My History in Objects #6

Cigarettes

Shortly after I was born, in 1965, the British Government banned the advertising of tobacco products on TV and introduced strict regulations on how print media ads could appear. What followed was, in my opinion, the greatest flowering of advertising creativity in history. Bound by rules the advertising creatives had to work harder and the results were spectacular. There were some structural changes in the media and the industry that helped, two in particular. One was the UK Ad industry invention of the Strategic Planner. The other was the production of the full colour Sunday Times supplement, the first cheap mass produced periodical.

As a result you got ads like this one above. There is a saying in the ad industry “When you bait a trap with cheese always leave room for the mouse”. You want your audience to walk into the ad rather than make it too obvious for them. Then when the “get it” they have a psychological reward. I loved these ads.

I did not love cigarettes. I absolutely hated the things. I hated the taste, and the smell, and the smell of my clothes after a night in a pub, and I hated the effect they had on me. I could see others around me relishing the drag and the hit, the dizzy buzz. Not me, and thank goodness, because I never became an addict.

Cigarettes and the smoking culture were pervasive in the 1960’s in Ireland. People smoked everywhere, in Cinemas, in Hospitals, in Doctors waiting rooms. I remember around 1975 going on a day trip to Skerries with my boy scout troop. As we were waiting for the train back to Dublin a passenger on the platform, with a few drinks too many, generously decided to stick a fag into each of our 12 year old mouths. Other adults saw nothing wrong with this, and probably thought it was just a nice generous gesture.

I was on a bus travelling into the city centre a few years later. In those days the downstairs was smoke free and you could go upstairs on the double decker bus for a smoke. A heavily pregnant woman sat across the aisle from me downstairs and lit up her fag. I objected and she let a tirade of abuse at me, asking if I wanted her to risk her baby by having to climb the staircase on a moving bus in her 6 inch platform shoes. When I commented that smoking probably wasn’t good for the baby she told me I was lucky her husband was not with her because I’d be beaten to a pulp.

Don’t think I was some holier than thou prig. I smoked. I tried cigarettes and hated the taste. I tried cigars and enjoyed quite a few of those. In my 6th year in school I had a cigar rating scale in my school journal. I would buy a cigar from Fox’s Cigar Merchants in College Green and smoke it upstairs on the bus on the way home from school.

In the pub I tried smoking roll your own mellow Virginia for a time. I even tried a pipe. But I never liked inhaling tobacco and I guess that is why I never developed an addiction. When I decided to stop I did it because I had a brand new full pouch of tobacco and it fell out of my pocket. I was quite literally too stingy to buy another. So I stopped smoking.

In the workplace people smoked all round me. I had no right in the 1980’s to object to someone chain smoking at their desk four feet away from me. But gradually it all began to change.

In 1988 smoking was completely banned on Dublin Busses and in all public buildings. On flights the smokers were pushed to the back of the aircraft.

I was working in offices where the staff voluntarily cut out smoking in the building from the mid 1990s. Then in the year 2000 I changed job and was shocked when I found people were still smoking in some offices. However we moved office to a new building in 2001 and the move came with a workplace ban on smoking indoors.

Ireland became the first country to implement a total ban on smoking in the workplace in 2004 and this included bars and clubs. One of the biggest impacts was a massive rise in the sale of deodorant. Without the tobacco to mask body odour the clubs stank of sweaty armpits.

Nowadays anti-smoking organisations are proposing total bans on smoking. As someone who always opposed smoking I can categorically say that this is a terrible idea. Just look at prohibition in the USA in the 1920’s. In Ireland tobacco is well regulated now. If children gain access to cigarettes it is probably through smuggled product, sold in the streets side by side with cannabis and class A drugs. Cigarette smuggling is a lucrative business and carries far lower penalties than drug smuggling. It is estimated now that about 30% of all tobacco consumed in Ireland is smuggled product.

My approach would be to decriminalize drugs and undermine the mainstay of the economic model for organized crime. Let Portugal follow our lead in Tobacco as we follow their lead in Drugs.

Smoke; by Henry David Thoreau

Light-winged Smoke, Icarian bird,
melting thy pinions in thy upward flight,
lark without song, and messenger of dawn
circling above the hamlets as they nest;
or else, departing dream, and shadowy form
of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;
by night star-veiling, and by day
darkening the light and blotting out the sun;
go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
and ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.

By the Living Loving Lamb of Jesus

The Angelus Bell; by Donal Clancy

Bong, bong, bong,
in an apartment bedroom near UCC
my lockdown workday comes to a close
with the peal of bells in the valley of the Lee.

Bong, bong, bong,
in a lockdown apartment in the valley of the Lee
my Covid imprisonment comes to an end
with the promise of a close on a propery.

Bong, bong, bong,
in a Summer lockdown in a student flat
my tunnel’s end shines a light
with hopes and dreams of this and that.

Nine bells toll,
ask not for whom
I beseech Thee, O Lord
Thy grace into our hearts;
that You set Your people free
of this plague on all our houses
and release me from this unholy womb.
In Christ’s name,
Amen.

My History in Objects #5

Motorola Brick Phone

I was working in Telecom Eireann in the 1980’s when the mobile phone hit the market. We established the Eircell network with the old analogue system in 1986. It was highly insecure and extremely expensive. Every week there was a new scoop as celebrities ignored the advice not to hold sensitive phone calls on an 086 number. Journalists bought scanners and listened in on the calls, sometimes tailing celebs to stay close to their signal.

In the 1990’s the holy grail of company perks was to get your hands on a mobile phone. Even in the national phone company it was not a bonus lightly given. I never got one.

The glory days of insecure phone calls ended in 1993 with the launch of the 2G GSM Digital Mobile network using the 087 prefix. I left Telecom in 1997 and moved into the Energy Market. At the time Louise was working for Motorola Paging Division and all the staff were given a pager. I remember bringing the pager to rugby matches as Louise would be able to page me in an emergency. When the emergency did happen I didn’t have the pager and as Louise had no phone that made no difference.

She was driving home from work in Swords and got a puncture on the way. Louise was heavily pregnant with Esha, so it was 1998. She had to flag down someone with a mobile phone and rang me in the office in Glasnevin. Louise had the one car, so my colleague in the Irish Energy Centre – Virgil Bolger – kindly drove me out to change the wheel.

Shortly after that incident we saw an Automobile Association stand in a shopping mall. They were using the incentive of a free Motorola handset if you took the AA Breakdown Membership. It was the right incentive at the right time and we signed up for it. That became Louise’s mobile phone and that remains her phone number.

It was about three years later before I gave up on getting a mobile phone from my job. I was working in Bord Gáis. The events of 9/11 2001 helped the decision. Louise was watching the footage play out in real time in New York and could not contact me because I was in meetings in work. My office phone had 25 messages from her when I checked. Meteor hit the Irish market in 2001 with really cheap pay as you go contracts and I got my own first personal mobile phone – a Sony Ericsson. It was about one sixth the size and weight of the Motorola. I still have that 085 prefix number.

Back then the coolest thing you could have was a Crazy Frog ringtone, but that cost extra!

My History in Objects #4

The Bag Tree

In 1965 the plastic bag was invented by Sten Gustaf Thulin, a Swedish Environmentalist working for Celloplast. Yes, you read that right, he was an environmentalist. He could see the waste caused by the mass production of disposable paper shopping bags. Thulin could not understand why anyone would dispose of something as useful and hygienic as a reusable plastic bag.

I was born in an Ireland before supermarkets. I was literally born at home in Sycamore Road, Finglas and when I was 3 years old my parents bought a house in the next townland to the East, a place called Ballymun. Ballymun later became synonymous with the brutalist public housing scheme built nearby, the high rise “Ballymun Flats”. But in the early days it had no such connotations. So the first “Supermarket” that opened nearby in Finglas was given the name “The Ballymun Cash Stores”. It was a revolution. You could walk around the aisles and pick up the produce. You didn’t have to ask someone to get it from behind the counter.

In 1965 Feargal Quinn opened a branch of his “Quinn’s Supermarkets” (Later rebranded to Superquinn) in Finglas. That was many many times larger than the Ballymun Cash Stores and was what we would now call a supermarket. Finglas got the supermarket in the same year that the world got the Plastic Bag.

Quite soon the supermarkets began handing out free plastic bags to shoppers, who never thought to re-use them. They mostly ended up going straight into the bin, but you always kept a plastic bag full of plastic bags handy for a variety of uses. Waste bin liners, handy carrier bags, carrying lunch into work, wearing them as overshoes on the bike on rainy days etc. Very many went into landfill, and waste bins and got caught on a breeze and floated into the air. Ireland was a land of bag trees. All over the nation the public evidence of fly tipping was the proliferation of bag trees.

In March 2002 the Irish government introduced a long overdue tax on the plastic bag. It was carefully thought out to be just costly enough to nudge shoppers to bring a reusable bag. To be fair the Irish People bought into this new world with enthusiasm and with very little complaint. Within only a couple of years the bag tree became and endangered species.

I remember being on holiday in Brittany, France in Summer of 2002. At that stage it had become the norm for us to bring our shopping bags to the supermarket. I was in a queue behind an English Family who began, as normal, to pack their groceries into the free plastic bags supplied by the French Supermarket. I felt myself overcome by a massive wave of indignance and moral superiority. Imagine! Wasting all that plastic.

A Supermarket in California: by Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

My History in Objects #3

Smokeless Coal

Irish cities are built in river valleys. In the normal course of events hot air rises. If you light a fire the smoke rises in the sky and moves away. Here in Ireland we have a common phenomenon during winter time called “An Inversion”. A layer of warm air covers the land trapping a layer of cold winter air beneath it. This cold air is frequently a fog. Now the smoke from the fire will not escape the cold air and remains trapped under the inversion layer. This trapped smoke mixes with the suspended water droplets that make fog to give you smog. In the Liffey Valley this smog settled over the city like a succubus, nightly draining away the vigor of the population.

In my youth Dublin regularly experienced a choking sulphurous yellow smog. The primary culprit in creating the smog was the natural inversion, but it was helped along by coal. Dublin people burned blocks of cheap and bituminous coal. Smoky coal was bad, but it got worse. Once you got your fire burning well you wanted to keep the fire in for the night. Some genius invented the slack bomb.

You bought the dirtiest, cheapest tailings from the coal merchant, labelled slack. It is the gravel and dust of coal. Taking a couple of sheets of newspaper you shovelled a good measure of nutty slack into the middle, made it damp with some water and folded up the paper around it to make a parcel. You then brought this parcel to the fire and placed it on top. You used water to wet the paper to slow down the combustion. Then the slack bomb would begin to smoke. So much smoke.

Eventually the slack bomb broke up and the slack formed a crust over your coal fire. It was very effective in keeping your fire from burning out and it saved a lot of money. But then there was the smoke.

Cycling through a Dublin winter in the 1980’s it became clear something was wrong as soon as you blew your nose. The handkerchief came away black. I had a dreadful record of illness and it was all breathing related. Every year I had a bad cold, inflamed sinuses, sore throat, hacking phlegmy coughs. I played rugby which is a winter sport, so I was training two nights a week during winter inversions. By the end of a training session I could be coughing for twenty minutes, struggling to breathe like a lifetime chain smoker.

In 1989 the Fianna Fáil environment minister Pádraig Flynn, him of the 3 houses, ruled out a ban on smoky coal. He went against the best health and environmental advice and claimed he was protecting the old age pensioners from added costs. In truth Flynn was an old guard fixer who was in bed with the coal distribution lobby. The Fianna Fáil government was handing out grants for people to INSTALL fire places.

Then along came a new junior environment minister; Mary Harney. She managed to push through the ban on smoky coal. It was well known that she was opposed by Flynn every step of the way, but she had a trump card. The Taoiseach Charlie Haughey was a Dublin man and his core voter base lived in working class areas of North Dublin like Donnycarney, Killester and Coolock. They were the people suffering most from bad air.

In September 1990, two months after we bought our first house, the ban was introduced. Our house in Santry had a solid fuel back boiler enclosed Raeburn fireplace central heating system. The very system the government had been grant aiding for the last decade. This fire used smokeless ovoids of the type pictured above, commonly called “Eggs”. As a result the ban on the sale, marketing, and distribution of bituminous or “smoky” coal did not affect what we burned for central heating. But we also had an open fireplace.

In the early days of the ban horror stories emerged of fire grates melting because the anthracite rich smokeless coals burned hotter than old fashioned fires. I suspect they were urban legends. It was common practice for country people to return to Dublin with a bag of “real coal” in the car boot after a visit home to the parents. Some die-hards would make regular forays to the nearest coal merchant outside the regulated city boundary to secure smoky coal supplies. In the greater scheme of things these people had little impact on overall air quality. Almost overnight it became easier to breathe in Dublin. Thousands of lives were saved by the ban.

Once in a while a politician comes along and makes a real difference. For this I salute Mary Harney.

And of my ventures, those alone
which Love had freighted, safely sped,
seeking a good beyond my own,
by clear-eyed Duty piloted.

Burning Drift-Wood; by John Greenleaf Whittier

Before my drift-wood fire I sit,
and see, with every waif I burn,
old dreams and fancies coloring it,
and folly’s unlaid ghosts return.

O ships of mine, whose swift keels cleft
the enchanted sea on which they sailed,
are these poor fragments only left
of vain desires and hopes that failed?

Did I not watch from them the light
of sunset on my towers in Spain,
and see, far off, uploom in sight
the Fortunate Isles I might not gain?

Did sudden lift of fog reveal
Arcadia’s vales of song and spring,
and did I pass, with grazing keel,
the rocks whereon the sirens sing?

Have I not drifted hard upon
the unmapped regions lost to man,
the cloud-pitched tents of Prester John,
the palace domes of Kubla Khan?

Did land winds blow from jasmine flowers,
where Youth the ageless Fountain fills?
did Love make sign from rose blown bowers,
and gold from Eldorado’s hills?

Alas! the gallant ships, that sailed
on blind Adventure’s errand sent,
howe’er they laid their courses, failed
to reach the haven of Content.

And of my ventures, those alone
which Love had freighted, safely sped,
seeking a good beyond my own,
by clear-eyed Duty piloted.

O mariners, hoping still to meet
the luck Arabian voyagers met,
and find in Bagdad’s moonlit street,
Haroun al Raschid walking yet,

take with you, on your Sea of Dreams,
the fair, fond fancies dear to youth.
I turn from all that only seems,
and seek the sober grounds of truth.

What matter that it is not May,
that birds have flown, and trees are bare,
that darker grows the shortening day,
and colder blows the wintry air!

The wrecks of passion and desire,
the castles I no more rebuild,
may fitly feed my drift-wood fire,
and warm the hands that age has chilled.

Whatever perished with my ships,
I only know the best remains;
a song of praise is on my lips
for losses which are now my gains.

Heap high my hearth! No worth is lost;
no wisdom with the folly dies.
Burn on, poor shreds, your holocaust
shall be my evening sacrifice!

Far more than all I dared to dream,
unsought before my door I see;
on wings of fire and steeds of steam
the world’s great wonders come to me,

and holier signs, unmarked before,
of Love to seek and Power to save,
the righting of the wronged and poor,
the man evolving from the slave;

and life, no longer chance or fate,
safe in the gracious Fatherhood.
I fold o’er-wearied hands and wait,
in full assurance of the good.

And well the waiting time must be,
though brief or long its granted days,
if Faith and Hope and Charity
sit by my evening hearth-fire’s blaze.

And with them, friends whom Heaven has spared,
whose love my heart has comforted,
and, sharing all my joys, has shared
my tender memories of the dead,

dear souls who left us lonely here,
bound on their last, long voyage, to whom
we, day by day, are drawing near,
where every bark has sailing room.

I know the solemn monotone
of waters calling unto me;
I know from whence the airs have blown
that whisper of the Eternal Sea.

As low my fires of drift-wood burn,
I hear that sea’s deep sounds increase,
and, fair in sunset light, discern
its mirage-lifted Isles of Peace.

My History in Objects #2

Tiny Feet

I grew up in Holy Catholic Ireland, a country where abortion was a criminal act since 1861. I found myself questioning religion from quite a young age, and not finding any compelling answers. I didn’t have any road to Damascus realization nor any horrific incident that made me question the Church Dogma. It was just a gradual parting of ways as I grew into an adult and found greater satisfaction in fact based rationales for life’s questions.

I was 16 when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979. As hundreds of thousands of my peers bussed to Galway Racecourse for a youth Mass with the Pope, amid scenes more like a rock concert than a religious gathering, I politely ignored it. When one million Irish men and Irish women flocked to the Phoenix Park for the largest mass held in Ireland I played cricket in the green with my best friends.

Bolstered by this groundswell of devotion the Catholic Church in Ireland campaigned to enshrine the right to life of the unborn child into our constitution. This would protect the babies of Holy Catholic Ireland from the fickle tides of political whimsy.

The Amendment inserted a new sub-section after section 3 of Article 40. The resulting Article 40.3.3º read: The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

In case you have not gathered yet, I opposed this amendment. To me it perfectly displayed the hypocrisy of Catholicism in Ireland. This is a country where a foetus was sacrosanct but babies and children were maintained in situations of abuse and filth and violence at the behest of church family values. This is a church which profited on the sale of babies and engaged in the enslavement, for profit, of unmarried mothers. Every year thousands of Irish girls sailed to the UK on the ferries to avail of abortion services – a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem. I did not know it at the time but this is the church that was actively moving child abusing priests from parish to parish and buying the silence of the parents of abused children as they covered up the trail of destruction left by these predatory pedophiles.

I was 19 years old in 1983 and had a vote in the 8th amendment. I was among the 33% who said no, and found myself an anomaly in my own country. The object that represents this bitter, and to me a disappointing campaign, is the tiny feet. A gold coloured pin representing the feet of a 10 week old aborted foetus. This pin was everywhere, worn proudly by many of the greatest hypocrites of Ireland to support the pro-life campaign. It was a campaign led by dour dogmatic ritual Catholics who observe all the forms but demonstrate little in terms of spirituality, empathy or Christianity.

In 2018, after only 35 years, the majority of the Irish voting population caught up with the 33%. The 36th amendment repealed the 8th and abortion services are being rolled out in Ireland today as a result. The 36th was an exact flip of the vote. The 33% became the 66% and vice versa.

My History in Objects #1

The Continental Quilt

Not considered groundbreaking by many people these days to understand the impact of the continental quilt on Irish society of the 1980’s I need to transport you back in time.

We grew up in a world of heavy wool blankets, starchy sheets and hospital corners. Beds came with bedspreads which were chosen by your mother and showed it. They had fiddly dangly bits on the sides. Beds had to be made, and making them took time. Getting into a well made bed was an effort in itself. The bed had to be turned down because a well made bed was like a hermetically sealed container. Nurses and soldiers prided themselves on their ability to make a bed so taut you could bounce a coin off it.

Hermetically sealed containers were popular in those days. We had lots of hermetically sealed containers in which we packed food when we made our first forays to “The Continent” in the mid-1970’s. We were the young Europeans, newly elected into the exclusive EEC club. Irish people began to dream of a world that was larger than the common travel area of Ireland and the UK.

Over there on the continent there were exotic foods, drinks and experiences. Spaghetti Bolognese, olive oil, wine, garlic and the strange sight of seeing people buying bottled water in supermarkets. The first year we went abroad we made it to St. Tropez on the Côte D’Azur, the French Riviera. There were women there, sunbathing on the beach, topless!

With entry to the EEC Ireland was exposed to new attitudes to bodies and to sex. In Ireland of the 1970’s sex was something that happened after marriage. Swedish movies of the 1970’s held out a promise of another lifestyle. It’s fair to say that the Swedes were pioneers of sexual freedom at that time, so we began to look at what the Swedes had that we did not. The answer was immediately clear. The Continental Quilt.

These Swedes wore no pajamas. They did not spend hours of every day making and unmaking stiff heavy beds. They threw their naked bodies under their continental quilt with the flick of a hand. Making bed in the morning required only a shake of the duvet. Terence Conran branded it the “10 second bed” in Habitat stores.

The Continental Quilt became a rite of passage in Irish society. If you got a quilt that meant you were ready to launch yourself into a world of sexual proliferation. It became the item that topped birthday and Christmas wish lists. To reinforce the gulf between traditional bedding and the Continental Quilt you had the quilt cover and pillow case set. Very strongly gendered in colour and design. These were produced in modern, geometric prints. In the blink of an eye they transformed the bedroom from a stuffy, old fashioned, mammy place into a chic man pad. One moment a bedroom, next moment a den of sin, a statement of your arrival to a world of loose morals and extramarital sex.

Bedding these days just can’t compete.

On the downside we didn’t know what a clitoris was.

Checkov’s Gun

A dramatic device credited to Anton Checkov because he wrote of it many times in his letters; Checkov’s Gun is a theory that an honest author does not introduce irrelevant items.

If in the first act you have hung a gun on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

I give you a photo of what I consider to be the finest Checkov’s gun in storytelling. George R.R. Martin in “Game of Thrones” introduces the Valyrian Steel Dagger early in the story. The primary event that kicks off the conflict of the Seven Kingdoms in Game of Thrones is the attempt by Jamie Lanister to kill young Bran Stark who catches the Lannister Twins in flagrante delicto.

As the boy lies in a coma an unnamed assassin tries to kill Bran with this dagger. Catelyn Stark has her hand slashed defending her son and his Direwolf, Summer, rips out the assassins throat. It is clear that the weapon carried by the assassin is far above his pay grade.The dagger then becomes a central plot point connecting key characters in the story. Littlefinger claims the dagger once belonged to him and that he lost it to Tyrion Lannister in a bet. This results in the capture of Tyrion by Catelyn and sparks the events that lead to the beheading of Eddard Stark. Littlefinger reclaims the dagger, passes it to Bran who gives it to his little sister Arya.

The dagger features prominently in the research carried out by Samwell Tarly into dragonglass as a possible weapon against the White Walkers.

Closing one story arc Arya uses the blade to cut the throat of Littlefinger.

At the climax of the Battle of Winterfell Arya uses the blade to slay the Night King.

The journey of this blade becomes the core of the story. The wars of the seven kingdoms are a sideshow by comparison with the existential crisis represented by the White Walkers and their army of Wights.

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun: by Emily Dickinson

My Life had stood – a loaded gun
in corners – till a day
the owner passed – identified
and carried me away.

And now we roam in sovereign woods
and now we hunt the doe
and every time I speak for Him
the mountains straight reply –

and do I smile, such cordial light
upon the valley glow –
it is as a Vesuvian face
had let it’s pleasure through.

And when at night – our good day done
I guard my Master’s head –
’tis better than the eider duck’s
deep pillow – to have shared.

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
none stir the second time
on whom I lay a yellow eye
or an emphatic thumb –

Though I than He may longer live
He longer must than I
for I have but the power to kill,
without the power to die.

Pashtunwali

Your people brought peace and prosperity to our land over these 20 years, but above all, you taught us how to love with a full heart!” said Abdul-Jawad Usmani, 23, joining the spontaneous parade of Afghani citizens who rushed through the city capital by the millions to thrust pomegranates and handwoven rugs into the outstretched hands of their beloved departing troops. “Take this gem, clutch it close to your chest, and you’ll know we will always be with you. We don’t say goodbye here. We only say farewell. Farewell, my dear friends! You will not be forgotten! Farewell!

I’m sure many Americans would love to read these touching words in their newspaper of record, but they are to be found in The Onion “America’s Finest News Source”. Sarcasm sometimes exposes genuine truth and the truth exposed here is that the USA spent 20 years dismantling the Afghan economy and have left it in a worse state than the Russians did after their failed invasion.

America did not bring peace or prosperity and has not taught Afghanis to love. They leave behind a reservoir of hatred for the West which is likely to manifest in due course into Islamist terrorism against Western targets.

As they depart Kabul the US Foreign Office and the CIA are already hard at work writing the narrative that the Chinese are going to invade Afghanistan. They accuse the Chinese of being monsters who are taking over the poor innocent populations of Tibet and Xinjiang destroying their language and culture and brainwashing them to become Communist Party clones. There may be some truth there but there are also many lies.

If you take a drive around Africa these days you quickly see the differences in the countries that have done deals with China. The CIA report that the Chinese are stealing natural resources from the people. The reality on the ground is that you find good roads, new schools, well staffed hospitals. Afghanistan today does not boast these visible symbols of investment in the future.

As the Americans depart the Taliban move in. They practically control all of Afghanistan at this stage. They have retaken all the mountain areas and the puppet American government is reduced to Kabul and its immediate environs.

The CIA categorize the Taliban as Islamic Fundamentalists and in doing so they reveal their cultural blindness. The Americans fought on the wrong side in Vietnam because they labelled Ho Chi Minh a Communist and saw it as a war against Communism. In truth Ho Chi Minh was always a Nationalist first and only drifted to Communism because the West supported French Colonial claims over the rights of the Vietnamese people to self-determination.

The Taliban have come to Islam, but their identity is first and foremost as Pashtunwali, and that word is never heard in the American media. The fiercely independent people of the Hindu Kush straddle the lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan and remain, as always, a law onto themselves. The USA claims they observe a harsh form of Sharia Law and this is untrue. They observe the far older laws, customs and principles of Pashtunwali.

Whether the Belt and Road project passes through Pakistan or Afghanistan it must pass through the Pashtun lands. It will be interesting to see how China will pave the road. Do you think it will be with new schools and hospitals, or will they copy Russia and the USA and try to impose peace at the end of a gun barrel?

Superior: by Khushal Khattak

The Afghans are far superior to the Mughals at the sword,
were but the Afghans, in intellect, a little discreet,
if the different tribes would but support each other,
Kings would have to bow down in prostration before them.
But whether it be concord or strife, or folly or wisdom,
the affairs of every one are in the hands of the Almighty.
Let us see what the Afridis, Mohmands, and Shinwaris will do;
for the Mughals are now lying encamped at Nangrahar.
I alone, amongst the Afghans, grieve for our honour and renown;
whilst the Yusufzais at their ease are tilling their fields.
They who now act so dishonourably, and so shamelessly,
will, hereafter, the upshot of their own acts perceive.
In my poor judgement, death is more preferable than life,
but the memory of Khushal will long, long endure!

Death and Taxes

In 755 CE the Golden Age of China, the Tang Dynasty, slipped into a decline and fall. The key event was the rebellion of the powerful frontier warlord An Lushan. But his rebellion exposed a truth about China. It was an Empire with a hard shell and a soft center. The border regiments were tough and warlike. The soldiers within the Empire were soft and pretty, and they stood no chance against battle hardened veterans.

In the West the ever-present threat of Tibet (Western Barbarians) was exploiting the weakness of it’s bigger neighbor and making forays into Tang territory. Internally displaced refugees and army deserters formed bandit bands that became large enough to take entire counties.

In the ruins of former prosperity the tax burden fell heavily on peaceful districts to fund ongoing wars.

The poet here is an ex soldier who helped liberate the Capital city from the rebels. He was rewarded with a plum posting as a governor in Jiangnan. Here he laments the plight of districts that have been spared attacks by bandits or barbarians. Just when they think themselves safe the tax man arrives and robs them anyway.

This is a poem that was admired by Mao Zedong because he saw it as representing a local official in a good light. This modest public servant is petitioning his Emperor to save the people from starvation. The poem is written in carefully obscure language to avoid any criticism of the Leader but points the finger at corrupt officials.

The Thief Who Returns is the Tax Collector; by Yuan Jie

The old days were peaceful, twenty years in the mountains and forests.
A spring in my courtyard, a cave my front door.
Field taxes were fixed and light, in the twilight one could sleep.
Now, the world has changed, for years beneath bloody banners I fought.
Today, I am a county official, and western barbarians gather again.
Small time thieves do not slaughter, a poor man whose hurt should be pitied.

Surrounded by neighbors, this county was left intact.
But a tax collector is just like a thief.
Today’s conqueror pours oil on the fire.
Is this murderer celebrated as virtuous?
Thinking and hoping, with this verse, to push with a pole and prod the boat.
Let us then, return as before, to a land of rivers and lakes