Tuesday, August 30, 2005

206. Religion

"But us Catholics aren't the shiniest spoons in the drawer either I suppose ..." (Woodson)

Oh, Lawdy la ... never a truer word spoken.

To my way of thinking (such as it is) religion depends on where you are born: if you come from Northern Europe you are a Protestant and if you come from Southern Europe you are a Catholic -- Reformation faultlines -- with the notable exceptions of Poland and Ireland.

In America (North) and Australia, NZ -- new countries by definition -- everything gets mixed up. America (South) is basically Catholic because of Spanish and Portuguese influence but Prod evangelicals have been making significant inroads for social rather than religious reasons (JPII messed up in curbing the radical wing of the Catholic clergy who supported the poor)!!

If you come from the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa you could have been just about anything until about 60-70 years ago when the Arab world squeezed out most of the minorities -- the Copts, the Armenian Christians, the Greek Orthodox, the Ba'hai, the Maronites, the Syrian Christians, the Druze, the Sufis, the Parsees, the Allawi, plus the so-called devil worshippers, and all the jigsaw puzzle of tiny sects that have existed for the best part of 2000 years. What a loss, although Syria and Lebanon still have vigorous minority communities.

In India you could have been born Hindu or Muslim (for family and historical reasons) or maybe Parsee in Bombay -- sorry, Mumbai -- or St Thomas Christian in the south. And then we have the Sikhs, of course, half Hindu and half Muslim in the beginning but now neither: distrusted from both sides and now aggressively independent.

Buddhist in SE Asia, mostly hinayana, but mahayana when you move north to China (combined with animism, Taoism and Confucian precepts) and then a strange mix of animism and Buddhism in Korea and Japan. Tibet stands alone, totally different from all its neighbours.

Looking at the geographical spread of religious belief, I can't help but believe that people create different culturally-defined approaches to the mystery of creation and the meaning of human life -- whether one or many gods. That seems pretty obvious. I don't think God (hello!) has much to do with the way people codify their beliefs. God is defined in different ways in various cultures according to their traditions and way of life -- and I don't think it really matters. A belief in a spiritual world or even a Supreme Being is more imortant than the actual description.

All rivers lead to the sea.

Organized religion is political by definition: but the core of human religious belief is not political at all. It is a yearning for love and truth -- and trying (seriously) to maintain ethical values, i.e. preventing yourself and others from behaving like selfish idiot children.

Does this apply to Islamic intolerance and tunnel vision? Big time. Does it also apply to American evangelicals and their "born again" claptrap? Sure.

Does it apply to the Jews and their idea of being God's "Chosen People"? Of course it does. You need to be a slightly quixotic person these days even to raise that question. Immediately you get attacked for being anti-Semitic. But this is total nonsense. Semite refers to a language group rather than an exclusively Jewish ethos. Arabs are equally Semitic, because their language is akin to Hebrew and vice-versa. Bite on that.

No religion controls God. Look at the world. You need to be really stupid to believe your religion is right and everyone else's is wrong. Unfortunately, such beliefs are common.

You atheists ain't out of the woods, either -- NOT believing in God is just as much an act of faith as believing in some (not necessarily religiously circumscribed) Creator. How can you really know? At best you can go 50-50.

In closing, allow me to piously hope that everyone gets what they deserve after shuffling off these mortal coils. You believe in nothing? You get nothing. You believe in hell? Off to hell you go. You believe in 72 virgins waiting for you in paradise? Check your dictionary: it might be 72 raisins instead. You believe in heaven above the clouds? With a harp, for God's sake? Well, it's probably more fun than living in Utah.

The Irish heaven will be very different ... I can visualise great music and fine-lookin' women in a pub that never closes and the barmen never asking for money. If God has a sense of humour, we should all get what we believe in.

205. Baghdad from the air

copyright Matt Sherman

Saturday, August 27, 2005

204. Sybillis Americanum

Our love is like a kiss in a dream
but it doesn't seem
real, somehow.

You are like a girl in a magazine,
something all the other boys have seen
with steam coming out of their ears;

skimpy top, proud chest out to there,
blonde and wild tumbling hair,
plus those outrageous cutoffs.

Is this you
or something you are trying to do?

You fell in love with my car (before me)
because the paintwork glows like Venus
and cars don't have a penis.

Idiot boys are fine
but shopping is divine
things, things, things
and make-up

why break up?
I look good beside you,
tall and tanned, expensive clothes,
nobody knows
how little you care

except me.
I have a little surprise for you
a little drop of sorrow.

Seduced by stranger's eyes
you don't realize
I come from West Belfast.

(you never asked)

a fleeting recognition
when you turn that car ignition
will be your last.

Bye-bye, American pie,
I'm heading down to Mexico,
contrite, polite,
looking for a fiercely blushing virgin
and a pistolero father
who would kill me as soon
as look at me, and I might possibly
have ten children.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

203. memory lane (and the truth don't come easy)

Blissed out on "esra"
under the rooftop canopy
of the Gulhane Hotel ;
around the corner from Yeners,
a few minutes from the Pudding Shop,
a couple more to the Blue Mosque,
in Constantinople/Istanbul --
well, it seemed like a good idea.

Six weeks later, after
the usual hitchhiking grief,
and a dash across the bridge on the Turkish border
(a small matter of a smuggled car)
I was picking up my payoff in Germany
from stony-eyed parents
whose son I had rescued from a 4-year sentence
with a false passport: 500 dollars cash.

Business is business: we aim to please.

So then of a sudden there I was
back in harsh and chilly London Town
(in all senses of those lean unlovely words)
broke, unhappy, unloved,
for all my shining altruistic
puppydog personality. So what
can you do? Sail for Iceland.

I didnae want to get drunk on the train
to Scotland, but with the four wild kilties
on leave, it was sup from the bottle or face certain death;
so staggering, dry-retching, I departed the port of Leith
on the SS Something, thrown together
with seriously peculiar passengers
including perhaps the most beautiful
girl I have ever seen.

No, she wouldn't. Glorious & golden. Damn.

We passed the new volcanic island
(popped up, steaming, out of the sea)
and docked at darkened Reykjavik;
aurora borealis, but cold as a bastard,
so I headed for the local Sally Ann
among Christians and visiting Eskimos
who were being run over, decimated,
by the sparse but speedy passing traffic.

Sitting on the dock of the bay
but not for long --
80 mph winds could blow you away
in an instant: your survival time
in that green frozen water (so they say)
was one minute twenty-five seconds.

We used to watch the local fishermen,
blind drunk, rejoining their trawlers,
with the policemen lined up
with boat hooks and nets, waiting,
and not for long, anticipating,
drunken nose dives into the harbour:

families with kids (they'd even bring
sandwiches, it was a spectator thing)
would raise a cheer and clap and shout
when the cops would fish some poor fecker out.

Strange country, but you had to love it,
love it or shove it ....

jeez, there were times: forty below
day after day, but there were no days,
only pale glimmers of twilight
between the long hours of darkness.

"Yeg vil vinna!"
the only Icelandic I ever learned,
("I want work!"), daily, daily
talking to the trawler skippers
one weary ship after another.
You're out of luck,
get away to fuck,

because the fish were just not running,
worst catch in a decade,
the daily round was tiring,
the locals were not hiring,
and there was nothing else to hope for,
there was nothing else to do,
as the cold and the darkness
and depression settled in.

You could actually die here --
in a way it was kind of funny:
of all the options in the great wide world,
to die ... in Iceland?

Close enough, I had long left the Sally Ann
and moved into a canning factory
(deserted, the fish were not running)
which was heated, thank God, by free volcanoes,
along with two Brits, another Irish guy,
and we were eking out a living

by creative shoplifting in local stores
(the money was long gone)
when we became a target for young girls,
drunk and horny, not exactly whores,
who rolled in after the discos closed
and snuggled beside us looking for love:

a strange world, but what does it matter?
starving to death, sweet heaven above,
an absence of food but sex on a platter.

The local boys got wind of these ops,
were afraid to fight and called in the cops,
so one night - O God, not again! - we're all getting laid
when the cops burst in on a 4 am raid
("give me ten more seconds ... aaaahhhh!!")
and lined us up for a passport inspection.

Starvation does wonders for the male erection
(they don't show THAT on your passport
and being nineteen sure don't hurt, my friend)
but all good things, the pleasures
we all enjoy (this laughing charming starving boy)
soon ... come .. to ... an ... end.

A whacking great big East German trawler
sailed in and saved us
(and this is the truth I'm telling you);
I met Wolfgang down by the harbour,
and he so tickled

to "sprechen sie deutsch"
after days with the locals
(grinning yokels)
that he dragged me "home" for a slap-up feed,
everything I could wish or need,
and after a silent rather dreary view

of the obligatory propaganda film
(I could hardly resist it,
when the captain insisted)
we put that nonsense behind us
and became good friends.

Food, food, food, like old times past!!
(sex is grand but it just doesn't last)
and me so laden down with supplies
that the homeboys couldn't believe their eyes:
Heil ... who is he? ... Honecker!!
We were brought back to the land of the living,

in the nick of time, but still in bad with the fuzz,
(the girls had wanted to meet us outside,
yeah, thanks but no thanks, too cold for a ride)
and not just because
there are other things in this life,
a lot of other things in life

apart from girls: got nothing against them,
au contraire, love 'em to bits,
their faces and feminine graces
always make me smile, feel happy.

If it could only
always be so.

But I had seen the face of death
and I didn't like it.

So we went to a disco
with the lead-ass freaking Commies
and had a great time: the best craic
of all (I swear this is true)
was to leave a drink on the table
pale yellow pernod type stuff
after a quiet trip to the loo

(yeah, well, figure that out)

then lurk behind a nearby pillar
and wait for the local lady killer
to swoop down and lap it up:
gulp, gulp, gulp and sup.


I got out of the bloody place
(I'm writing today, I'm still alive)
by stowing away on a British boat
that came in for repairs,
could barely float,
but that was the least of my worries.

I was going mad,
going crazy and bad
(darkness and cold, cold and darkness,
I was ready to kill to get out).

You can imagine it,
but it was actually worse,
a widow's curse. Jesus!!

I rolled on board, slipped down
the passage to the galley
among piratical bearded ruffians
and asked, "Who's the feckin skipper?"
(polite discourse had long ago departed)
and amid gap-toothed grins somebody farted
and said, "E's ahr fookin fooker",

then a drooling yellow-fanged creature
pointed his two-fingered hand
(with fishermen this is a common feature)
and said, "Oi'll work ye watch by watch,
fifteen hours a fookin day!" - "OK --
that's grand by me" , sez I,

I was burning to get away.

Ah, England! thou sceptred isle,
thou gem of the ocean, jewel of the sea,
I never never thought I'd be so happy to see you!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

202. On re-reading the younger Yeats

regrets are many and the pain runs deep
in my long inglorious history;
no more shall I turn aside and weep
upon love's bitter mystery.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Hiroshima and Nagasaki (again)

Sixty years on, the debate still rages. Was the United States justified in dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945?

Opponents of the bombing say this was a war crime. The vast majority of the victims in both cities were civilians (an estimated 140,000 died outright or as a result of injuries in Hiroshima; an estimated 70,000 in Nagasaki). The war was already reaching its final stages and Japan was attempting to bring about a negotiated peace using neutral Sweden. The bombing was therefore cruel and unnecessary.

Ground Zero at Hiroshima

Supporters of the bombing point out that that the US and Allied governments were demanding an unconditional surrender from Japan, not a negotiated third-party peace. Japan was refusing such a surrender, partly out of fear for the status of the Emperor. The invasion of Okinawa earlier in 1945 had produced some of the highest US casualties of the Pacific War (not to mention a far greater number of civilian casualties on the island) and US planners were predicting a casualty toll in the hundreds of thousands if US troops attempted to storm the Japanese home islands. The Japanese government was arming and training civilians and threatening to carry out a last-ditch desperate defense down to the last man, woman and child. The war in Europe was over and it was clear that Japan had no hope of avoiding defeat. The US side refused to accept high casualty figures at this final stage of the war when victory was a foregone conclusion. For that reason President Harry Truman was urged to use this new and devastating weapon to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. On balance, he was told, more lives would be saved by forcing the Japanese to surrender without the need for an invasion.

The opponents are not convinced. If the US wanted to force the Japanese into a quick surrender, they ask, then why couldn't they stage a demonstration of the atomic bomb in an area where there would not be so many civilian casualties? The only known reply to this argument is that there were only two bombs available and that a failure of the bomb (it had only been tested once previously) would have constituted such a public embarrassment that it may have encouraged the Japanese in their resistance.

It has also been suggested that the US was prepared to use the bomb on the Japanese but not on the Germans because of racial differences. (Our old friend Ishihara Shintaro came up with this idea: see previous articles in the June archives of this Blog). This is nonsense. The Manhattan Project -- the programme that set about researching and designing an atomic bomb -- was begun in response to a fear that the Nazis were engaged in similar research. The simple reason for not threatening to use the A-bomb on the Germans was that the bomb wasn't ready in May 1945 when the Third Reich surrendered. But it was ready in August while Japan was still refusing to surrender. Would the Allies have used such a bomb on Nazi Germany? Absolutely. One has only to consider the round-the-clock damage and devastation that was being rained on that country by conventional bombing raids, particularly the unprecedented firestorms in Hamburg and Dresden, to realize there would have been no hesitation in using an atomic weapon to flatten Berlin.

Why did the Allies target Hiroshima and Nagasaki and not Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya? Perhaps to reduce the number of civilian casualties overall (including the possibility of killing the Emperor) but the actual choice of these two cities remains a mystery. Both were important port cities and Hiroshima was definitely a military staging area. Beyond that, we may never know.

Did the bombing of these two cities shorten the war? I think most people would have to agree that it did, whether the bombings were morally defensible or not. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. The Japanese government accepted an unconditional surrender on August 15.

after the bomb

One further point, which is rarely mentioned: what would have been the role of the Russians if the war had been prolonged? The Soviets had declared war on Japan very recently. If there had been a major allied invasion of the Japanese islands, would the Soviets have "helped out" by invading Hokkaido? If Eastern European history is anything to go by, they would have set up their own Occupation Zone after the war, declared a communist government, and remained in possession for the next 50 years. Either that, or we could still be looking at a North Korea/South Korea divide today with Hokkaido separated from the rest of Japan.

We return to the opening question in this article. Were the bombings in any way justified? We have seen several of the arguments for and against. (In a personal aside, I don't understand why there had to be TWO bombings. If the US had determined that this weapon had to be used to pressure the Japanese into a quick surrender, then surely ONE bomb would have been enough? Perhaps they used two bombs because two bombs were physically available -- but I would like to believe that was not the reason). In human terms the bombing of innocent civilians is not something any normal person would try to defend. These people are victims of war. Unfortunately, it could be argued (in fact, it is argued) that their own government caused them to become victims by victimizing the innocent civilians of other countries in East Asia, notably the people of China. This brings home the clear warning contained in the biblical advice NOT to do unto others what you would NOT have them do unto you.

The first time I visited the Hiroshima A-Bomb Museum I was suitably chastened by the graphic photographs and exhibits. It was sickening, appalling, and one felt a sort of claustrophobic horror just walking along those corridors. Unfortunately, some well-meaning but rather dim teacher had instructed his visiting school group to accost all the foreigners in the museum to ask them what they thought about this terrible event and to write down their comments. Several children approached me, thrusting their notebooks into my hand. I reflected for a moment, and this is what I wrote: "What you see around you is the definitive and final American response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I think they want you to remember."

Sixty years have passed. In all that time not a single American administration has even considered an apology for the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No administration of the future will consider it either.

Friday, August 05, 2005

201. Witness of His Century

The light is slowly fading
infinitessimally shading
daylight colours into tones of grey;
twice have the servants come
offering to light candles
and twice have I waved them away.

I am but a guest
and know the servants need their rest
but I sit with this blanket on my knees;
obdurate, unmoving,
alone in this familiar room
communing with ancient memories.

Look here, old boy, please don't be a cunt
(we had returned in a lather after the hunt),
now Ivo expounded the need for war
just over there beside that table;
(and we did use THAT kind of language then),
This bloody Kaiser needs a bit of what-for!

Poor Ivo copped it in the first few days
and Death became known in disgusting ways
to nearly all of our class and generation;
yes, I was out there, so beastly drunk,
start to finish, can't recall a bloody thing,
before drifting home to the thanks of the nation.

The twenties passed in a cocktail haze
of very long nights and very short days
and I believe I got married there once or twice;
it's hard to recall, I was never quite sober
from 1915, after Loos, to god knows when,
but the short-skirted girls were awfully nice!

I seem to remember some trouble and fuss,
that was '26, I think, I was driving a bus;
there was a strike of some kind, and the 'civil power'
didn't expect me to run over their own policemen,
which I did, and then the crowd closed in,
cheering ME, the hero of the hour.

In '29 my chums lost all their money,
silly asses, yet none of them thought it funny;
I did, I lived on land, on hardworking peasants,
so I flitted about town, same as ever,
charming to a slight but wicked degree,
handing out carefully thought-out presents.

The Thirties were long and infinitely weary,
people very poor, very bad-tempered, dreary;
I considered a sojourn in warm foreign climes
but was consumed with such hatred
for Mosley, AND for that bastard Churchill,
that I elected to wait for more interesting times.

We should have gone to war in thirty-eight
and wrapped it up, '39 was too late;
but with the pallid politicians of the day,
Halifax; pusillanimous Chamberlain, that Birmingham
umbrella: "J'aime Berlin"; in the end
only half-cracked Winston could lead the way.

I had a jolly war, I must confess,
half-sober, exciting, but you must not press
for details. Mum's the word, (dear lost and darling mother)!
It was a world of codes and radios,
parachute jumps and secret agents:
when it ended, at once I prayed for another.

Many years on, I have my other war,
and it is not what I have bargained for;
the room grows dark, silence hangs in a shroud
as I sit here alone, this blanket on my knees,
listening to the voices and ghosts of the past,
and the shame of my existence keens aloud.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Nagasaki (poem)

White light
on my way to school,
then sudden heat:
sometime later
I awoke,
saw shadows of people
on walls;
rubble, twisted
spectacles, sandals,
my lunchbox

I went home,
there was
no home:
no mother,
sister, no-one.
My skin began
peeling, like
an apple, an orange;
I sat
under warm
black rain
feeling nothing.

(translated into German by Sybille Castens)

Weißes Licht
Auf meinem Schulweg
dann plötzlich Hitze:
irgendwann später
wachte ich auf
sah Schatten von Menschen
in Mauern;
Schutt, herumgewirbelt
Brillen, Sandalen
meine Brotdose

Ich ging heim
Da war
kein Heim
nicht Mutter
Schwester, niemand
Meine Haut begann
Sich zu schälen wie
Ein Apfel,
eine Orange:
unter warmem
schwarzem Regen
saß ich
nichts fühlend.

(and into Spanish, by Adam)

Luz blanca
en el sendero a escuela,
entonces calor repentino:
alguna vez luego
me desperté,
vi sombras de personas
por paredes;
escombro, gafas
torcidas, sandalitas,
mi fiambrera
se va.

Fui a casa,
no había
hermanita, nadie.
Mi piel empezó
pelar, como
una manzana, una naranja;
me senté
bajo la lluvia
negra, tibia;
me sintiéndo nada.