The Poetry of History

I’ve got a History degree – apparently one of those unsaleable degrees, which is stupid since History teaches you so much about human motivation, how people behave in groups, how societies and organisations change, how people can change things, how to assess and marshal evidence, how someone’s perception of things subtly or grossly changes the account they give…oh, and the origins of countries, customs, beliefs…

 

No, we just want to think one year ahead and five minutes behind.

 

So how does my knowledge of and interest in History influence my poetry?

 

Well, obviously in some cases because I have written historical poems. My particular interest was in the English Civil War and Commonwealth period – Oliver Cromwell and all that – and over some years I wrote two poems about that period.

 

One apology at this point. as before, I’m hitting “remove formatting” and the unspeakable formatting is still appearing in the post. It is not experimental poetry. It’s a nuisance. But if you think it’s marvellous poetry, enjoy it!

 

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MARSTON MOOR

 

On Marston Moor the rubbish grows

Beside the road, great pile on pile

And those who choked on their own blood

If they could see, would wryly smile,

 

If they could smile, at this New World

Which marks their death with rusty iron,

Snapped plastic, aluminium;

And those who tried to build their Zion

 

Or serve their King, may hear the chant

“Behold, we’re making all things new:

The bloody rout on Marston Moor

Is no concern of me or you”.

 

The Yorkshire soil is doing its job:

Fed deep by Scots and English blood

It brings forth cabbages and beans

Where shattered horses writhed in mud.

 

The moorland’s gone, the muskets too,

But over flat and docile land

A harsh wind blows and voices call

Of hopes we would not understand.

 

Marston Moor was one of the most important and bloody battles of that civil war. Outside York on 2 July 1644, forty thousand soldiers in two armies clashed and at the end over 4,000 were dead. The decisive victory for the combined Scottish and English Parliamentarian forces over the Royalists helped decide the outcome of the war.

 

The poem grew from my experience visiting the battlefield. The land was once a mixture of farmland and moorland, but is now all flat, fertile farmland. I found a 19th century memorial surrounded by a wrought iron fence, against which the farmer had stacked bales of hay. On the other side of the small road was a big rubbish tip. This shocked me. Could we find no better memorial?

 

In the poem I use ideas and vocabulary from the time. This was a time when the American colonies were being developed and many people in England were fired with the idea that these colonies represented a new start, a chance to do things better. So to describe the modern world of the rubbish tip as a “New World” is bitter irony. “Zion” does not refer to the political and philosophical movement  behind the state of Israel, but to the immediacy and importance of the Bible to 17th century English and Scots, especially on the Parliamentarian and Scots Covenanter side where some saw the political turmoil as a chance to build an ideal state in harmony with God.

 

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FORLORN HOPE

 

Stand firm behind the Good Old Cause

The King is subject to the Laws

The People are the true sovereign

Though they were robbed, to great lords’ gain

 

The fight is won, the Norman yoke

Is in the dust, the crown is broke

But now the new lords stand on high

For what, then, did we fight and die?

 

The Cause is down, the free are sheep

The Spirit does not die but sleep

Those who are blind will one day see

And those in chains will soon be free.

 

This is a more personal poem about the same period, written as if from the mouth of a Parliamentarian soldier with Leveller or similar radical beliefs. Each verse stands for a period: during the first, the Civil War is being fought; the second represents a later time when the military struggle has been won but the radicals face political disappointment; while the third speaks of the restoration of the monarchy, the crushing of such people’s hopes but also a survival. Again I’ve used language of the time. The Good Old Cause became the name used by Parliamentary supporters for their cause, continuing into the 1680s (a plotter against Charles II referred on the scaffold to “That Good Old Cause in which I was from my youth brought up”). That the King was subject to, not above, the Laws was common ground on the Parliamentary side, but the idea that the people were the source of power and the true sovereign was much more radical and new. The Levellers believed traditional English freedoms had been crushed by the Norman Conquest in 1066: royal and lordly power were “the Norman yoke” and the Civil War was a war of national liberation. Cromwell and his senior officers were nicknamed “grandees” and accused of acting like the lords they’d defeated.

 

This is getting quite long, so as Hilaire Belloc might have said,

 

“I’m getting tired and so are you.

Let’s cut the blog into two”. Or three even.

 

I’ll return to this and look at how I’ve reflected other historical subjects and also how History has had a subtler influence on what I’ve written.

 

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Book Review: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Well now, a lot of people will have read this one and many of those who haven’t will have heard of it. Some will be pretending to have read it. It’s a book with that kind of fame.

Margaret Atwood is a very, very good writer. There are passages of description that are truly poetic (thank God stripped down writing didn’t get to them). The story concerns a totalitarian dystopia created in the USA and Atwood is clever and subtle in describing how the system works and what it does to people. It’s a male-dominated system in which women are reduced to child-bearers and the organisers of child-bearing (although she has very little to say about what then happens to the children, so it’s not clear to me whether some of them have a wider mothering role). It’s been categorised, like Atwood, as feminist, and so it is, but only by a broad and liberal interpretation of the term. Men are victims of the system too.

One problem for me was that I found the opening passages incredibly depressing and there wasn’t much to relieve the gloom. As the story unfolded, the main character’s partial rebellion and the view of how the reality of the system differed from its public face made me less depressed, but don’t look for a happy ending. In fact the ending is extremely close to that of that other description of an almost powerless cog in a totalitarian system rebelling, George Orwell’s “1984”. That made me think back and realise the plot and organisation of the book also resemble 1984. I wonder if Atwood acknowledged any influence. She’s a much better fiction writer than Orwell, though, whose writing is often awkward.

 

Another useful comparison is with Suzy McKee Chalmas’ “Holdfast” series, another feminist science fiction creation of a masculine repressive dystopia in the USA. Her society is much more extreme in its degradation of women, so that it only works because the action is set very distant from our present time. She doesn’t have to say much about how people fell from A to B, though what she says is credible. Atwood’s creation, though, is young. The main character is in her early thirties and was a young adult when the change happened. That sets the author a much harder task of making things credible and I don’t think she entirely succeeds. For example, the U.S. system of government we know was functioning much as we know it (she mentions an environmental disaster involving nuclear power stations and the San Andreas Fault, but if that happened before the change, it doesn’t seem to have led to chaos or much change in the young woman’s life). Then the President is assassinated and the entire Congress killed, purportedly by Muslim terrorists. the army then takes over, or some kind of secret movement with a lot of support in the army.

I can’t buy this. The sudden removal of the entire Federal tier of U.S. government would leave a whole lot of functioning state governments with their own paramilitary resources and some of them would be perfectly capable of operating as independent countries. In a country as diverse and disorderly as the U.S., I don’t believe the coup could be that easy. Not all the armed forces would go along with it, for a start. Something like this would need a lot of preparation which could not all be in secret, a growth of sympathetic political movements and media comment for example. Admittedly the main character doesn’t seem to have been at all politically aware before the change, but surely even she would spot some trends. It would be more credible if set well in the future – when the society we know would have changed more – but the technology Atwood describes is pretty much that of when she wrote the story, so it’s current society that is overthrown.

OK, that’s the reaction of someone politically active and with a History degree. Once the monstrous regime is in place, though, its awful effectiveness is very convincingly described.

Well worth reading – but read something happier next!

 

 

 

Images and Symbols

I want to think and talk a bit about images and symbols. I’m posting this on my poetry blog and not on sibathehat on blogspot, so I see this as leading hopefully to some perceptions about images in poetry, but I’m going to start by looking at some images outside the literary world in the hope this will shed some light.

 

In Britain there are three major or fairly major political parties operating across Britain (Northern Ireland mostly has its own local parties). They all have badges or logos which are extensively publicised.

 

Symbols or badges in politics are nothing new. The first in England, as far as I know, were the sea-green ribbons worn by Levellers during the Civil War and early Cromwellian period and revived by the Whigs of Charles II’s reign (in other words, mid to late 17th century). As far as I know, no-one else wore ribbons then as a mark of political allegiance, so you could argue that the ribbon AND its colour stood for the political movement; but by the 18th century rosettes (descended from the ribbons) were in wide use and the message was conveyed by the colour. In the early 19th century, for example, Byron wrote in a poem “I still keep my buff and blue”, meaning he was a Whig at a time when the Tories (using red) were in the ascendent. By the late 19th century Liberals (mainly descended from the Whigs) mainly used yellow, and Conservatives (Tories) blue. The Labour Party, when it rose in the early 20th century, used red, which had socialist and revolutionary connotations.

 

So here’s one point of interest: a colour itself can have a figurative meaning. Red = action, strength, warmth, but also danger and conflict; blue = safety and coolness (even though in the U.S. the POLITICAL meaning of these colours is reversed); green (as in the Green Party) = nature, restfulness (it’s the most restful background colour) and life. So mention of a colour in a poem might not be a straightforward description, but might indicate a mood, or danger, renewed life, or whatever. Also some of these meanings may be hard-wired into all humans, but others are culturally determined: red among Chinese suggests good fortune and prosperity, while white in south-east Asia generally is the colour of death (as black is among Westerners) and is not, I think, associated with purity.

 

The Labour Party used to have a torch (enlightenment, education, leading people somewhere, but a bit dangerous) but now has a red rose. The red appeals to Labour traditions, but a red rose is a powerful and common image in literature and painting. It can mean sexual experience as opposed to the virginal and pure white rose (not, I think, what Labour had in mind) but it is also a traditional image of England with any number of references to the English rose: an “English rose” is usually an attractive English girl, but English rugby players have red roses on their shirts and Rupert Brooke wrote, comparing England and Germany, “There roses grow as they are told/ Unkept about these hedges blows/ An English unofficial rose”. The rose suggests attractiveness and tradition, but is not a very dynamic image (roses, after all, stay still unless they’ve been cut). There was also another problem for Labour: the rose being a traditional ENGLISH image, it annoyed Welsh people and even more, Scots.

 

So use an image in poetry, as in politics, and you can find others reading things into it you may not want. Tough.

 

The Liberal Democrats (descended from the Liberals mainly) made do without an image for a long time, though their striking orange and black posters were widely recognised (dynamic, distinctive, but if it was an insect it would have a sting), but more recently adopted a stylised bird known as “the bird of Liberty”. The image is a bit complicated (perhaps not instantly recognisable as a bird and also a bit like the Barclay’s Bank symbol) but it does look dynamic – the bird appears to be in motion and birds can mostly fly. As a symbol of liberty, change and independence it’s quite effective. It could have been a more naturalistic bird, but then it might have been unhelpfully associated with particular kinds of bird (pigeon or crow, not always popular, duck or sparrow, slightly ridiculous; hawk – definitely not). So here’s another link to poetry: make your image vague and it may confuse people; make it very specific and it may carry associations too specific for your meaning. If there’s an unfortunate subliminal message, it’s that the bird looks just a bit disorganised and more than a bit like it’s just been blasted with a shotgun.

 

At one time both Labour and the Conservatives were using torches as symbols. The red Labour one was tilted at a dynamic but possibly unsafe angle and the blue Conservative one stood safely, uprightly but slightly boringly upright. The Conservatives ditched that in favour of an oak tree. At this time their new leader, one David Cameron, was trying to present them as an environmentally-friendly party, and they are strong in rural areas and the “leafy suburbs”, so choosing a native British plant (shown in summer with a green, leafy top) made sense. So it suggested nature. The oak, like the rose, is a very old English symbol associated with the Royal Navy, but it doesn’t have quite the English nationalist tinge the red rose has and Wales has famous and extensive oakwoods (the Scots have a few oaks too, though they cut most of them down). So the symbol suggests traditions, as Labour’s does and the Liberal Denocrat one doesn’t. Oaks are solid, safe (relatively) and long-lived. Like the Liberal Democrat one (but not Labour’s) it’s stylised and might puzzle people for a moment. Probably the biggest unintended message is that Conservatives are thick, immobile and rather boring. That may not matter much except that a party symbol suggesting immobility (more strongly than Labour’s) may be a minus.

 

Used in a poem other than straightforwardly to describe the wildlife of an oakwood, mention of an oak by an English poet might suggest national pride (“hearts of oak”), age, tradition or solidity, but modern urban, computer-attached Britons don’t mostly think much about trees, less than they think about birds or flowers. So – another thing for the poet to consider. Is your chosen image widely understood and does it hit a gong, a bell or something much les noisy? There, I was using images and ran into a problem because I couldn’t think of something insignificant you could hit to produce a very slight noise. Well, I can, any number, but U.K. libel law is notoriously friendly to the supposedly libelled.

 

More perhaps on images some other time.

 

 

The Meaning of Life is 43

It was 42, but we’ve improved it.

As for the meaning of these poems, well, this is as likely as anything.

I’m continuing to reblog some poems with a bit more discussion.

FORLORN HOPE

Stand firm behind the Good Old Cause

The King is subject to the Laws

The People are the true sovereign

Though they were robbed, to great lords’ gain

The fight is won, the Norman yoke

Is in the dust, the crown is broke

But now the new lords stand on high

For what, then, did we fight and die?

The Cause is down, the free are sheep

The Spirit does not die but sleep

Those who are blind will one day see

And those in chains will soon be free.

This refers to the English Civil War. Actually there were conflicts within and between all of England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1640s and 1650s, but the voice of this poem is an English one.

A “forlorn hope” was a term for a small unit of cavalry, but of course in the poem it has two meanings.  The “Good Old Cause” was a name used for their cause by supporters of Parliament, continuing long after the Civil War: “That Good Old Cause, in which I was from my youth brought up…” (speech on the scaffold by Sidney of the Rye House Plot against Charles II).  The first verse contains the mainstream Parliamentary idea that the King was subject to the laws, not standing above them, but also the more readical idea that spread during the war among the Parliamentary soldiers and others, that the People were sovereign. This was often associated with the idea that the English people had been conquered in 1066 by foreign oppressors and the kings and great lords since then were the descendants, spiritual if not necessarily genetic, of those foreign conquerors – so the Civil War was a war of national liberation – hence the “Norman yoke” at the start of the second verse.

Levellers and other radicals felt they had won the war but then been betrayed by the senior officers and MPs, though they, of course, mostly had less radical ideas all along. Cromwell and others weer christened “the Grandees”.

The third verse refers to the Restoration of the monarchy. It seemed to many that all they had fought for had been lost, or at least postponed. Many of the radical ideas, though, were not lost: for example, the American Declaration of Independence and the American constitution have many echoes of Leveller beliefs and their draft constitution for England, “The Agreement of the People”.

 

WATERSHED

 

Did you see, there where the cloud broke

Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft

Roughly in line with the uneven river

Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it

Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

 

The broken impatient river carved the way

We leave the many-angled rocks behind

And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;

And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.

With cunning and husbanded strength

We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind

Recovering from a slip is hard

Recovering from the task impossible.

 

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”

No throne or light or monument

Only the slope is inconsistent

The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order

There is no river

These barren pools are the only water

 

And then the ghost of a trickle

A few thin fingers feeling

Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:

We have passed the watershed

We have seen the birth

Of a new river.

Somewhere there is a new land

But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

 

There is no warning

No sign, no new music

Just the realisation and the standing still

The dropping, blocking hills

The unknown, long suspected

Alien valley ahead

But half-familiar, like a dream

The hidden end

You feel you ought to remember.

 

The descent from the murderous heights

To the soft valley is always more dangerous

Than the struggling up:

The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage

To the eggshell-crushing fall

And the way to the low glittering lake

May be many miles round.

 

But at least the first task of the explorer

Seems to have been fulfilled

To show what he wanted to explore

Was there at all.

America is found

Mars glows dully but more clear

In the dark waters, something moves after all

Down the strange valley our suspected

Alive waters fall.

 

This poem describes climbing a small, steep valley in the hills to a watershed and seeing lower land beyond. It can be taken quite literally and was heavily influenced by two actual places, Black Sail Pass in the Lake District and a route over a watershed in Torridon in the North-west Scottish Highlands. However, it can be taken to describe any exploration, any effort to discover or achieve something new.

 

The climber thought there must be a valley on the far side of the heights. The mystic thought there must be another world. The valley on the far side could even be another human being.

 

This is a poem where I’ve made a lot of use of the sound of the words: the broken impatient river, the shattered smoothing rocks, the hiss and sparkle, the low glittering lake. I stretch the bounds of scansion and use near-rhymes (monument/inconsistent; trickle/sparkle; still/hills).

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Book review: The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks

This must have happened to you: you pick up a book and find it’s the second or third in a series. With some, for example David Brin’s “Uplift” SF series, it doesn’t matter hugely because the characters and environments are different and the basic concepts of uplift, the progenitors and humanity’s orphan or parvenu status are quite easily conveyed. It would matter hugely with Tolkien or Mervyn Peake, though.

 

This one is in between. I hadn’t read or heard of the opening book, “The Traveller”, and found “The Dark River” referring back repeatedly. The author (I assume “Twelve Hawks” is a pen-name or an assumed day-name) explains the underlying imagined rules of his world at some length, so I do get to understand them. In fact if I’d read the first book I might have found this explanation a bit tedious.

 

So what’s it about and what kind of book is it? Ah. Good questions. The premises are that for ages two special kinds of humans have existed – Travellers, able to travel into other parallel realms, and Harlequins, dedicated to fighting to protect Travellers from their persecutors. Why Harlequins should do this isn’t really explained.  The other realms are depicted as real, physical worlds where machines work if a power source is provided and people need to eat and can get hurt or die. Returning Travellers bring new ideas which create diversity and change in our society in an unpredictable way. There have alsways been organisations which saw this as bad and tried to suppress it.

 

In Twelve Hawks’ world, which is the present or very near future, one such secret organisation (“The Tabula”) has come very near to success, hunting down Travellers and Harlequins alike. It works within government and business as a kind of shadow international government, but without Bond story type melodrama, entering and taking over useful organisations. The author is very good on how close we are to this through systems that can track our every step on the internet, for example. He acutely identifies the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, with his proposal of the panopticon (where authorities could see everything prisoners did) and his subtly dangerous elevation of the principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (so to make a lot of people a bit more happy, it’s OK to deceive them or to persecute a minority) as a kind of prophet of scientific authoritarianism. He knows his computers and understands his worlds of public affairs and business.  It’s easy to pick out present or recent politicians like America’s Dick Cheney or Britain’s Tony Blair who would enthusiastically embrace the Tabula’s programme. I like his implied politics.

 

So the politics is well-thought-out and credible. I’m not sure whether the scene is the present or, say, ten years in the future, but it can’t be much further because all the technology and culture referred to exists now. If you consider how fast the internet or mobile phones arose, that must mean it’s set very near indeed to now. That being the case, I think the book overstates the power of control, not in what it can do (for example a computer worm which invades and lies in most computers waiting for certain words or phrases to be used and then passes on the material to its masters) but in what people can and will do to challenge oppression. For example, the book opens with a peaceful religious community in the U.S. being massacred with guns the Tabula’s control of the internet has enabled it to falsely register to the members of that community, who were in fact unarmed. In reality, in a country where information is as open and professionals are as well-equipped as the U.S., this would be a hard one to carry off. The premise is that most police and civil servants don’t know what’s happening. Well, I suspect police would want to identify which individuals fired the shots. Lawyers for families of some of the victims would push them, arguing their relative couldn’t have been a killer. None of the bodies would reveal the tell-tale signs of having handled and fired weapons. Neighbours would be quoted in the media saying they found these folks reasonable and peaceable. In a country so fond of conspiracy theories, questions would snowball. There are similar difficulties with a party of mercenaries invading an Irish island nature reserve. On a different level, I don’t believe a clutch of current rising military and police officers from democratic countries would be at ease with a speaker complimenting them on rejecting the false ideal of freedom. She’d have explained that freedom needed to be redefined and properly understood (so it wasn’t freedom any more).

 

But these are relatively small points and I can imagine the world in ten years’ time fitting the book’s picture more closely, though I don’t believe there’s a real Tabula (yet).

 

Mixing this with the new age mysticism leaves me dubious. I can’t quite buy into these very physical, almost mundane, other worlds, or into the Harlequins, who seem sometimes to employ the psychology of the SS to protect freedom and diversity. I wonder if the books would have worked with more believable, mystical mystics and protectors less like a secret knightly order still upsetting the applecart.

 

It took a long time before I cared what happened to the perpetually threatened main characters. It does detract a bit from one’s excitement if you don’t really care if someone in dire danger dies or not. Maybe if I’d read the first book first I’d care more, but I think JTH is not good at bringing his characters to life.

 

He writes well, though. Initially his writing seemed close to the sterile orthodoxy of American “stripped down” writing, but the initial description of a Traveller’s waking in the realm of death is powerful stuff. He could do more of this.

 

The action sequences are quite credible. One big strength of the book is that JTH seems at home in the U.S. and Britain (so many writers just don’t quite get the language or the street-scene right and fall victim to stereotypes or to writing without any local colour) and his scenes in Ireland, Italy and Ethiopia seem credible too (though I haven’t been to Ethiopia, I have been elsewhere in East Africa), though the German scenes are less so. The sense of belonging to Britain and America equally does lead to some strange linguistic mixes, for example when a character is on the sidewalk (U.K. – pavement) using his mobile phone (U.S. – cell phone).  His information on the London docks seems out of date (maybe he’s an American who lived for a while in London?) and there is one gross factual mistake when a flock of pelicans are seen without remark off the West coast of Ireland. Even one wild pelican would bring Irish birders (= birdwatchers) from all corners. The nearest breeding or wintering ones are in the Balkans or in West Africa and five minutes checking on the internet would have told him this (but maybe he feared the Tabula would catch him).

 

Will I go back and read “The Traveller”? I’m not exactly hooked – but probably.

 

Forlorn Hope

Usually I’m reluctant to post any discussion or explanation before the poem as I feel it may unduly influence people’s reaction. In this case, though, the poem is deeply historical and specific to a place and time; it also draws on my unusual degree of knowledge about those specifics. So I need to explain.

At Cambridge I studied History and in the third year we had to specialise a bit, selecting one topic for a detailed study. I chose “Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution”. I’ve remained fascinated by the Civil War and Commonwealth (= Republic) period ever since. I found most sympathy with the more radical people on the Parliamentary side and this poem reflects their experience.

A “forlorn hope” was a military term for a small cavalry detachment – but it’s also, of course, a hope with very little chance of success.

The “Good Old Cause” was the name used by Parliamentary supporters for their cause and it extended well beyond the Civil War. Examples are “Where’s your Good Old Cause now?” (person in the crowd to Major-General Harrison – “regicide” – when he was being taken to be executed after the rstoration of the monarchy. Harrison: “Why, here it is,” (touching his heart) “and I go to seal it with my blood.”  Sidney, aristocratic Whig about to be executed for his part in the Rye House plot against Charles II some twenty years later: “That Good Old Cause, in which I was from my youth brought up…”.

I’ve mixed three political ideas in the first verse: the common Parliamentary one that the King was not outside or standing over the law, but subject to it;  the more radical one that the people should be sovereign; and the radical idea held by the Levellers that the English people were a subject people since their conquest by the Normans in 1066 and the Civil War had been a war of liberation. “The Norman yoke” was a phrase commonly used to express this idea.

After the King’s defeat in the war and the taming of Parliament by Cromwell, senior miltary officers (Cromwell the foremost) were widely seen as “the new lords” or “grandees”, though they did strive to limit their own power and find some kind of new political system. “For what, then, did we fight and die?” echoes the Leveller Colonel Thomas Rainborowe responding to Cromwell’s defence of a social hierarchy of nobles, gentry and yeomen – “If this be true, then for what did we contend?”.

The last verse reflects bitter disappointment after the Restoration and yet (history justified) hope that all would not be lost in the end.

 

FORLORN HOPE

 

Stand firm behind the Good Old Cause

The King is subject to the Laws

The People are the true sovereign

Though they were robbed, to great lords’ gain

 

The fight is won, the Norman yoke

Is in the dust, the crown is broke

But now the new lords stand on high

For what, then, did we fight and die?

 

The Cause is down, the free are sheep

The Spirit does not die but sleep

Those who are blind will one day see

And those in chains will soon be free.

 

British Nationality

Where I worked until recently, I used to see people collected for a ceremony to become British citizens. They came with children in “Sunday best” and left with the children carrying flags. The idea of a ceremony seems a good one and one these people liked. But when I looked at the oath people had to swear to become a British citizen, I felt revulsion. You have to swear allegiance to the Queen. Now I’ve nothing against her personally, and it isn’t even that instinctively I am a republican (Americans please note – this is not the American meaning of that word). It’s the allegiance. This concept is essentially unconditional. I’m happy with the idea of a kind of contract, to obey the laws of the land (or if I break them, perhaps on a matter of conscience, to take the punishment) and be an active and useful citizen, in return for the protection of the state; but allegiance overrides conscience. To me, allegiance should only be to God and then agreements are with the state.

The whole business also crystallised for me my mixed feelings about being British. I am English, Anglo-Welsh, British, a person from and of the North-East Atlantic Islands (including Ireland) and a European. And a human too, of course.

Still, if I had family who could be thrown into poverty or even murdered by agents of the country we came from if I didn’t swear this oath of allegiance, would I swear it? Yes, I would. So I’m grateful I was born to the thing and didn’t have to make that choice.

BRITISH NATIONALITY

 

Nobody gave me a choice

Of where I’d like to be born

Nobody set me a test

Nor asked me to swear allegiance

To a fixed smile in a dress

 

I feel as Irish as Scottish

I’m English and Welsh in the blood

How could they accept me as British

Who’d trade in the crown for the mud?

The Laughing Policeman

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN

The laughing secret policeman takes you aside

And has a friendly word about your views:

He has a deal of sympathy with them

But these are dangerous days, and adverse news

Could be destabilising in the extreme

Causing a loss of freedom and of order

That far outweighed your personal restraints

And disappointments this side of the border

Where life is easy and it’s fine enough

To preach of civil liberties between

The cultured newspaper read on the train

And watching tigers on the T.V. screen.

He smiles a little like a tiger, though,

But he is not sent out to kill or die

Only to keep the fabric strong and clean

And when it rots, to lie and lie and lie.