Trophy, triumph, memorial.

India Gate

India Gate is a memorial arch in New Delhi, designed by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, the premier British Architect of his day.  Today is the birthday of Lutyens who was born in 1869.  The Arch was ostensibly a memorial to the Indian soldiers who gave their lives for the British Empire in World War 1 and in the Third Ango-Afghan War in 1919.

It was the Ancient Greeks who gave us the tradition of the battlefield trophy.  At the end of a battle the victorious soldiers would erect a tropaion.  The earliest were simply votive offerings to thank the Gods for victory and to honour the dead.  Armour and arms were stacked or hung from a nearby tree.

Later the practice became more formalised.  A “tree” was erected on the battlefield at the point where the phalanx was turned, where the battle was won.  It was decorated with armaments and a dedication plaque was carved in stone.

Later again the temporary trophies on the sites of significant victories were marked permanently with a stone carved trophy.

It was the Romans who brought the Tropaeum home.  It was also the Romans who invented the arch.  Victorious generals were more interested in impressing the voters than in leaving a mark on some distant battlefield.  So they erected their trophy in the city where everyone could see it.  Over the years various different memorials were used but the most famous are the triumphal arches in the Roman forum the Arch of Titus, the arch of Semptimius Severus and the Arch of Constantine.

The Romans also introduced the practice of building triumphal arches in their colony cities, as a raw display of the power of Rome.  On the one hand it is a display of the wealth and stability of Empire, but on the other it is a dire warning of what happens to those who rebel.

Napoleon famously copied the Roman practice with his Arc de Triomph de l’Étoile.  Laid down at the height of his power in 1810 it was not completed until after his death.  His ashes passed under it in 1840 on the way to their final resting place.

The foundation stone for the India Gate arch was laid down in 1921 by a Britain which was fighting a war in Ireland to hold the Empire together.  They were trying to sell the continuation of Empire to an Indian Population who were actively campaigning for independence.  By the time the India Gate was completed in 1931 India was demanding Dominion status.

Today the arch is one of the great tourist attractions of New Delhi.  It serves as an interesting hybrid of the original concept of the battlefield trophy.  Built by the British as an imperial memorial but now symbolising the triumph of the freedom and independence of the Indian nation.

On the Acropolis at Athens was erected a Bronze Chariot and steeds.
The inscription read (Herodotus 5.77):

The sons of Athens
having subdued in the work of war
the peoples of Boeotia and Chalcis,
quenched their arrogance
in sorrowful iron bondage.

These statues of the horses of their foes,
they dedicated to Pallas as a tithe of the ransom.

 

Le Martyr Irlandais

Cork Mayor

Born on this day in 1879 Terence MacSwiney was one of two Cork Lord Mayors who had a significant impact on the struggle for Irish Independence.  His death was a triumph for the Irish Cause and a complete Political and Propaganda failure by the British Government.

McSwiney was an IRA volunteer, a soldier prepared to die for the cause.  But he was presented to the world by Sinn Féin as a “sensitive poet intellectual”.  That is a brilliant piece of spin.  In Catholic communites he was presented as a modern day martyr.

MacSwiney was an early adopter of hunger strike, following the lead of Thomas Ashe in November 1917 going on hunger strike 3 days prior to his release after his arrest for wearing an IRA uniform.

In the 1918 General Election he won the Mid Cork seat.  In 1920 the Lord Mayor of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtain, was assassinated by a Royal Irish Constabulary murder squad.  This was a symptom of the collapse of the British civil administration in Ireland.  When the police become murderers you know things have gone wrong.

MacSwiney was elected Lord Mayor of Cork.  Five months later he was arrested and imprisoned in Brixton Prison in England, after a trial in a military, not a civil court.  In protest MacSwiney immediatly went on hunger strike.  In response the Sinn Féin publicity machinery went into overdrive and made MacSwiney a cause célèbre on the international stage.

For the 73 days to his death his case played out in the USA, on the continent and in the British Colonies.  A small determined man in India in particular was paying close attention.  In London a Vietnamese independence campaigner named Ho Chi Minh said “A nation that has such citizens will never surrender.”

The greatest empire in the history of the world was unable to retain control of it’s closest possession in such circumstances.  Within a year the British agreed to Irish Independence.

Dig No Grave Deep; by Terence MacSwiney

Lay not the axe to earth;
love does not sleep.
If yet thy thought esteemeth mine of worth,
for it dig no grave deep.

Let it put forth its power,
aside the surface sweep;
then will leap forth the long-desired flower
which thou mayst reap.

 

 

The Death of Rail

Rail

Sally Thomsett, Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins on set in 1970.

When the Railway children was filmed in 1970 the death knell had already sounded for fully integrated local rail system in both Britain and Ireland.  The nostalgic romance of the rails of Victorian Britain was already a distant fantasy of a time that never was.  The axeman was Richard Beeching who published his first Report on Rail Cuts in Britain on this day in 1963.

Over 2,000 stations and 8,000 km of rail were designated for the chop.  Where the British led the Irish followed and the Irish Civil Service lobbed off most of the branch lines in the 1960s.

Looking  back today we can see how foolish these moves were.  If I have learned one thing in my life it is not to let go of public infrastructure.  Canals, Railways, Fixed line telephony, Roads, Bridges, Gas Networks and Public Water.  The bones of a nation take centuries to build and can be squandered in a decade by vested business interests.

Oil was calling the shots in the 1960s.  The chequebooks flowed, roads were built and the car was king.  Rail was sacrificed on the altar of the oil industry.

Rail may have been seen as outdated in the 1960s but today it is a gift to commuters.  Rail is vastly more efficient in moving large numbers of people in and out of cities to work.  It is also far more environmentally efficient than cars.

The Beeching report was a stich up.  The decisions had been made long before the report was written.  His cutting of local branch lines was supposed to improve the efficiency of the core, and profitable mainline rail.

Often it is a cartoonist who can best expose the lie and I wish I could find you an image of the cartoon I like best.  It shows Beeching himself lobbing off his own arms and legs to improve the core.

The truth is that if you don’t have the branch lines feeding the main line what you are hoping for is that commuters will get into a car and drive to the nearest railway station on the main line.  But they don’t.  Mostly once they get into a car they no longer use public transport.

Today if you travel Ireland and wonder why so many areas have abandoned railways and stations you can blame Beeching.  Blame the British Government.  Blame the Oil industry.  Blame an Irish Government that had no imagination to take a different direction and no confidence in their own decisions.

Milltown

 

Ye goode olde dayes.

Myles_Birket_Foster_-_The_Country_Inn

The Country Inn: Myles Birket Foster

Born on this day in 1859 AE Housman was too old to serve in Flanders Field but he was a poet ahead of his time.  The sentimentality of his poetry conjures up the nostalgia of a bucolic idyll of an England that never was.  His verse was the poetic equivalent of the chocolate box art of John Constable and Myles Birket Foster.  His nostalgia for a simpler and more wholesome life is reflected in JRR Tolkien’s image of the Shire from Lord of the Rings.  I like the lyric from the Kinks “Muswell Hilbillies” which says “Take me back to the black hills where I ain’t never been”.

World War One began with the Jingoistic and Triumphalist doggerel of music hall verse singing of the glories of adventure:  It’s a long way to Tipperary!

It then moved towards sacrificial verse like Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” and of Housman which said “This is what we are fighting for”.

Eventually it descended into the true war poets like Sassoon, Owen and McCrae who expressed the absolute futility of young lives thrown away.

 

A Shropshire Lad 53; by A.E. Housman

The lad came to the door at night,
when lovers crown their vows,
and whistled soft and out of sight
in shadow of the boughs.

‘I shall not vex you with my face
henceforth, my love, for aye;
so take me in your arms a space
before the east is grey.

‘When I from hence away am past
I shall not find a bride,
and you shall be the first and last
I ever lay beside.’

She heard and went and knew not why;
her heart to his she laid;
light was the air beneath the sky
but dark under the shade.

‘Oh do you breathe, lad, that your breast
seems not to rise and fall,
and here upon my bosom prest
there beats no heart at all?’

‘Oh loud, my girl, it once would knock,
you should have felt it then;
but since for you I stopped the clock
it never goes again.’

‘Oh lad, what is it, lad, that drips
wet from your neck on mine?
What is it falling on my lips,
my lad, that tastes of brine?’

‘Oh like enough ’tis blood, my dear,
for when the knife has slit
the throat across from ear to ear
’twill bleed because of it.’

Eurydice the muse

Edward_Poynter_-_Orpheus_and_Eurydice

The great love story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told many times.  It is a classic love tragedy and we see echoes of it in works like Romeo & Juliet.  Orpheus is given a magical lyre by his father Apollo and can charm the world with his music, bending anyone to his will.  When the love of his life, Eurydice, dies and goes to the underworld Orpheus descends to Hades and begs permission to bring his love back to life.  Hades and Persephone, charmed by his Lyre, agree to her return.  But Orpheus must lead her out without glancing back.  Unable to hear her footsteps his resolve breaks at the last moment and she is sucked back to the underworld.

HMS Eurydice was a British Navy ship which sank off the Isle of Wight on March 24th 1878, and represents one of the greatest peacetime disasters of the Royal Navy with the loss of 317 of the crew of 319.  The ship had one literary quirk being designed by Admiral George Eliot (not the writer).  Gerard Manley Hopkins, who returned to poetry with the “Wreck of the Deutchland” in 1875 at the direction of his superior was happy to pen “The Loss of the Eurydice” in 1878 to mark this event.

Eurydice continues to be a muse and her fate has become a theme for female poets.  The tale told from the perspective of Eurydice is of a woman escaping a relationship where Orpheus, with his magic lyre, held all the power.  In the painting by Poynter above Eurydice does not seem to be a willing participant.  Hades has been her liberation from Orpheus.  Eurydice becomes a symbol for women the world over who are escaping abusive relationships.

I give you two poems below, one from H.D. and another from Margaret Atwood.  I could also add Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive  “Go, walk out the door, don’t turn around now, you’re not welcome anymore”.

Eurydice; by H. D.

I

So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
at last;

so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;

so for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;

if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness
into peace,
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.

II

Here only flame upon flame
and black among the red sparks,
streaks of black and light
grown colourless;

why did you turn back,
that hell should be reinhabited
of myself thus
swept into nothingness?

why did you glance back?
why did you hesitate for that moment?
why did you bend your face
caught with the flame of the upper earth,
above my face?

what was it that crossed my face
with the light from yours
and your glance?
what was it you saw in my face?
the light of your own face,
the fire of your own presence?

What had my face to offer
but reflex of the earth,
hyacinth colour
caught from the raw fissure in the rock
where the light struck,
and the colour of azure crocuses
and the bright surface of gold crocuses
and of the wind-flower,
swift in its veins as lightning
and as white.

III

Saffron from the fringe of the earth,
wild saffron that has bent
over the sharp edge of earth,
all the flowers that cut through the earth,
all, all the flowers are lost;

everything is lost,
everything is crossed with black,
black upon black
and worse than black,
this colourless light.

IV

Fringe upon fringe
of blue crocuses,
crocuses, walled against blue of themselves,
blue of that upper earth,
blue of the depth upon depth of flowers,
lost;

flowers,
if I could have taken once my breath of them,
enough of them,
more than earth,
even than of the upper earth,
had passed with me
beneath the earth;

if I could have caught up from the earth,
the whole of the flowers of the earth,
if once I could have breathed into myself
the very golden crocuses
and the red,
and the very golden hearts of the first saffron,
the whole of the golden mass,
the whole of the great fragrance,
I could have dared the loss.

V

So for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I have lost the earth
and the flowers of the earth,
and the live souls above the earth,
and you who passed across the light
and reached
ruthless;

you who have your own light,
who are to yourself a presence,
who need no presence;

yet for all your arrogance
and your glance,
I tell you this:

such loss is no loss,
such terror, such coils and strands and pitfalls
of blackness,
such terror
is no loss;

hell is no worse than your earth
above the earth,
hell is no worse,
no, nor your flowers
nor your veins of light
nor your presence,
a loss;

my hell is no worse than yours
though you pass among the flowers and speak
with the spirits above earth.

VI

Against the black
I have more fervour
than you in all the splendour of that place,
against the blackness
and the stark grey
I have more light;

and the flowers,
if I should tell you,
you would turn from your own fit paths
toward hell,
turn again and glance back
and I would sink into a place
even more terrible than this.

VII

At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light;

and my spirit with its loss
knows this;
though small against the black,
small against the formless rocks,
hell must break before I am lost;

before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

-o0o-
Orpheus (1); by Margaret Atwood

You walked in front of me,
pulling me back out
to the green light that had once
grown fangs and killed me.

I was obedient, but
numb, like an arm
gone to sleep; the return
to time was not my choice.

By then I was used to silence.
Though something stretched between us
like a whisper, like a rope:
my former name,
drawn tight.
You had your old leash
with you, love you might call it,
and your flesh voice.

Before your eyes you held steady
the image of what you wanted
me to become: living again.
It was this hope of yours that kept me following.

I was your hallucination, listening
and floral, and you were singing me:
already new skin was forming on me
within the luminous misty shroud
of my other body; already
there was dirt on my hands and I was thirsty.

I could see only the outline
of your head and shoulders,
black against the cave mouth,
and so could not see your face
at all, when you turned

and called to me because you had
already lost me. The last
I saw of you was a dark oval.
Though I knew how this failure
would hurt you, I had to
fold like a gray moth and let go.

You could not believe I was more than your echo.

Gary Whitehead, a mouse and Covid19

Glendalough

Carpark in Glendalough during Lockdown

Monday morning Week 2 of Coronavirus lockdown.

Spring is upon us and the weekend discarded its shroud of rain and wind and blessed us with some sun for a change.  Here in rural Tipperary we were released to walk the quiet country roads.  Dublin was somewhat different.  Given a sniff of good weather Dubliners all collectively head for the same spots:  Glendalough, the Sally Gap, Howth Head, Dollymount Strand, Bettystown, the Phoenix Park etc.  As a result you get crowding, traffic jams, queues for the coffee truck or the chip van.  The opposite of social distancing.

As a result the council steps in and shuts down car parks, exacerbating the problem in the ones that remain open.

Huge cities are not human places.  Now that many of us can work remotely what is the point of crowding millions of people into boxes of glass and steel? So much valuable time is lost commuting too and from the workplace.  Today that time is being used for exercise.  A fit workforce is a productive workforce.

If Covid-19 teaches us one thing it is that we can reverse the flow of people from country to city.  In the modern world it is not necessary to cram your employees into a factory where you can supervise them.  Technology can do that for you.  I predict that many of those working from home today will continue to work from home long after the crisis is past.

 

Mouse In The House; by Gary Whitehead

For two nights now it’s wakened me from dreams
with a sound like paper being torn, reams

of it, a scratching that’s gone on for hours.
Blind in the dark, I think of my father’s

letters, the ones composed but never sent.
They were addressed to his sister, my aunt,

a woman I never met but whose voice,
slurry and calling from some noisy place,

introduced itself one New Year’s eve, late,
before my mother came and silenced it

with a click. She was one of many things
we never spoke of. But when the phone rang

at odd hours, I’d wonder if it was her.
That voice had resurrected the picture

in the silver frame, my parents’ wedding
day: on the church steps the woman throwing

rice, blond and beautiful, showing no trace
at all of malice in her youthful face.

Now the awful sound, waking me again
like a secret, calls to mind the poison

I left out, and my mother on their bed
tearing a box of letters into shreds.

Missing hens

ChinaCock

“The China Cock” 1929 Georgia O’Keeffe

We let the hens go when we put the house up for sale.  I’m regretting that decision now.  In a time of #Lockdown I quite like the idea that you can have a constant supply of fresh eggs for very little work.

The Irish Green Party leader Eamon Ryan is encouraging everyone to try their hand at planting salads to supplement the food supply.  That might not be such a bad idea if supply chains from Spain become disrupted.

The last time we faced a situation like this was during “The Emergency”.  This is the name that was given by the Neutral Irish Government to the events that most people refer to as World War 2.  Food supply was a key issue for the young Irish Nation.  Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera lamented in 1940: “No country had ever been more effectively blockaded because of the activities of belligerents and our lack of ships…”

Ireland was a net food exporter and it was vital for our economy that food exports reach our largest market in Britain.  But we relied heavily on imports for Coal, Fuel Oil, Bread Wheat, Citric Fruits, Tea, Coffee and luxuries such as chocolate.

Irish sailors of the mercantile marine referred to those years as “The long watch”.  Twenty percent of our merchant mariners perished in those years.  Initially the Irish ships joined in with the convoys organised by the British to protect their fleets.  But Irish losses led to a change in strategy.  The Irish vessels were painted large and gaudy with neutral markings and  sailed alone.  The strategy had mixed results.  Many German Captians respected the Neutral position of Ireland, but a few took a different view.  As Britain was the major beneficiary of Irish food exports many Germans viewed Irish shipping as a valid target.

My father was born in 1927.  He had vivid memories of working alongside his father in a rented allotment to supply the family with fresh vegetables during the war years.  He paid for his school books by bundling and selling onion thinnings (scallions) door to door.  Mature onions were dried on a flat roof, accessed by climbing out the window of their quarters in McKee Barracks.

To put in perspective how valuable food was they used to have a dish for breakfast called “Mock Tripe”.  Basically this is a dish of onions boiled in milk with salt and pepper.  What I find funny about this is that when you make “mock” dishes it is usually replacing a luxury dish with a cheap one.  The classic “Mock Turtle Soup” is a dish which replaces expensive turtle with the meat from the head of a calf.  But tripe is not and has never been luxury food.  It was not even on the ration book during the Emergency.  Why call a dish “mock tripe”?

Every time we visited my Grandmother we were treated to her speciality:  bread pudding.  A habit begun of necessity in the war years that she maintained all her life.  Stale bread was stored in a special enamel pail, soaked in water until she had enough for a pudding.  It was mixed with dried fruit, sugar and spices and baked in the oven.  Served with hot custard.

Mock Turtle, Gryphon, and Alice, Sir John Tenniel 1, colourised, public domain

The Mock Turtle from “Alice in Wonderland” with a distinctively calf looking head and hooves.