Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Reflections on the Somme

Henry Williamson

by John Roberts

It is heartening and encouraging to see the English writer Henry Williamson’s name crop up and it was good to see reader Michael Woodbridge mention him in a letter a few years ago.
I, too, am a member of  The Henry Williamson Society and for the benefit of readers of European Socialist Action the following is an article, albeit slightly revised, which I submitted to the society’s newsletter some time ago. It was written after a fascinating journey to The Somme and places associated with Henry, organised by the society.
Mr Woodbridge’s comment in his letter is, I feel, worthy of repeat here. “..... (The Henry Williamson Society) ..... although it purports to be non-political nevertheless can not deny that Williamson represented the spirit of England which Mosley sought to champion”.

Battlefield Tour

“The English Channel is free of U-Boats and the Kaiser’s navy is sunk. The coast is clear”. Thus to paraphrase our intrepid astonishingly well-informed guide Paul Reed (you may well have seen him of late on various television programmes on the Great War including Michael Palin’s documentary on the last hours of the war, shown in November 2008), setting the scene on a bright day in Dover for a riveting and extraordinary moving tour of The Somme battlefields in Northern France.
Memories of this tour are already indelibly inscribed in the mind. Placing a wreath on a lonely, windswept cemetery in the middle of a field. “May he rest in ancient sunlight” (an allusion to HW’s Chronicles of Ancient Sunlight series of books); the rusty remains of a shell unearthed by farmers after 90 years. There was a palpable sense of occasion here.
Other abiding memories are the soft Spring showers, wind driven, gently spattering the Portland stone. “A New Zealand soldier of the Great War”. Sgt J. Montgomery, Royal Irish Rifles. 1st July 1916, age 24”. The oak leaf crest of the Cheshire Regiment. Atop the hill beyond Serre Road Number 2 Cemetery, a steely threatening grey sky; in the foreground, bright Spring sunshine illuminating the Portland stone and daffodils. A poem is read by Gilbert Waterhouse; it alludes to nightingales in one verse. As we listen, we can hear skylarks.
Afterwards, we gaze at the lone cross in the corner of a field; an officer, Valentine Braithwaite: Somerset Light Infantry. “A corner of a foreign field that is forever England”. Those well-worn words sprung into the mind unbidden and acquire a stark relief this Spring afternoon.
For me, what makes Henry Williamson’s work so fascinating is how we can be drawn into a visionary, almost mystical sense of the English countryside, yet there is a keenness, an edge given by Henry’s experiences of the Great War. War and nature in close proximity; the blasted trees, the skylarks above the guns. At Lochnager crater (‘Le Grande Mine’ on the road signs with the poppy symbol by a row of typically French trees) we observe the poppies cast down into the crater’s base; a hare makes a brief appearance. In nearby fields where the Tynesiders moved forward, we can see the yellowhammers and skylarks.
We view ‘The Golden Virgin’ of Albert town across the fields, whilst Richard (Henry’s eldest son) reads in the midday breeze. The Angelus bell has just rung from a nearby church. In the distance, those so typical copses of trees.
A poignant address at the Arras memorial; the tragic circumstances of Private Frith’s death were recorded by HW along with his trusty mule. This I found an extraordinarily moving passage. The combination of man and beast. Those dignified, graceful and innocent creatures who obediently assist, even in the horrific midst of war. How often we are inclined to let their contribution slip from our memory. The Dickin Medal, initiated by the PDSA founder, Maria Dickin, has rightly been awarded to horses, dogs, cats, even pigeons.
I rediscovered Henry Williamson only a few years ago. My wife, Geraldine, was having treatment for cancer (happily she is now in remission) and I came across an article on HW whilst attending the infirmary in Leeds where she was receiving chemotherapy.
In the booklet given out to accompany the tour, Richard Williamson wrote an introduction and one of the things he wrote made a marked impression.

To quote: “A soldier sees things that others never see”.

This line ignited my imagination. Perhaps a soldier, in having to face certain truths about himself and the world around him, is in a similar condition to that of the artist. Maybe not the same immediate danger but there are connections in terms of discipline. Henry Williamson was, of course, an artist and a soldier.
To the artist or writer, a constant, acute and tireless observation of his or her surroundings is in their very nature. The activities of a soldier and artist also involve that acute presence of mind.
These musings brought to mind the poet Henry Reed who wrote Naming of Parts. On one level this is a description, with a sardonic edge, of a soldier’s training routine; in this case, rifle training. Yet Reed displays an awareness of his surroundings: it is obviously Spring. “The Japonica glistens like coral in the neighbouring garden”.
There are fascinating metaphors and juxtapositions made between the rifle instructions, so mechanical and matter of fact and equally precise observations of the beauty and fragility of nature. “Almond blossoms silent in the garden”.
When he refers to “Easing the Spring” on a rifle, there is a marvellous interplay of the meaning. The early bees “are assaulting and fumbling the flowers”. “Easing the Spring” is transfigured from a technical instruction to an acute observation on the emergence of the season of Spring.
There is also the further idea that everything has a name, whether it be the breech of a rifle or a genus of blossom tree, though their ‘natures’ and purposes are entirely different.
A soldier will also see things in the sight of a rifle. Perhaps an animal, the shadow of foliage on the bark of a tree in bright sunshine; the particular hue of brickwork on a barn or wall; a cobweb on a windowpane; the murmur of breeze; a bird darting across the vision.
Henry had the same acuteness of vision. To me, this ‘colliding of worlds’ is what makes Henry Williamson’s so compelling. He saw how war affects the natural world and how the natural world subsists even during war. How animals and insects react to man’s destructive potency.
I am sure that Henry’s acute, almost mystical awareness of the natural world, yet also his experience of the waste and barbarity (and dignity and heroism it can reveal) are what gives his work such energy, vitality and potency.
Another poem which came to mind unbidden is “All day it has remained” by Alun Lewis. Damp training tents; the tedium of the day: the discomfort. Rain pours on mankind whether he is at peace or war. The skylarks still sing, despite the guns.
Readers might be interested to know, if you are ever in Yorkshire, about Sledmere House near Driffield (East Riding).
Sledmere, on the Yorkshire Wolds, is the home of the ‘Wagoners Special Reserve’; these were agricultural workers skilled in the working of horses and wagons: they were amongst the first to join the British Expeditionary Force in August-September 1914. There is a small museum which documents the unique contribution which these men made, some of whom had never left the village in which they were born, amongst the first to serve their country abroad. These men of the Yorkshire Molds, of which there were a fair few, are celebrated here through memorabilia and medals. There is also an excellent (and very reasonably priced) cafe serving teas and lunches.
There is an interesting pair of memorials in Sledmere village itself, one in particular displaying a bas-relief of the Wagoners’ experience of the Great War (although somewhat controversial due to its somewhat lurid and savage depiction of the German army).
Sledmere is something of a well-kept secret. With its Arboretum of ancient trees (the likes of which I have only seen at Mourne Park House, Kilkeel, County Down in Northern Ireland), I am sure it is a place Henry would have appreciated.

For further details of Sledmere House phone 01377 236637

The Battlefields tour organised by the Henry Williamson Society occurred at Eastertide 2006.

copyright © John Roberts 2011
 
ESA No 37  November/December 2011

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Signal For Things to Come

The Height of the August riots in London, 2011

by Robert Edwards - ESA No 36

No one was prepared for the riots over an August weekend that spread from city to city, burning and looting on a scale not seen for decades. Parliament was in recess and the police seemed paralysed, like rabbits in a car’s headlamps, as they came out onto the streets to act as mere observers, standing by as looters emptied shops in full view. In one area, looting went on for over an hour in full view of police in riot gear.
The great British public also sat and watched, albeit in the comfort of their own sitting rooms on plasma screens that actually belong to them.
We watch famine and drought in Africa and NATO bombings in Libya; we watch rioting on the streets of Syria and severe storms and tsunamis in America and around the Indian Ocean ... but events on the scale of the August riots are now regarded in much the same way. News as morbid entertainment, so long as it is not in my backyard.
How many still remained secure in their homes while feral youth went on the rampage over several nights, burning out ordinary people who were as innocent and blameless as they could be? We were left wondering if we had a police force fit for purpose and it was becoming increasingly clear that we do not. Let us face it, they were completely ineffectual on the streets, seemingly incapable of knowing what to do under the circumstances.
The shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham by armed police officers is said to have been the spark that ignited the social powder keg. The local police chief seemed to ignore the requests from a peaceful group of demonstrators who waited for hours for answers outside the police station that evening. It was a prime example of the complete detachment of the police from the local community and more or less confirmed the feeling that the police treat young blacks unfairly. The peaceful demonstrators were snubbed by the local police chief ... then, later,  all hell broke loose.
Serious crimes were committed on that first night, and subsequently, the more serious being arson. The rioting was ferocious and a powerful force seemed to dominate the events. For moments it seemed parts of cities were to be razed to the ground as the mob pushed on with its criminal purpose.
The Prime Minister eventually got round to returning from his holiday, along with the rest of the Commons windbags. There was then some semblance of governing, along with the usual homilies before media cameras.
Cameron donned the persona of a hard line right wing Tory, dispensing with his customary ‘ethical conservatism’. They would be hunted down and punished, he swore. CCTV footage did the rest and the round-ups began. 
Fast-track court hearings were put in place after the arrests, based on CCTV mug shots. Entire families were evicted from their social housing as an added punishment.
To reinforce his new hard man image, Cameron decided to call in the expertise of US ‘super cop’, Bill Bratton, who is to meet our Prime Minister sometime in September. What does this say for our own senior police officers, some of whom clashed with the politicians, rudely interrupted on their holidays? They were informed they had gone about it the wrong way and so the politicians stepped in and sorted it out for them.
Those who advised Cameron on this option of bringing in an American cop may yet discover they have placed the Prime Minister in a somewhat awkward political dilemma since the introduction of his new ‘bang ‘em up and throw away the key’ doctrine, beloved of his old ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ blue-rinsed brigade of old. Tories used to be hard on crime but not the causes of crime. They were not interested in what were deemed mere excuses. Social problems were of no concern to them other than to punish the poor for being poor. “It was their own fault” because they had not been thrifty and as hard working as their social superiors ... as most Tories saw it. Social deprivation was largely ignored and treated as an embarrassment.
Bill Bratton seems to look at these issues quite differently and, perhaps, with far more insight. Success claims by this tough American cop do not appear to be entirely truthful as this passage from an American report indicate:
“By now, almost everyone has seen one of the semi-amusing videos of black teen mobs rampaging through a store. Maybe we've even seen the non-amusing pictures of the victims, or heard their stories.
Most Americans have heard of recent violent ‘flash mobs’, which are the bands of black teens that attack mostly white victims and white businesses, as even the New York Times once noted. But the flash mobs, which are more accurately called ‘race riots’ or ‘racial mob violence’, are not the only interesting topic to cover in our national conversation about race.
There is also the ‘knock out game’, which is stunning in its brutal simplicity and stark racial significance. The knock out game involves ‘unprovoked attacks on innocent bystanders’, according to police who have had to deal with it. A retired officer explained, "Normally it was a group of black males, one of which would strike him as hard as he could in the face, attempting to knock him out with one punch", says retired Sergeant Don Pizzo.
The victims are typically not robbed, but simply punched with no provocation. Such attacks have been reported in Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, and New Jersey ... local media outlets have failed to report on the racial aspect of the attacks. At best, the media will allow the race of attackers to be revealed by mug shots or quotations from police or victims. This follows a conscious policy of self-censorship that has been openly admitted by major newspapers”.
Do we need these American imports and should we rely on advice from countries that have the highest crime rates in the world and the largest prison populations? Do we really need Dirty Harry?
“You can not arrest yourself out of the problem”, Bratton told ABC television, “Arrest is certainly appropriate for the most violent, the incorrigible, but so much of it can be addressed in other ways and it's not just a police issue, it is in fact a societal issue”.
He recommended, “... a co-ordination of very assertive tough police tactics but also a lot of community outreach, a lot of creative, innovative programmes such as a significant use of gang interventionists”. Sounds like typical American socio-babble but he does touch on a point that Cameron is currently ignoring ... the origins of violence in social deprivation. There are no excuses for crime but their are causes and reasons for it.
Before you all think I am turning into a bleeding heart liberal, as they were once called, we must consider solutions while not constantly ranting on about punishment. It is clear there is a massive problem regarding social cohesion and that problem is largely economic ... the haves and the have-nots ... the massive gulf between the rich and the poor.
While not dismissing the criminality of the rioters, there is evidently a strong case for recognising a process of alienation that has been going on for some decades now, effecting more than one generation. British society has been disintegrating ever since our industrial base was eroded and the working class betrayed and thrown onto the scrapheap of English social history. Once-valued manual skills became as redundant as the massed ranks of industrial workers. Youths today, both black and white, will never have known the old pride in labour and to have belonged to the brotherhood of the working class. My father, a miner for most of his life, was an example of that esprit de corps felt by all who toiled and laboured together. Youths today, and I am talking of the disenfranchised and alienated, often do not have that essential feeling of ‘belonging’ that even a proper family gives of right and so they become feral, that adjective now recurring whenever this section of youth is given media attention.
The sense of ‘belonging’ is as natural and essential as anything in the animal world. In the Qur’an it says, “Even the animals have their community”, which emphasises the universal occurrence of it, overriding all other instincts and needs. Governments do not do anything to remedy this situation because, first of all, Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society, that we are all individuals urged on by selfish greed. Global capitalism is driven by it and the bankers positively worship greed as a god. Mammon rules Britain!
Four masked youths, all black, were interviewed after the riots by a Sky News reporter on the banks of the Thames near Greenwich. They were asked why they engaged in the riots and one said clearly, “We did it for the money because we haven’t got any”. One stole nappies and Johnson baby products for his tiny son. Standing there, he pointed over at the City with its tall office blocks and then to the nearby block of council flats. He clearly understood this world whereby the super-rich get hold of large amounts of money easily through speculation (gambling) while the occupants of those council flats sometimes had no idea where the next meal is coming from. This feral youth understands, alright. They understand that bigger criminals lurk across the Thames in Canary Wharf and further down the river in the House of Commons. They do not need lectures from hypocrites.
As Britain lurches from one economic crisis to the next, the Government tells us we must learn to do with less because a phantom debt needs to be paid to the faceless bankers who lend it out of nothing and than want it back at interest. It is amazing how many people are duped into believing all this is aboveboard and perfectly legitimate. We owe nothing because money is phantom currency which exists in the form of figures on a database only. It is nothing more than that. Then there is the bond market where debts are traded ... buy cheap and sell when they go up in value. Roulette capitalism at its worst and most unethical.
An economist once wrote: “Money is the NOTHING you get for SOMETHING before you can get ANYTHING. To acquire money, its legitimate owner must give up something in the here and now - property, personal services, etc - for the nothing of money. The money serves as a claim to an equivalent share of real wealth to be produced and consumed sometime in the future. It represents society’s debt for wealth surrendered for the inherently worthless forms of modern money, hence the nothing of money”.
What do we get out of this system? Only war and growing poverty with periodic bouts of speculation-induced prosperity followed by economic collapse, as Frederick Soddy, the Nobel Prize winner, put it. He believed the explanation was in the way society distributed wealth and not in its ability to produce it.
It is very clear that science and technology can provide all that we need in abundance. Oswald Mosley always said that. With government leading, we can raise our standard of living and purchasing power as science increases the means to produce.
But we are not in control and there is the rub. The crux of all our problems. It is the reason for poverty, for a lack of social cohesion, for social deprivation and for the fact that large swathes of alienated youth do not ‘belong’ ... other than to gangs and other peer groups. The connection has gone ... with society, the police and the politicians. It is time for anti-politics and anti-money. After all, the power that the high and mighty wield is all relative. They are powerful because we believe they are powerful. Money exists because we believe it exists. Our national debt exists because we believe it exists. Take that belief away and the whole show could collapse like a house of cards.
Ask yourselves why the police simply stood by and watched the looting and burning going on. The answer is, they did not believe they could do anything about it. It is all about confidence ... as the bankers often claim.
So let us all have confidence, my friends. Confidence in overthrowing this system and replacing it with something better so there will never be the need for burning and looting because there will be an abundance for all.