Book Review: Kazuo Ishiguro, When we were Orphans

Ishinguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of Britain’s leading writers, without doubt outstanding. Yet his books are often as frustrating as they’re readable and intriguing. They often seem to inhabit a detailed dream world, but the narrators drift in and out of what seems like dream. What starts apparently naturalistic often becomes very odd.

 

His type of background (born in Japan to Japanese parents who moved to England when he was six; living in England ever since) would not be exceptional in America or Australia, but in the U.K. it’s much more unusual. I suppose there’s a kind of dislocation in most of his books that may be related to his experience growing up.

 

He’s best known for “The Remains of the Day”, which became a very successful film with Anthony Hopkins as the decent, repressed, duty-obsessed butler.

 

“When we were Orphans” features a successful detective, Christopher Banks, looking back at his life. There are flashbacks, but if I straighten those out, events go like this. Young Christopher grows up in 1920s Shanghai. His father works for a British trading company and his mother is passionately involved in the campaign against the opium trade, in which the company was implicated. He has only one friend, a Japanese boy called Akiro.

 

His father disappears. Police investigate with no success. Months later, his mother too disappears. He’s moved to England and the care of an aunt. He begins to build a career and meets a young society woman who seems to chase after famous and successful men. She ignores him, then shows interest in him, but he keeps his distance. It’s clear at this stage that his mind is dominated by his parents’ disappearance and he intends to find out what happened. He also seems more than normally concerned about his friend Akiro and seeks news of him.

 

He adopts an orphan girl, Jennifer, and there is affection between them.

 

Around 1937 he is able to go to Shanghai and investigate his parents’ disappearance. This is where things start becoming very strange. For example, a British official immediately attaches himself to him and keeps on asking questions about how the reception for his rescued parents should be organised. Yet they disappeared fifteen years ago, there’s been no word and surely any such official would think they might well be dead. He meets the woman who’d shown interest in him, now unhappily married and they agree to depart together: he seems to have forgotten his parents!

 

His investigation has made some progress, identifying a Chinese warlord his mother had offended, but on identifying a house that might have been part of the story, he becomes obsessed by the thought that his parents are still being held there! Trouble is, the Japanese have invaded, and although they’ve not touched the International Settlement, the house is in a part of the city being fought over by the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Nonetheless, he sets out to reach it, at the last minute abandoning the woman he’d promised to go with.

 

His behaviour becomes stranger and stranger. A Chinese officer puts himself in danger and diverts men from the battle to help him, yet when this officer says he can’t take him further, he berates and threatens him. He carries on and, by the sort of extreme coincidence found in dreams, stumbles on Akiro, wounded and about to be killed by the Chinese. He saves him, but the search comes to nothing and he ends up injured and in the hands of the Japanese, who treat him well. But when he hears that Akiro is thought to be a deserter, he does nothing to try to save him and despite things the man said, begins to doubt if it was Akiro at all.

 

The story goes on into Christopher Banks’ old age, but I should not tell more. He does find out what happened to his parents and at the end the story returns to naturalism and credible events. The degree of acceptance and resolution common in Ishiguro is found through Christopher’s continuing support for and support from Jennifer. He seems to have made no effort to find out what happened to Akiro. I puzzled over the title, since Akiro was not an orphan, before realising that the “we” must refer to Christopher and Jennifer.

 

The picture of the contradictions and conflicts of foreign society in Shanghai is very well done, as is the picture of childhood and a friendship between two rather isolated boys. But I do find that when the course of events becomes bizarre, I stop caring about the characters. Well, it’s what Ishiguro mostly does.

Book Review: Jane Austen, Persuasion

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As a sixth-form student way back, I was helped to discover Jane Austen. I loved what I discovered. I loved the precision of the language, the clever, almost sly way she told us so much about a character by a few words spoken. The limited social focus, on upper-middle-class or lower-upper-class early 19th century people, in particular the underemployed women who could not pursue a career, were expected to leave estate management to men and had servants to do the cooking and care for the children, did not bother me. If all literature had been that way, it would have bothered me a lot, but it wasn’t. Jane Austen was very good at what she did.

“Persuasion”, her last novel, always appealed to me. “Pride and Prejudice” is much better known, but it seems to me that as with many first novels, it’s just a bit too personal and some characters, like Mr D’Arcy’s appalling sisters, are caricatured. “Persuasion” and “Emma” were my favourites.

In a way, Jane Austen, like any famous dead writer, now suffers from the fame. We know all her novels have happy endings, so that reduces the dramatic tension, and anyway, how many likely to read this book or “Pride and Prejudice” doesn’t know something of the plot already?

A popular game with writers who died quite young is to speculate on how they might have developed. You can’t be proved wrong. One thing I notice about “Persuasion” is that there’s a hint of social criticism. The heroine’s stupidly narrow and snobbish father has a title but is clearly meant to seem inferior to the rough-hewn, weather-beaten naval officers of modest origins he looks down on. I remember our teacher in the sixth form commenting that you could read “Pride and Prejudice” without realising there was a gruelling war going on. That would be impossible with “Persuasion”, set just after the Napoleonic Wars had ended and full of naval officers and references to military action. Patrick O’Brian or C.S. Forrester it is not, but when a naval officer remarks that a quiet and bookish colleague had proved himself in action, it’s entirely credible.

Despite the hint of criticism of social norms, like other Jane Austen heroines, Anne does not rebel against the norms. In typically Austen style, there is the merest hint of something different in the recognition that naval officers in war might rise from very humble beginnings (more humble than she shows, because unlike in the army at this time, promotion from the ranks was by no means impossible).

Now imagine this is not a famous text, but something by new writer J. Nostyn. There’s just about enough action to give it a faint hope, but only just enough. There’s too much dialogue. Worse, the author offends against the injunction to show, not tell, for she spends nearly a page telling us what kind of a man Sir Walter is (though she also shows a lot about him as the tale develops). It’s also rather short and an agent might tell her to fill it out a bit. Maybe some flashbacks of the naval battles?

What do you think of Jane Austen? If you quite like her books, which one is the best for you?

Book review: Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of Magna Carta

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I hadn’t heard of Geoffrey Hindley. Well, I do have a history degree, but the Middle Ages? They Aren’t My Period. He’s written a series of “brief histories” and he’s a medieval historian, that is, a contemporary living guy who writes about the Middle Ages.

I hadn’t known a lot about Magna Carta. I was slightly ahead of Tony Hancock (look him up in Wikipedia) and his “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” quote, but I had a lot to learn.

Geoffrey Hindley writes well, if a little cosily-chattily at times. As far as I can tell he deals with detail in the story of King John’s confrontation with his barons with authority and verve. The complicated story of John’s troubled relations with the French king and his series of wars with the French doesn’t – for me – become too complicated and he manages to convey a lot about feudal relationships. When we think about feudalism as a rigid pyramid, we oversimplify. It was a system based on land. Each bit of land was farmed by person A and held from a lord B who taxed A and used his labour but also had a duty to protect him. B in term held the land from someone greater and in the end all land was held by the gracious will of the king, who could demand services and money from his barons but was expected to help them too. However, over time land-holdings and feudal relationships got complicated and it was theoretically possible for Lord A to hold land from Lord B and to be for that land his feudatory (subordinate), but for Lord B to hold another bit of land from Lord A and owe loyalty to him for that. In the case of the English kings and France, a King of England was subordinate to no-one (except perhaps the Pope) in respect of England, but from 1066 to 1558 English kings held land in France for which they owed loyalty to the French king. They eventually got round that by claiming to be the rightful kings of France themselves.

Complicated? Hindley explains it well.

He’s also good about teasing out the influence of John’s agreement with his rebellious barons on later events including the English Civil War and the American rebellion of 1776. He shows how views of the events around Magna Carta changed in different periods depending on current beliefs and interests, and shows that some English-influenced countries, former colonies like the U.S.A., Australia and India, seem to take it more seriously than the English today do.

Three quibbles. For my taste there are a few too many throwaway contentious remarks about contemporary or recent politics. There are two long chapters about interesting and important subjects of very limited relevance to Magna Carta – the position of Jews in medieval England and the role of women in the society of the time (might these have been to tempt the American market?). And there is one glaring historical boo-boo about the period I DO know well (which just makes me wonder about some of his facts I can’t easily check). Referring to Nottingham Castle, an important stronghold in the wars of John’s reign, he says it was a stronghold for the King throughout the English Civil War. Wrong. It was a stronghold for Parliament throughout, and that’s fairly well-known because it was held for Parliament by Colonel John Hutchinson, whose wife Lucy’s account of her husband’s life is a major source for historians wanting to get behind the headline events.

Still, not a bad tour-de-force, and here, to explain why it’s important, is the thing itself:

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Book Review: Tom McCarthy – “C”

ImageApparently C is a programming language. That may be relevant. Tom McCarthy’s novel starts weirdly well with a doctor hitching a ride on a cart carrying copper wire in order to visit a woman in labour. The father turns out to be much more interested in the copper wire than in his impending offspring. The house is old, rambling and confusing in layout. This could go all sorts of ways, the reader thinks.

The book covers the entire life of the baby about to be born. Young Serge, born in the dying years of the 19th century in southern England, grows up in a strange household. His father is a deaf school headmaster and eccentric inventor fascinated by new means of communication. His mother hardly features at all (why?). His elder sister is a sadistic scientific genius who kills herself for reasons not very clear. Serge suffers from ill-health as a boy, shares his father’s fascination with radio, becomes an observer in a First World War fighting aircraft and is then a prisoner of war, returning to civilian life, experiencing spiritualism and drugs, only to die in Egypt soon after.

The strangeness of the main characters and of the world they’re in (instance the attitudes of the fliers to death and of British intelligence in Egypt to everyone else on the planet) are well conveyed. There are passages of description, especially in the Royal Flying Corps chapters, which are vivid and very well done indeed. But there is a hole in the book. I found until nearly the end that I did not care what happened to Serge. Why? Because he didn’t seem to care at all about what happened to anyone else or if he hmself lived. His sister’s death doesn’t seem to provoke any emotions at all. He was totally indifferent to deaths of fellow-flyers in training and in war. He shot up manned German observation balloons not to try to win the war or out of anger, but because it was fun and fascinating. Narrowly escaping being executed on the last day of the war, he feels cheated and has no thought for his comrade who was about to die and wanted to live. Frankly, he seems to be a bit of a monster.

My unease about the book is that I’m not sure Tom McCarthy realises what a wasteland is in his main character. There are suggestions that the book is a kind of prediction of how humanity was developing, but very few people today are emotionless and disconnected like that. The SS cultivated being above emotions of sympathy or revulsion at the suffering of people they corralled and killed, but even they generally cared about their comrades.

When Serge is angry at a spiritualist fake, and unmasks the deception, it seems strange. Where has that emotion, that anger at deceit, come from? It’s the first emotion he’s displayed. His relations with women seem just as blank-faced and emotionless.

His fever and delirium in his final days are well described. But whether there is any significance in where and how he dies, I just don’t know.

POETRY QUICK QUIZ:

My lines for today are (rather a lot of lines, but it’s an example of the impact being from the whole, and the lines I’d most want to quote are well-separated by others).

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

Well, that really shouldn’t be difficult. Still, here’s a clue:

NEEDS A FIREFIGHTER?

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.

 

That Open Mic

Why not “Open Mike”? Search me. People pronounce it “mike”. It is a mike. Yes, the full name is “microphone”, but “mic” should be pronounced “mick”. Is someone trying to imply an Irish connection?

Oh, I’m first on. Finished the beer, half-way through the tea. By the time I’ve placed the saucer over the teacup to keep the tea a bit hot, the opening applause has faded away and they’re beginning to wonder why I’m not on my feet at the front.

Here goes. Wow, this is going well. I’m fired up and communicating (whatever that passionately obscure poem “Estuary” means or the almost as obscure “Dark Lady”. In fact it was brilliant and the inspired guy with the guitar came up afterwards and spoke about a possible collaboration.

This all happened at FirstSite in Colchester. Don’t call it “First Site”: that isn’t artistic. Many thanks to James for organising.

Well, maybe I should post the poem I read that I haven’t posted before here. It was a response to the poetry group challenge of the word “magazine”.

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MAGAZINE

 

This is a belt buckle – quite common round here

People may drop rifles or lose helmets

But don’t take off their belts in battle, so – imagine.

This magazine, twisted, discoloured, but recognisable

Is two-thirds used. Imagine. Here’s a metal water-bottle

Look here – interesting – initials have been scratched on it

And here a bullet hit it. On that occasion he was lucky.

No, bones don’t last well in this soil

And the plough breaks them up anyway. Want a break?

Coffee and biscuits over there.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013.

 

 

Well,

We Have Changed War

 

 

“We have changed war,” she said

“No longer push of pike,

The intimate connection by a hooked iron blade.

We can destroy our enemies on computer screens

They look like simulations of human beings

Until they are wiped out

We make our own truth, we make history.”

How truth got in the programmes is a mystery.

 

It’s reality, Jim, but not as we know it

Poems are full of ambiguity and mystery. Sometimes this is deliberately created, using words that could mean one thing or another, either to suggest both things or to seem clever by mystifying the reader. Sometimes the mystery, the uncertainty, the blur occurs because the poet isn’t sure of what (s)he’s saying. In an instruction manual for a machine this would be disastrous. But poets like religious visionaries are talking all the time about things they suspect they partly understand.

I’ve picked out here three of my poems where uncertainty is an important factor.

A SIGN

So when the distant soldiers came around midday

To the curious building in the foreign fields

Planted with unfamiliar crops they saw a sign

And casually debated what the thing might mean.

But rain encouraged them to shelter inside the place,

Chapel or school, and the sign was just another strangeness

Among many, and so in time they marched away

To the slaughter next day on the watching ridge

And then artillery and fire destroyed the shrine

The words were not spoken and the slug river moved on.

The poem is about missed opportunities, a sign that could have changed the world but didn’t. Unless we believe that everything is predetermined, the thought of how different the world might have been if the Buddha or Mohammed or Luther, or for that matter Lenin or Hitler, had died before making an impact, is disturbing and intriguing. For the soldiers, though, the crops in the fields, the building and the sign are all things outside their experience: they wonder a bit and move on, having a job to do, a job that will kill them. The soldiers don’t understand the sign, but we aren’t told what the sign is, or how to recognise a sign from noise.

RAINWASHED

I recognise them, the rainwashed places,

The shallow lakes across the demolition site

The passing vehicle’s short-lived water rising

Water-spots on the window, rainbright grass

On the playing-field fringed by uneven brickwork

That will be there another night

When the rain has not fallen, the dust rises and falls

On crumbling walls the fern and buddleia shrivel

And the window is smeared, and cannot be cleared by a fix

And the clouds in the distance, over the barren hills

Could be the coming of rain or could be the end of the trick.

This poem ends with uncertainty: are the rains coming to end the drought, or is it “the end of the trick”? And is the trick a false promise of rain or something more fundamental, an unreal world? The description of the environment during and after much rain seems to lead on to drought through an assumption that drought will follow rain, but is this a natural cycle of seasons or an irreversible change?

TIMER

In the dark tower at the top

A single light, dull glowing red

The tower is darker than the night

The lower buildings round the edge

Cluster in shadow from the red

The hunting waver of an owl

Behind the avenue of dead trees

Wakens a movement in the sedge

And slithering through the hidden ditch.

The moths have gathered round the light

And something old is not yet dead.

Time, our young friend and enemy

Writing we cannot erase

Though written on tablets that may crumble

And in a metre we find strange

The ship is down, we cling to you

The waves around, the water cold

And we were young, and we are old.

If I should meet what I have feared

Lit by the red light from the tower,

If opening the hidden case

I should not find another hour

But something strange I knew before

Recalling marks on that dull door

I shall be ready for time and space.

A golden clock stands on a marble shelf

The intricate workings move at even speed

If I should throw it far in a great arc

Into the waters of the silent lake

What would I think I was, what would I be?

Lianas interlink the blossoming trees

Inside the green confusion all birds sing

And shivering trills with low, slow warbles mix

And touch and mingle, wing to leaf to wing.

This one deals with themes of time and death, but it contains images and lines I don’t really understand myself. You tell me what the significance is of the dull light in the old tower, for I’m not sure myself. I might guess that the tower is a body – or the world. The light may be life and consciousness – or it may be a principle of life, a spiritual reality. So why is the tower darker than the night around? That time is friend and enemy is not a surprising thought, but why “young friend”? Maybe because time is the here and now as well as the distant? Or am I imagining myself outside time, so time itself might seem a blip?

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Right and Wrong

Keats criticised poetry that had a “palpable design” on us. Poets debate at length to what extent poetry today should carry a political or moral message and whether it changes anything anyway. For re-posting and discussion, I’ve selected three poems written roughly around the same time that all raise moral issues, that is, issues of right and wrong.

I’m not afraid to talk of right and wrong. I’m what philosophers call a “soft relativist”, which sounds like an insult, but actually means the position which I suspect most people in the Western world take if they think about such things – that there are very few if any absolute statements of right or wrong actions (that it is never right to lie, to kill, to eat pork, to accept blood transfusion and so on) but this does not mean that anything goes and different actions in different circumstances may be said to be right or wrong by a standard that is not purely related to my own benefit or comfort or the survival of my genes.

I think, though, that poetry ought commonly to confront moral issues by asking questions or drawing attention powerfully to consequences rather than by laying down right answers.

So here’s the first poem and the most politically and morally engaged:

THE HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE

On 6 March 1987 the car ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”, owned by Townsend Thoresen (later P&O) capsized outside the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, causing 193 deaths. A number of safety measures that would have prevented the disaster had not been taken because they were seen as low priority or would have reduced profits.

 

In December 2009 the Copenhagen climate change talks ended without countries’ leaders agreeing to Carbon emissions limits, after aggressive campaigns by commercial interests attacked the whole idea that humans were causing global warming.

 

The Herald of Free Enterprise

Proclaimed a message of hope and joy

In words that could be painted gold

And deep vermilion in a book.

He blew a long note on his horn.

When from the sea there came a scream

From trapped and drowning passengers

And from the writhing, poisoned earth,

The herald turned the speakers off.

In looking back at this I see immediately that the gloss or introduction makes political points much more directly than the poem, but this is because poetic language uses images rather than syllogisms or platform bullet-points.

The poem is very political and moral, though. It charges the profit motive and unchecked capitalism with 193 deaths and with untold suffering and extinctions through global warming. As it happens I am not a socialist and believe attempts to do without private enterprise are pointless. I don’t see it as the role of a poem, though, to suggest and debate the political action that could be taken (some of it is pretty obvious in these two cases).

I use the name of the ship to develop an image of heraldry and hence bright colours and impressive ceremony – and then suddenly introduce reality and, in poetic form, the way powerful interests control information.

Here, by contrast, is the next poem.

THE LAST PROBLEM

The great detective, pantherlike,

Prowls round the web of traps and mirrors

Constructed by the lord of crime

The lord waits sentient inside

He does not need to move to strike.

The great detective makes his maps

His diagrams and brilliant plans

Each trap is tested by the lord

And nothing’s what it first appears

Even the great detective’s word.

The great constructor sits inside

The marvellous complexity

Of art and thought and warm routine,

Watches the prowling of the wolf

And studies the compelling lie.

The wolf has broken through the web

The city of light alarms and screams

The great detective meets the lord

And who should live and who should die

Lies in your hand and lies in mine.

The character of the Great Detective is a recurring one in my poems. He’s dedicated, determined, rational, intelligent and narrowly-focused – in deliberate reference to Sherlock Holmes.  The poem starts by presenting such a detective locked in battle with a Moriarty figure, the lord of crime. No moral ambiguity here. But as it progresses we find the perception shifts. Now we’re seeing the organisation of the lord of crime as a beautiful city threatened by a destructive force, a wolf that is also the Great Detective.

The prowling nemesis breaks in and comes face to face with the lord. Now, says the poem, you choose who should win. This represents the fact that we can influence the outcome of social struggles, but which side we should take is often unclear and there are different perceptions. But the poem is unforgiving: the difficulty does not absolve us of responsibility for taking a decision and acting.

Here’s the third poem.

NEW THINGS

It will not be all new when we meet again

The blood will still be on the old stone steps

The man at the corner will still be glancing after

The drunken girl who retches beyond the railings.

We recognise the smears, you and I

We know the use of bleach on the grimy standard

Will wreck it beyond loving, and the raising

Of a pure standard is a call to killing.

But where the stray cat wolfs the fallen burger,

Where up the bloodstained steps you come by night

There is the cancer that will grow and scatter

The knowing of the dark, the love of light.

You could say this poem lies between the other two. It suggests an attitude but leaves a lot unclear. The world is dirty, messy, often unpleasant and damaged. But to react with a wish to reject the world for something pure and perfect is dangerous: that way lie fanaticism and mass murder. Robespierre, the Inquisition, the Fascists and Al Qaida were all obsessed with purity. So accept that the world is imperfect – but don’t walk off indifferent.  Know the dark and love light.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Please, what is time?

This is supposed to be what a Japanese tourist at a main London railway station said to an elderly, studious-looking Englishman. The reply he received, of course, was,

“Sir, you have asked a most profound question.”

I don’t really try to answer that question, though I did read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, but I am fascinated by time and it shows both in my study of History and in my poetry. Here are three poems (already posted on this blog) in all of which time is an important element.

 

WALL

 

When the grey seas beat down on this low wall

Remember us who built it high and died

We knew the fish of the sea, we knew the soaring falcon,

We tasted bread and wine and love and loss.

 

 

BY THE GATE

 

The cloaked man waiting by the gate

Shivers in the warming day

The planned arrival’s running late

West wind drives the clouds away

 

The cloaked man taps his booted feet

Fumbles out a stained small case,

Stares at a photo; fingers beat

On holster; silence in his face

 

A movement down the uneven road

Pulls him to a straighter stance

The guards decant the expected load

Through the gate the groups advance

 

The gate is shut. He has to wait,

Hears a skylark in the sky.

The man’s gone through another gate

And like the load, begins to die.

 

 

NIGHTINGALE REMEMBERED

 

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird,

No hungry generations tread thee down”

But nightingales are begotten, born and die

Living a lifespan lesser than a dog.

 

I sing back not to the immortal song

But to the bird that might not last the summer.

 

Though fumbling in the enveloping folds of time

I hear what Spartans at Thermopylae

Recalled and what some thornscratched hunter heard

When humans first had wandered across sands

Into a colder, richer, trap-strewn land;

And when I smell salt water or top the ridge

Where treeless, manless, sweeps the unmarked waste

I am not the first, and clustering, unseen eyes

Share, and another mouth remembers taste

And lone and many, the nightingale’s notes rise.

 

The first, short poem is my reaction to an old wall. For sure the people who built it are long dead. Even its purpose is now unclear. But I wonder about those people and am aware that I share things with them.

 

The second is less about time. It’s about death, duty and conscience. The soldier or paramilitary policeman is not a bad man. He wants to do his duty and see his family again. But he’s supporting a mass murder, a group of unarmed people being executed. I was thinking about the Second World War and I imagined the guard as a German or Nazi ally, but even within the span of the technology described (a gun, a presumably motorised vehicle) this scene could be in many places and times: it’s a recurring tragedy.

I use simple language and understatement to convey both horror and the deadening of senses. The guard is surviving by desensitising himself to suffering: but there is a cost.

 

The third is very much about time. The opening quote is Keats, of course, from his “Ode to a Nightingale”. Keats saw the Nightingale as immortal in contrast to his own short, doomed life. I remind myself that real Nightingales are individuals which live a lot shorter lives than Keats. But then with Keats I realise that even though the Nightingales are different, the same song was heard by humans in very different times and situations. I quote just two examples – the Spartan warriors at Thermopylae and the first Homo sapiens (or humans of any sort) to reach Europe. This brings me to remember other experiences that unite me with people long-dead (smelling salt water, reaching the top of a ridge and seeing a vast wilderness stretching out) and I have a sense of their continuing presence.

When I wrote this poem I’d been reading a lot of Tennyson and I suspect the line “Where treeless, manless, sweeps the unmarked waste” is one I wouldn’t have written otherwise. The sense of it is very me but the inversion and sweep of the thing is more Tennyson. In the last line, the nightingale’s notes are “Lone and many”, recalling that this may be one bird, but it sings as others have sung.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012