Thursday, July 28, 2005

200. Fair City

On the condom machine
in the pub toilet,
"For refund insert baby"
while around the bar,
the skangers
getting langers
are holding up the walls
along with the knackers and the chavs
and the local head-the-balls.

O dear sweet Bally Aha Clee
funny, edgy, chancy, iffy,
ye've always been the place for me
astride the green and filthy Liffey

"Send them f**kin Spaniards
straight back home to Italy"
(graffiti on the 77A to Tallaght)
"Use your brian, vote Sinn Fein"
while Jacinta, all alone,
screeches down her mobile phone,
and the bus explodes in laughter,
"Anto's a bleedin' luvly roide,
and didn't he pull up me knickers after!"

There's an oul' wan at the stop
who goes and asks the driver,
"How long will the next bus be?"
so he looks at her and he says
"Ah, missus, about 15 or twenty feet,
same as this, but who can tell",
and she asks, not missing a beat,
"And will there be another monkey
driving that as well?"

O dear sweet Bally Aha Clee
funny, edgy, chancy, iffy,
ye've always been the place for me
astride the green and filthy Liffey

"Excuse me, sir", says the tourist,
"do you know what side of the Liffey this is?"
"Eh?" says the Dub, with a puzzled look,
"I do, of course", and goes back to his book;
so when the mother was belting the arse off her brat
and the tourists behind expressed their views,
"In Chermany we do not beat our children!"
the mammy replied like a ball off a bat
"Well, in Ireland we don't gas our Jews".

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

198. Irish Poetry (and some comments on Seamus Heaney)

- Anon (7th C.)

The small bird
let a chirp
from its beak:
I heard
woodnotes, whin-
gold, sudden.

(Written by a student of the monastery of Carinthia
on a copy of St Paul's Epistles, in the 8th century)

I and Pangur Ban, my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

(trans. from the Gaelic by Robin Flower)


The sounds of Ireland,
that restless whispering
you never get away
from, seeping out of
low bushes and grass,
heatherbells and fern,
wrinkling bog pools,
scraping tree branches,
light hunting cloud,
sound hounding sight,
a hand ceaselessly
combing and stroking
the landscape, till
the valley gleams
like the pile upon
a mountain pony's coat.

-John Montague (1929 -



Our guttural muse
was bulled long ago
by the alliterative tradition,
her uvula grows

vestigial, forgotten
like the coccyx
or a Brigid's Cross
yellowing in some outhouse

while custom, that 'most
sovereign mistress',
beds us down into
the British Isles.


We are to be proud
of our Elizabethan English:
'varsity', for example
is grass-roots stuff with us;

we 'deem' or we 'allow'
when we suppose
and some cherished archaisms
are correct Shakespearean.

Not to speak of the furled
consonants of lowlanders
shuttling obstinately
between bawn and mossland.


MacMorris, gallivanting
round the Globe, whinged
to courtier and groundling
who had heard tell of us

as going very bare
of learning, as wild hares
as anatomies of death:
'What ish my nation?'

And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, "Ireland,' said Bloom,
'I was born here. Ireland.'

-Seamus Heaney (1939-

Heaney's spareness is not to be confused with simplicity ... he writes dense, overlapping poetry with a minimum of words. In Heaney's TRADITIONS the meaning kicks in at different levels as so often happens in his poems. First, let’s take a look at the references and allusions in the text.

The opening section refers to the Old Language (Irish Gaelic) but even more specifically to the Gaelic poetic tradition which extended from about the 1st century BC to the 17th century AD when the last of the Gaelic kingdoms was overrun by the English. The earlier nature poetry is amazingly fresh and direct even by modern standards. Flann O Brien characterized early Irish verse-craft when he spoke about its 'steel-pen exactness' and Heaney in one of his essays (The God in the Tree, 1978) spoke of the tang and clarity of a pristine world full of woods and water and birdsong. Wordsworth's phrase 'surprised by joy', he wrote, comes near to catching the way these poems combine suddenness and richness, how the precise compact lines have 'the brightness and hardness of a raindrop winking on a thorn'. The early poetry was part of an oral tradition that was only committed to writing from around the 7th century onwards, two centuries after the advent of Christianity in Ireland (St Patrick is said to have arrived and/or died in 432 AD). Great monasteries had by then been established as centres of learning as well as piety, notably at Clonmacnoise, Clonfert, Kells and Armagh in Ireland, on the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne off the British coast, and as far away as southern Germany and St Gall in Switzerland. The monks in their scriptoriums copied not only the holy texts of the gospels but also transcribed the poetry and epic cycles of the Gaelic oral tradition.

In contrast to the earlier nature poetry, the Irish court poetry of the High Middle Ages became technically overburdened: metre, alliteration and internal rhyming schemes became increasingly complex. The result was a highly polished and skillful poetry conducted by a professional elite. Their patrons paid lavishly for praise poems for themselves and satires (greatly feared!) upon their enemies. The fili ('feely'), as this professional caste of poets were called, wielded enormous social power which the Elizabethan colonists and soldier-adventurers were hard pressed to comprehend when they poured into Ireland during the sixteenth century: they looked upon the fili as 'magicians". The fili died out with their patrons and it is this class to which Heaney alludes when he characterizes their art as vestigial, having outlived its function like the coccyx in the human skeleton or the perishable St Brigid’s crosses which are woven out of rushes and routinely replaced like the 'kadomatsu' one sees over doorways every New Year in Japan. The native kings and their poets were replaced, as was the native language, by the invaders from England.

In the second section Heaney characterizes the early contact with the English language, which still lives on in Ireland: the pronunciations and expressions found in Elizabethan English (the language of Shakespeare) linger on in the dialects of Irish-English to this day, notably that of Cork City and South Munster. Heaney throws in a few examples and refers also to the 17th century English of the Ulster settlers in the North who lived in Bandit Country among the displaced natives in fortified "bawns" (farmsteads) surrounded by "mosslands" (peat bogs).

In the final section he addresses Shakespeare directly, particularly the appearance of the character MacMorris in the play "Henry V'. At the siege of the French city of Harfleur the king's forces are captained by the Englishman Gower, the Welshman Fluellen, the Scotsman Jamy and the Irishman MacMorris. This can be seen as one of the first optimistic attempts to create a backdated unity of purpose among the turbulent and definitely unreconciled peoples of the Two Islands. MacMorris capers about the stage of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (now restored in Southwark) and speaks to ‘the courtiers and groundlings’ among the audience in an outlandish brogue. He is perhaps the first Stage Irishman. Heaney spears the lie by a caustic reference to the real nature of Irish-English relations at the time. In the aftermath of the recently concluded Desmond Rebellion in Munster the poet Spenser (author of ‘The Faerie Queen’, himself a settler and an eyewitness) had described the survivors: "They were brought to such wretchedness as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs would not bear them. They looked anatomies of death, they spoke like ghosts crying out of their graves ....' The final reference is to Leopold Bloom, the alter ego and father figure to Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's "Ulysses'. Bloom represents the Wandering Jew, an outcast in Europe as in Ireland, a spectator but not a participant in the ethnic and sectarian quarrels between the native Irish (Catholic) and the settlers and rulers (Protestant). In the Cyclops episode of the book Bloom runs into The Citizen, a redneck Irish nationalist, who accuses him of not being Irish. I was born here, says Bloom with simple dignity. I was born in Ireland, I'm Irish.

What is Heaney saying? Quite a lot. On one level he is saying that Irish people have nothing to prove to themselves or others. Being born or just living in the place is all the identity one needs. On another level he is saying that the literature of Ireland has nothing to prove either. Irish writers writing in English need no longer pay lip service to the glories of the Gaelic past - which was the literary stock-in-trade of Yeats and Lady Gregory and all the other predominantly Anglo-Irish writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance between the years 1885-1914 - nor do they need to model their craft on the British literary canon. There is no further need to imitate, lean on or borrow from either tradition in order to find one’s identity as an Irish writer.

This poem was written about 25 years ago when Heaney was still (nominally) a British subject. He had been born and still lived in the area of Ireland that remained under the control of the British Crown but his politics and his writing (I urge you to read more of him!) are concerned with the physical attachment to place, not the ephemeral adherence to flags and emblems and the partisan rhetoric of a disputed sovereignty. He refers to the Troubles in his essays and touches on the fear they engender in his poems: he makes no bones about his Catholic Irish background but it is clear that the passion and violence of Ulster politics is an infringement on the life he wants to pursue and a source of exasperation tinged with sorrow... and occasional feelings of depression and guilt. He doesn’t have the arrogance and flamboyance of Yeats who set himself up as the Voice of the Unborn Nation. He’s a lot more intelligent than Yeats, in fact, which doesn’t mean he is the better poet. Perspicacity has little to do with it. He is a different kind of poet altogether. Heaney’s Ireland is tactile, visual, actual, the thing-in-itself: the way things look, the way they feel when you touch them, the thoughts they give rise to. He has a fascination with the living water-logged earth of Ireland and the things that are continually dug out of it ... centuries-old butter, wine-flagons and old coins, golden torcs and Celtic jewel-hoards, perfectly preserved human sacrifices ... how strange, how wonderful, how eerie: surely all these things speak to the present; there are connections; we are the inheritors of all this; we are obliged at least to try to understand ... this is Heaney’s world, along with his frighteningly comprehensive grasp of his literary forbears, Gaelic Irish as well as English. It’s a formidable combination of childhood experience, learning, vision, application and the development of the sweet inexplicable touch of the master ... in about that chronological order.

The Nobel Prizes may shortly go the way of the Oscars and the Emmies, a self-satisfied elite gathering in expensive costumes to select one of their own to praise. For the moment it still has a certain value and when all the necessary but rather puzzling awards to writers in other languages have been absorbed and taken into account, the awards to writers in English remain as a sort of benchmark to those of us who read and think in that language. Joyce, famously, never got one but neither did Graham Greene. Neither did a lot of people. Yeats was recognized and that was good, he deserved it. So did Shaw and Becket, both playwrights from Ireland. But when Heaney got the award not long ago (1995) it was a worldwide recognition that Irish poetry had come out from under the shadow of Yeats and reached a new level of confidence. The nervous and defensive post-colonial assertions of independence are long behind us: Ireland and the Irish, for better or worse, have come barrelling back into the world again with things to say and people to say them. In fact, we’ve got writers and poets and playwrights lining up in rows and pushing and shoving to say things ... God help us all. Who in this literary nation will drive the buses and collect the garbage? We’ll just have to import the English .....

Monday, July 25, 2005

197. Jai Ram (the new boat)


Ganesha is the god of new beginnings,
a portly jolly little elephant, with the hint
of a twinkle in his eye: so, naturally, when
the new boat was ready, we draped the bow
with bright orange marigolds, used our thumbs
to rub on the lucky red powder, lit the cones
of incense and then said our poojah.

Bholanath, red-eyed with drink, dark as a Dravidian,
clapped his hands and we all sprang to our feet
with a shout, pushed the new boat down the sand,
and launched it into Mother Ganga: shabash!
Arey bap ... it floats! Well done, Ganesha!!
All five of us tumbled on board, fitted the oars,
grinned and waited for starter's orders ....

Jai Ram! Ram Ram ki Jai! Ahchaa ... shabash!!
Dukhi and Nagesh took a lunge on the oars
and we shot like a bullet into the stream, roaring
with happy laughter, narrowly avoiding
the decapitation of several pious bathers:
dear sweet snotgreen Mother Ganga,
most blessed and wonderful of all rivers!

Ignore the iron ugliness of the railway bridge,
a legacy of the myopic practical British,
and gaze on the jumble of temples and terraces
elbowing each other along the shore, see the
colourful crowded bathing ghats, a scene unchanged
for two or three or four hundred years,
and know you are in the heart and core of India.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

196. Aengus of the Birds (updated)

The medieval world is alive and well
in large pockets, vast geographical
containments of human souls;
I once fell in love with a Muslim girl,
a meeting of minds and sensibilities,
(the other must wait for marriage)
and within moments of her family's knowledge
had my visa revoked, found myself
frog-marched to the waiting plane.

This war of civilisations is ineptly named,
it is a war of time zones, in which different
centuries find themselves in puzzled conflict,
none understanding the other. As an Arab
I would most definitely be angry and humiliated
by the arrogance and depradations of the West;
as a freewheeling travelling Celt, one of
the last of the amiable cheerful chancers,
I find my friends and homes everywhere.

Tradition is part of our belief, and so is pride,
but we look to recent not ancient accomplishment;
we cherish spontaneity, initiative, and above all,
the calculated weight of personal freedom.
It comes as a shock to realize, here and there,
that freedom is the exception rather than the rule,
the whole world over: it is disappearing
in rapid gulps in the experimental New World of the USA,
and in other places has never existed.

195. An Clar

I like the craggy, weather-beaten
old men with nicotine stains
on their chapped knuckly fingers
and few remaining teeth. I like
the way they stare at you
with their faraway cynical blue eyes
and take you in, visibly unimpressed
with the ridiculous person you are.
I stand among them, occasionally
forgetting not to smile, nodding
my head sagely, losing the beat,
in my polyester suit, my despicable tie.
They allow me the honour of infrequent speech,
spitting (very politely) to the side,
reserve spoken judgement for the sake of my family,
then mutter, grimly, about the price of sheep.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

194. the usurper, with trepidation, contemplates his image in the palace mirror

to the sound of impatient waves
beating upon the rocky shores
within your brain :
insistent, commanding,
not very soothing at all,
a reminder of your sudden rise,
and a slow mocking premonition
of failure, oblivion, perdition,
as you, sinecure of all eyes,
await the impending fall.
Persistent, demanding,
envious of gain,
your enemies plan to lock the doors,
and pound you to death :

Thursday, July 14, 2005

193. Berlin

They sealed the train past Helmstedt,
nobody on, nobody off,
and when the Vopos came on board
just outside Berlin
(Volkspolizei; people's police)
these arrogant surly bastards
came storming into the compartment
like the drug squad, like the old SS:
ahh, these unlovely Germans,
preserved, in aspic, only in the East,
long after the ruin of Hitler.

"Papiere, Ausweis, Passport" bellowed
these louts, weighed down with pistols,
passport stamps, and barely contained hostility;
we were supposed to rise from our seats,
cringing and submissive, thinking
this way we could prevent them
from tearing apart our luggage, but they
do that anyway. Gobshites. Pardon the Irish.
A very tense, anger-filled fifteen
minutes later, you roll into West Berlin,
to the enclave of "freedom": Zoo Station.

In Cold War days this city was seriously weird,
slashed in half by the excrescence of the Wall.
The Wall: Die Mauer: flowers and graffiti,
flowers for the the ones who didn't make it
and graffiti for the cunts who shot them.
I was 17 on my first visit, made the mistake
of leaving the subway on an empty platform;
well, not quite empty, there were two of us,
me and the guy with the machine gun,
hammer and sickle on his helmet, the wait
for the next train took two hundred years.

On the Ku'Damm and at Ka-De-We
the consumer West was at its best,
lights and music, jittery signals of possible pleasure;
at times the whores in leather minis, of all sexes
and then some, hard to tell apart,
would rasp at you in the hard city argot
"Na, Liebchen ... sag' mal, was moecht's Du?"
"Garnichts, gute Nacht!", a cheese-eating grin,
then pounding the bright stony pavements,
past the Imbiss stalls, the smells of Curry-Wurst:
Zoo Station? This whole place is a zoo.

One should never lightly contemplate
a visit to the East, and I will tell you why:
it involves a visit to the bank, or casual contact
with one of the shady unshaven characters
flashing rolls of bills on street corners.
You get a five, maybe six-to-one exchange
on Ostmark for your (real) Westmark money,
which you stuff into your socks, or up
your ... whatever makes you feel secure,
then you step off the train at Friedrichstrasse
and march up to Checkpoint Charlie.

The GIs wave you through (no skin off their ass)
and, not feeling so great, you approach the real border
between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Here we go. Once you enter that door
("You are now leaving the American Sector")
they have you by the balls, you pass
into Their World. What's going to happen here?
First, you wait. Then you show your passport,
and the blond young jerk inspects it for five whole minutes,
I kid you not, flicking his gooseberry eyes
from the photo to your face, from your face to the photo.

Then they move you along to another room
where they tear your luggage apart, empty
your bags completely, inspect the seams,
leave you then to gather up the mess;
today, thank God, they are not interested in socks,
a good thing, because, although we all know
money is shit, we don't really want
to admit the real-life stink of corruption.
Finished? No way, Jose. Another careful
passport check: photo, face; photo face,
then the barrier clicks, you're through!

Through, perhaps, but through to what?
God, it's all so grey and empty.
They force you to change 25 DM (one-to-one)
so with the money in my socks, I am now
a cruising unit, a man with money to burn.
My steps lead me to the nearest restaurant
(brain and belly in perfect synchronisation)
and, after a quick visit to the bathroom
to liberate all those crumpled rolls of banknotes,
have the best meal in two months of hardass travelling.
Say what you like, I don't care.

Replete, burping politely, ever so slightly,
I walk down to Unter den Linden
and view the Brandenburg Gate
for the second time, but now from the other side.
You can see the West through the arches,
the golden Siegessauele, the Tierpark, my God!
It seems a million miles away.
And it is. Sharp right to the Museuminsel;
so how did these people end up with the heart of the city?
Well, they did, and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon,
Nefertiti's bust, reside under their control.

Alexanderplatz. Das altes Rathaus.
Time for a beer ( I have to, have to
spend this money! There is nothing, nothing to buy!)
So I walk down the steps and get directed to a table
with four other guys; they do this all the time,
there is no such thing as choosing your own space,
there is no such thing as choice, period.
These guys are all strangers to each other
but they go silent, anyway, at my approach;
a few cautious greetings, veiled assessment,
then I toss the pack of Marlboro on the table.

Holy shit!! Their eyes bug out on stalks:
Western cigarettes!! This guy has Western cigarettes!
Therefore (you can hear, almost see the gears clunking in) ...
this guy is from the West!!!! A pregnant pause.
Eyes start flicking from one to another,
is it OK to talk to this guy? can I trust you,
are you an informer, will you turn me in?
I keep politely silent, waiting to see
what, if anything, will come of this.
The silence lasts a full two minutes.
One guy clears his throat, decides to jump in.

That was one of the best nights of my life
(didn't hurt I had all that funny money to burn)
and we all got deliriously happily smashed
with only one bad moment, when a new arrival
looked set to be joining our disorderly table:
immediate shutdown; immediate tension.
The guy moved on and the relief was palpable.
I want to go to Paris, they whispered,
I want to go to London or to Rome --
I am sick and bloody tired of holidays
in Poland or Rumania. Bugger the Russians.

The last thing to report, dear patient reader,
is the insidious Cinderella Rule, whereby
day visitors from the West, capitalist running
dogs, the Unenlightened, whatever they
may choose (have chosen) to call us,
must cross the border before midnight
or face execution, fines or imprisonment.
Picture this, because it happened, a platoon
of beaming beery East Germans, bellowing out
Irish songs (without any need for words),
making sure yours truly got safely across.
Yes, this really happened, back in 1989 -- not when I was 17 which was my first visit a long time before that. I've been to Berlin about 5-6 times and it is a seriously weird place, even now that the Wall is gone. David Bowie can tell you more about it than I can. Zoo Station and environs is still not for Mom and Pop from Minnesota. As for the lads, I don't know what happened, but I have every reason to believe that those visits to Paris, London and Rome did, in the end, work out. They were all promising to have a pint in Dublin, as well. Sure, why not!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

192. Voodoo Drums ... The Glorious Twalfth!!

Today is the 12th of July, a major date on the Northern Ireland (Protestant) calendar.

This is the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne (July 1, 1690, on the old calendar) in which a discredited and unpopular King of England -- James II -- made a last stand in Ireland with loyal Catholic troops to withstand the usurpation of his throne by the English Parliament.

The Parliament had brought in a Dutch Protestant, William, from Holland, who was married to James' daughter.

William won the battle. England called it the "Glorious Revolution" in which Whig values (a new deal for the new rich, bugger the poor) prevailed, and this allowed Trevelyan to write his brilliant slanted History in the 19th century. Along with Macaulay, he's hard to beat for a damned fine read.

For Ireland it was a disaster. Betrayed by false friends in England since the beginning of the connection (about 1534, leaving out the Normans) this victory gave the English the chance they needed to really stick it to the locals. They introduced the Penal Laws against Catholics to keep them disenfranchised, down, and poor. Hitler used this as a model for his persecution of German Jews.

Catholic, ancient Ireland was fucked -- not to put too fine a point on it, and the situation lasted until 1829, when the first Catholic, Daniel O'Connell, was finally admitted to the British Houses of Parliament. The long road back had begun.

In the meantime Ireland was occupied, raped and nearly destroyed. There is no need to go into it here. The English can't remember and the Irish can't forget. This is one of the reasons we don't get along as well as we could. The modern English don't have a clue what's wrong (piss-poor schooling) and the Irish need to lighten up. There is a huge difference between my high school history classes and the high school classes of today. All I can say is that is good.

Nationalism is basically stupid, but freedom is not. Freedom is essential. And in Ireland, the expression of national feeling is never left up to the politicians -- we do referendums on everything. With a population of 5 million you can do that kind of thing. Plus I think we have the best talk radio in the world -- people call in and the government ministers get hauled on the line. You can probably only do that in a small country, but we are a small country.

-- Excuse me, Minister, but you are lying again.
-- No,no,no,no,no ... let me repeat what I was saying about (xxx)
-- Sorry, pal, you are full of shit.
-- Listen here, I know your father.
-- You do?
-- You're the second son, Liam. Am I right?
-- You could be.
-- So now, Liam, what were you saying?
-- You are lying again and your policies are full of shit.

I love it.

Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is depressing. Sinn Fein has done a good job (kind of) in kicking down the pillars of the apartheid regime. To do that they needed the IRA. But once you get into that kind of business, it gets very very difficult to get out.

Orange Parades?

Well, the Protestants are no longer triumphant. They come out with their drums and fifes (why not?) but it's a defensive, beleaguered thing these days whereas in the past it was an unquestioned display of ethnic (tribal) superiority and designed to intimidate.

A lot of people want to go back to those days. Well, they can't. Those days are gone forever. Thanks to Martin Luther King, basically. What? Think about it. Civil rights marches, the "I have a dream" speech, TV spreading all over the world.

The tragedy of Norn Iron (localspeak) is that the government responsible -- the indifferent, rather weaselly Brits -- supported the local Protestant power structure over the marchers whereas the American federal government, after a few hesitations and false starts, stepped in and overruled white supremacist State governors and brought in the National Guard to enforce the constitutional rights of minority citizens under duress.

That, my friends, is the major difference. There was no IRA to speak of in 1967-68. There was a new IRA (the Provisionals) by 1970 because they had lost all faith in the British government as impartial adjudicators of the problems being addressed by the civil rights movement and had simply kicked out the dithering old farts of the "official" IRA who didn't know how to deal with what was going on. So we had thirty long years (near enough -- a whole generation) of murder, bombs, assassinations -- a low-grade civil war in that _ONLY_ 3500 people ended their lives prematurely as a result of violence compared to the tens of thousands who died in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, not to mention what is going down in Iraq at the moment.

What we ended up with in 1998 (a power-sharing agreement within Norn Iron, not a united Ireland) is something that could have been worked out, with an absence of all that intervening grief, in 1969. I don't blame the IRA for what happened in Northern Ireland. The Provisional IRA were a predictable and inevitable reaction to what DIDN'T happen in Northern Ireland on the part of a government that failed to understand the situation, held their opponents in contempt, and then proceeded to rely on force as a substitute for reason.

Draw whatever contemporary parallels you will.

71. Numbers, Time, Culture & Politics (replay)

Just for the hell of it, basically ....

I have decided to introduce numbers into the titles since it might make it easier to refer back to previous posts in the future.

Read that line again. Actually, it does make sense: it refers to posts that haven't even been made yet (the future) but which will be overtaken by further posts (the future's future) which will relegate near future posts to the position of antecedents. The future thus becomes the past of the future's future. Got that?

I love it.

The ever-flexible English language even has a whole cluster of verb tenses (think about the possibilities of the future-perfect-progressive: "she will have been going", for example, "she may well possibly have been going" is even better because it confuses foreigners) which takes into account these possible projected moments of future time -- these resting points -- which have been (will be) overtaken by the exigencies and demanding pressures of hurry-up, tick-tock, never-stopping time. Reminds me of my Scoutmaster,School Principal, Company Commander ... my mother.

This delightful cluster of verbs -- which we definitely don't want to teach because we don't quite understand them ourselves -- is formally known as the future perfect, as in "Your parents will have arrived home from their trip before you have had the time to clean up the mess from the party that they didn't know had been held in their absence."

This is a classic example of good grammatical English, in the sense that nobody in their right mind would ever say it. Most native speakers of the language would say something like this: "When your parents come home they're going to kill you."

But the English language thinks of everything. It's on a permanent Terror Alert, particularly the verbs in the family. Nothing will be allowed to surprise them. It gives new meaning to the expression "March of Time".

But what if time is not linear? Oh, God. What if it is circular, ovoid, quadrilateral, elliptical, rhomboid ... even non-measurable? The world clings to Newton and common sense, never mind religion. Einstein is just a little bit too scary.

Imagine you had an ordinary watch measuring a day in 24 hours of 60 minutes each. That's not so hard to imagine because that's what you do every day. Imagine everyone around you measured a day in 32 hours of 45 minutes each. (And why not? -- 24/60 is totally arbitrary). Is it the same thing?

Yes and no.

Yes, because 24x60=32x45 (1440).
No, because appointments at 28.06 or 31.12 confuse.

This is a gentle introduction into what it really means to live in a different culture from the one you grew up with.

The basics are the same (24x60=32x45): the human body, parents and children, boys and girls - even cars, telephones and computers. But the details of the system are different and occasionally annoying ("meet you at 28.06"): assumptions, unspoken rules, manners, religious beliefs, the interlocking cultural "wristwatch" of shared information which everyone understands.

Everyone understands except YOU - the foreigner - at least in the beginning. When dealing with other cultures (it works in BOTH directions) the idiots are the ones who refuse to even consider a different way of doing things than the one which is familiar to them. Sometimes they even demand that foreigners should immediately change to their way of thinking, because ... because it is BETTER!

There is a political lesson in this observation. The Al Quaida people should pay attention because the rest of the world most definitely does NOT share their apocalyptic vision of righteousness. We despise them as fanatics and do not want to be like them at all. It's a lesson Mr Bush and his more unthinking supporters might take on board as well. We don't want to be like you lot either. That goes for Mr Kerry and the Democrats as well.

The Americans - Republicans and Democrats alike - are an energetic, free, expansive, generous and essentially isolated people. They live on a continent which is huge and which absorbs most of their attention; less than 10% of US citizens have passports and travel abroad. With a population of 300 million they represent about 6% of the total world population yet consume about 50% of the world's resources. This is economic and political success on a scale never seen before. Naturally, there is a great deal of pride in this accomplishment.

Pride is one thing. Imagining that the rest of the world wants to emulate America is a step too far. Many Americans I have met seem to be under the impression that the rest of us (the other 94%) are straining at the leash to go to America and become American citizens ourselves. As far as I can make out, this is not an accurate reflection of how people in the rest of the world really think.

There are three conditions which cause people to emigrate and leave their home countries (whether to America or elsewhere). Without these conditions - and even when one or more is in effect - there is no great urge to leave home. Most people never leave home at all. These three conditions are (in descending levels of seriousness)
1) poverty; 2) war; 3) political, religious, or ethnic oppression. Without one or more of these factors, people basically stay where they are. I think people from established older cultures have no interest in uprooting themselves unless they are forced into it by extreme conditions. Examples abound.

In the past, America has been respected as a tough and independent republic -- largely because of its isolation. Nobody across the oceans worried too much about what it was doing in Mexico, the Caribbean and in Central and South America. America's belated entry into the two World Wars of the 20th century was appreciated by the victors. Its contribution to the First War was negligible, but its contribution to the Second was decisive. That was when America was truly admired.

Since then, I'm afraid, it's been going a bit downhill.

There was a huge outpouring of sympathy and solidarity after 9/11. That could have been transformed into a world campaign against the shadowy conspirators and murderers of Al Quaida, a campaign in which many nations, equally threatened, would have joined with enthusiasm. The alliance of the democracies (not to mention the not-very-democratic regimes) has been squandered and dispersed. America has been barking out orders like a Sargeant-Major. Decisions are made in advance and sovereign nations are asked to sign up or face trade sanctions. You are either with us or against us. This is not an intelligent way to proceed. There is a difference between asking people to help you and kicking them in the butt. I think a lot of this goes back to the mental isolation of America and the need of the political leaders to show disrespect for foreign opinion in order to gain a reputation for patriotism at home. It's a wonder Tony Blair puts up with it, but that is another story.

Bush in New York last night was a cheesy replay of Hitler in Nuremberg. No moral comparisons, dear friends - I'm just talking about the show.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

176. Politics 101 (rewrite)

Power is an aphrodisiac
beyond sex, inflaming the minds
of arrogant, driven, limited
people, fellow humans, ablaze
with visions of personal grandeur.

And it is their ambition
more than their ability, certainly
more than their humanity,
which drives such people on;
in their pride and in their ignorance

they turn their backs on love
and thus become our leaders.

They may need us in their rise
to power, our willing subjection
to seductive language, our atavistic
response to the call for war:
each querulous generation
forgets the blessings of peace.

And the restless young, bored,
hemmed in, respond to adventure,
to the lure of the world; but modern war
is no adventure, no cavalry charges
in beautiful uniforms, but rather

industrial murder with high
explosives, so that bits of your son .... 25

(or daughter, as the case may be)
come home in clandestine sealed boxes,
flag-draped, secretly shipped to funerals,
to grieving communities of parents and friends,
which the Leader never attends.

Idealism and anger crop up
with every second or third generation;
and we have seen, so often have
we seen, that courage is not
a sustainable commodity, among
the young or anyone else.

We compromise. We make allowances.
We don't want to get thrown in prison.

We don't want to lose our precious jobs.
When times are scary, people
get scared: a sure sign is when they
murmur about family responsibilities
in the same way that a divorced woman

will settle for the least bad choice
to help her raise her kids, to give
some semblance of love and respect:
it's not what she would have wished for
as a girl, but it's better than nothing.

The squalid "arrangements" of the past
have been tinkered with, not changed, .... 50

the old inequalities remain: they squat,
like giant dull-eyed toads, as heavy
as the weight of the pyramids,
darkening our hopes and aspirations.
And so it is with a gasp of sheer
astonishment (!!) that we respond

to the brave and articulate few
who stand up against this ugliness,
this arrogance, this injustice.
We admire them, but are secretly
appalled: Good God, they are just
Asking For It! No good deed

will ever go unpunished; and we,
the children of a cynical age,

somewhere at the back of our minds,
deep in our quaking, mendacious hearts,
don't trust them either: we have been fooled
so many times before, too many times!
We live with lies: you can't fool me again!

Yes, they can. Lies roll over us.
We may laugh and we may call it bullshit,
but the horrible, the terrible, the insidious
thing, is that we simply no longer know,
with confidence, how to filter lies from truth.

Words no longer have the meanings .... 75
ascribed to them by the dictionary.

We are constantly
seeking a new vocabulary of truth,
a stripped-down version
of eternal, not necessarily religious
verities, in which
words that have been abused
like cringing helpless children,
like ten-dollar whores,
can be regained, words like





all these words we mouth and repeat
must come back to their original meanings,
cease acting as smokescreens, cease
disguising boardroom agendas.

Because this is what is happening.
This is the world we live in.

Clinically employed, clouds of rhetoric
befog the minds of a dumbed-down, malleable,
flag-waving public, unhealthily overfed.
But the rich have always played games with us,
we, the people once described
as free independent citizens. ........... 101

Friday, July 08, 2005

191. Temair agus an Lia Fail ("Stone of Destiny")

in which the Quare Fella makes a rare appearance, rambling over the old family estates, musing on the wreck of his forefathers ....

Thursday, July 07, 2005

182. history can kill you (rewrite)

photo by Alastair MacNaughton

coffee-coloured gentlemen
in a mish-mash
of dishdash and Western dress
saunter lazily among
the souks, twirling
prayer beads, car keys,
descended, perhaps,
from the bashi bazouk
of the Ottoman day,
men without pay, and beaten
like dogs, who unleashed
great fortunes in plunder,
with a bit of casual
relaxing rape on the side,
and went swaggering
along these same narrow
twisting lanes, twirling
severed human heads.

ahh, the good old days

they have been going on,
these good old days,
for quite some time:
Sargon of Akkad;
Darius and Xerxes:
Tamerlane, Saladin,
Saddam Hussein....

Mountains of skulls,
vast pyramids of burning bodies;
and from horizon to horizon
wailing wives and mothers.

Some optimist, occasionally,
marches in from outside,
some fool with visions of conquest:
Alexander, Crassus,
(these, and so many others)
and many leave their bones
strewn across the arid sands: these barren
sun-scorched lands have a habit
of sucking in armies
and draining them dry.

You win the first war rapidly, then slowly lose the second.

It was long before Allenby
entered Jerusalem, on foot,
(unlike the vainglorious
Kaiser before him),
that the European project
was foredoomed: foreign armies
bleed and die, win or lose a few battles,
then politics pulls them out.

Cheerio, Johnny Turk
Au ‘voir, les Bleus
Pip-pip Tommy Atkins

Only Israel remains,
an ideal, an imposed necessity;
a nation composed of hope
and tribal vengeance, thrust
into the heart of the Muslim World
like a poisoned dagger,
supported (glumly) overseas
by vague feelings of ignorance
and guilt.

Now come the Americans,
untroubled, as usual, by history,
obsessed by numbers, technology,
and firepower; unaware (as yet)
that they are losing, dangerously
out of tune with their surroundings,
unaware, also, that they are stranded
in the original killing fields
in the ancient killing fields
where there is tolerance for endless horror.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

190. in a handful of dust

Tiger, tiger
burning bright
in the forests
of the night
I am not
of you,
you magnificent
beast ;
instead, I am
of civilised people
in suits
with blue and red
after all,
how many of us
tigers kill?
and for all
your fearsome
rows of teeth,
brother shark,
the same
for you.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

101. Aisling (rewrite)

Who can you be my dear sweet maid
with your dancing darting violet eyes,
your clear white skin, the burning
blush on your lovely cheeks?

I think I have never seen such eyes,
not at Tír Eoghain nor at Dhún na nGall

Nor at any of the feasts in my father's court
have I seen such loveliness;
I wish to know you, auburn-hair,
dimple-cheek, sweet sly smile:

I desire with my heart to know your name.

Look to me, please, with your lovely eyes.
I will be kind. I will cherish you.