’ As she explains who made them and gave them to her in friendship, a man ‘casts a tiny grenade’ by saying ‘So they’ll be for the bin won’t they!’

Earlier in the poem we are told that the Ukraine war had started – ‘news of Ukraine bleeding from the radio’ - but in no way was this any justification for Stevenson to disown a pair of gloves given to her in friendship. The moronic man who uttered those words clearly swallows all that the media feeds him, and while war should rightly be condemned, in no way should we condemn all people in countries whose leaders perpetrate war.

An exercise of cold and brutal power

The poem Little Boy was written to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb by the United States on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The poem was published first in Culture Matters. This act of evil should never be forgotten. While Stevenson takes the Enola Gay on its journey to drop the bomb of all bombs, we are told that a chaplain uttered the prayer ‘armed with thy might / in the name of Jesus Christ.’

The religious blessing given to an act of such horror is – to use Biblical terms – both blasphemous and lamentable. Nothing could have justified the incineration of 140,000 people, an exercise of cold and brutal power. It was good to see this poem in the collection, reminding us of the appropriation of Christianity by the United States to sanction its imperialist foreign policy.

Today’s Christian nationalism in the United States is being used for frightening causes. Certain sections within the evangelical and pentecostal movements are calling for the re-introduction of slavery, the burning of gay people, an end to the American constitution for being too secular, and a theocratic state to emerge instead. These ‘so called’ Christian groups even have their own theology, appropriately called prosperity theology, that maintains that because you are fabulously wealthy God has graced you. It has nothing to do with a rigged capitalist economic system, chicanery or corruption, but with God’s favour.

This theology is not only functioning in America, but has been exported to Latin America and to Africa. It helped secure the Presidency for Bolsonaro in Brazil.  Margaret Attwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) possesses a deeply worrying resonance of what is happening in contemporary America. As is so often the case, it is our writers who see more clearly than any politician.

The Unites States of Alienation

It can, of course, be explained by the mind-numbing conformity that exists there, something Sartre noted on a trip in 1945 in his essay Individualism and Conformism in the United States. But it is much more than that today as American capitalism has advanced since the Second World War. It is the new Imperium in our world and the dangerous rise of Christian nationalism comes as a result of the severe alienation felt by millions of people who live there and are being won for even greater alienation. This does not matter so long as vast profits are made and the super-rich stay super-rich.

Marx, in his A Contribution Toward’s a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), tells us:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The religious justification for using the atomic bomb in 1945 now justifies America’s relentless overseas conflicts as well as fierce condemnation of any opposition at home. The psychological disorientation this brings to the American masses who are fed endless media messages about the enemies who threaten their way of life, finds succour in these forms of Christian nationalism. Sadly, such adherents fail to realise that the world’s oppressive nature, its heartlessness and soullessness can all be attributed to the capitalist, warmongering state that they actually worship.

War and migration

War destroys, disfigures and dehumanises us all. It does not end problems but creates more of them. There are several references to war in Tomorrow’s Feast. The mariner who shot the albatross was African and war, he says, ‘had hijacked every shred of my humanity’. Similarly, the soldier who served in Afghanistan who is now coming home in the poem Hame-comin, says that he ‘canna come hame in ma hert / noo I’ve duin whit I’ve duin.’ Just as the state sanctified the dropping of the atomic bomb, so a state sanctions the killing of people in foreign places who do not look like us. Yet the Children’s Chorus in Mariner succinctly reminds us ‘we’re all from somewhere else.’

Many of today’s migrants are fleeing war and its aftershocks. They are unwanted despite our interference in their lands that made them migrants. The racism that seems to underpin such an outlook is based on migrants being foreign. Stevenson uses the Scots word for foreign in her poem Fremmit, telling us:

the hale warld, ow’r aa its airts
has boardit up and nailed ticht
its hert’s door fur fear o fremmit fowk,
their fremmit weys

As we know all too clearly, migration is being used to steer a rightward trajectory in our political life, Stevenson remains firmly on the side of humanity – of those forced to leave their homelands through no fault of their own. She reminds us in the poem Song of the Slabhraidh, how 298 people from St Kilda and Skye had to leave their homes and sail on the Priscilla in 1852 to their new home in Australia. Some 31 died on board and another 11 died at the quarantine station in Australia. Similar death tolls – and worse – happened to African slaves and to the Irish fleeing famine, and the forces who orchestrated such inhumanity are still active today.

In the case of the people from St Kilda and Skye, their reason for having to leave was the way their lives had been transformed by Union with England and how land use had changed from communal to private ownership. The ‘mighty mill-men of Yorkshire’ were active in the wool trade and this trade turned ‘wool into gold.’ Human beings became surplus to requirements. Donald and Anne McPherson, along with their hungry child, took with them the slabhraidh, the chain and hook that held the pot over their peat fire. It has been handed down to their descendants.

There is a powerful chorus that goes with this poem which could so easily be applied to all today’s migrants who may carry similar items –

I am the slabraidh, the hook and chain,
each link holds a story, the old refrain
of loss and profit, greed and gain,
of people and places, so many faces,
and too many farewells, again and again.

Such a Chorus is in support of migrant populations everywhere, to be seen as fellow human beings who share our world. Gerda’s poems speak of a shared humanity and differences in ethnicity and colour are deemed irrelevant.

In Mariner a Refugee Chorus, Gerda poses the question ‘Are we the cost of the world’s other half?’ The answer is yes, of course. The inequalities in our world are all designed this way by the rich and powerful who manipulate their elected politicians to do their bidding. However, at the end of Mariner, a song is sung where it is hoped we can all meet, ‘beyond beliefs of wrong-doing and right-doing’, where we can all ‘breathe the air of peace.’ Aye, to that.

A world to be cherished and shared

Peace is the key to any future but in all the pages of Tomorrow’s Feast it is implied that peace must come with justice. Migrants must be treated as our fellow humans, never demonised, war should cease and the young should be enabled to have their ‘dreams migrate like paper kites.’

Gerda’s poems remind us what it is to be fully alive. The wondrous skies above us light up the world we live in. It is a world full of beauty and wonder and it is a world to be cherished and shared rather than exploited for the benefit of the few. And this world must be the inheritance of the young.

The bright colours that adorn the cover of this collection were painted by Gerda’s daughter and in the poem My Daughter’s Painting, the poet tries to understand what her daughter saw as she painted it. She questions if it was maybe ‘the first garden, where all was new and equal, and knowledge good?’

This is the creation story as metaphor for Tomorrow’s Feast as a whole. The collection is commended for its humanity, its refusal to accept how things are and for its dogged optimism for the future of all our young people to one day ‘breathe the air of peace.’

Tomorrow's Feast, publiched by Luath Press, is available here.

Christ Beneath the Rubble
Thursday, 28 December 2023 10:00

Christ Beneath the Rubble

Published in Religion

In the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, city and church leaders cancelled all Christmas festivities this year to mourn the more than 20,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza. Below is the Christmas sermon, “Christ in the Rubble: A Liturgy of Lament,” delivered by Reverend Munther Isaac at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, which has received international attention for a Nativity scene depicting the figure of baby Jesus in a keffiyeh, surrounded by rubble (see photo above, by Munther Isaac). “If Jesus were to be born today, he would be born under the rubble in Gaza,” preached Isaac, who condemned the use of theology to justify Israel’s killing of innocent civilians. “If we, as Christians, are not outraged by the genocide, by the weaponization of the Bible to justify it, there is something wrong with our Christian witness, and we are compromising the credibility of our gospel message.”

Beneath the Rubble

by Jim Aitken

Beneath the rubble of Gaza
lie the broken bodies of babies, of children,
of their parents and grandparents too
along with the fragments of bomb casings
beneath the rubble of Gaza.

And it is a rubble that is generic
for it brings to mind Stalingrad
and Dresden; it brings to mind
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mosul and Aleppo
and vast swathes of Afghanistan.

Beneath the rubble of Gaza
also lie some unlearned lessons –
the one about rubble begetting more rubble
the other one that peace only comes with justice
beneath the rubble of Gaza.

Uday, One Day
Monday, 06 November 2023 10:12

Uday, One Day

Published in Poetry

Uday, One Day

by Jim Aitken

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.

 See also these reports on media coverage of the Gaza genocide, at the BBC and more generally.

Portrait of a revolutionary: Guevara in Kilkee
Friday, 11 August 2023 10:54

Portrait of a revolutionary: Guevara in Kilkee

Published in Visual Arts

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).

 The Riders of the Sidhe John Duncan 1911 McManus Galleries Dundee

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.

Moto Che Guevara resized

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.

FitzpatrickChe

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.’

In this green, unpleasant land
Thursday, 06 July 2023 13:34

In this green, unpleasant land

Published in Poetry

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.’

Sunken Levels
Saturday, 24 June 2023 18:57

Sunken Levels

Published in Poetry

Sunken Levels

by Jim Aitken

It was the first item on the news
for days, the Titan submersible
taking a group to see the Titanic wreck.

The loss of life was indeed tragic, as was
the £200,000 fee charged to those on board
to view the wreck and never return home alive.

Less newsworthy was the unnamed boat
that sunk in stormy seas off the Grecian coast
with the loss of eighty lives, mainly Pakistanis.

And less newsworthy the thirty-nine Vietnamese
lives lost, found inside a container lorry. Neither
the Pakistanis or the Vietnamese had names, it seems,

Unlike those in the Titan submersible who were all
named. The difference was all to do with wealth,
with class status, for the migrants were simply poor

And those in the submersible had cash to throw away.
It reminded me of Bezos and his rocket into space
thanking his Amazon workers for this unseemly waste.

With a media that worships wealth and despises the poor
both at home and abroad, though especially abroad,
the difference in coverage was class-ridden and predictable.

Yet they say that class is over these days; that it doesn’t
matter anymore. Yet, there is no level to which the wealthy
will sink to stay wealthy – should this not be learned anew?

Or do we all sink together so that the wealthy can
continue to be wealthy at the expense of the world’s poor
as the land burns and the sea levels rise to sink even them?

Or do we instead talk of rich and poor all over again and give
place for egalitarian dreams to flourish; to challenge the all-
consuming, insatiable appetites of the few and raise the many?

Page 1 of 3