Happy Saturnalia


Beginning on Dec 17th, the Roman Festival of Saturnalia was a time to upend conventions.  Things that were illegal at other times of the year were permitted during the festival of Saturn.  Sumptuary laws were broken to permit feasting and public drunkenness.  It was time to party, party, party.  Gambling was permitted.

It was also a great time for people who were normally constrained by their place.  Women could let loose.  Slaves and servants were given pride of place and were served at table by their masters.  There was liberty for wives to tell the truth to husbands and for slaves to berate their masters.

Role reversal and guising were commonly practiced and these elements have become key components in our modern Christmas Panto.  In pantomime the lead boy is often played by a woman, the dame is played by a man.  Mistaken identity and upending of norms, where the pauper marries the princess are common themes.

Saturnalia was a festival of light centred around the week of the winter solstice.   It involved bringing evergreen foliage into the house and using it to decorate the walls, symbolic of protecting the kindling.  From this tradition we get the modern fashion for bedecking our halls with the holly and the ivy.

Candles were burned through Saturnalia as symbols of knowledge and learning, and translated into the current practice of lighting up homes for Christmas with coloured lights.

During Saturnalia work stopped and schools closed, to give people a holiday period, just as today.

Citizens put aside their togas and dressed instead in colourful greek outfits that were bright and garish.  A bit like we do today by wearing gaudy cheesy Christmas jumpers.

Citizens, who normally walked bare headed, would doff a pilleus, a pointy felt cap usually worn by freedmen.  Next time you are at the office christmas party and find a pointy cap on your dinner place setting you will know it is designed to reduce your status, and make all of you equal for the party.

Romans also had a tradition of gift giving for Saturnalia that we have translated to the notion of Santa Claus.

Ever wonder where the tradition of sending Christmas cards came from?  You got it!  It’s another Saturnalia custom.  As with the verse below from Catullus Romans would send each other verses of poetry for the holiday.  This year I revived something of the Roman tradition by sending framed poems to my family and to SOME friends.


Saturnalia Gift ; by Catullus

If I didn’t love you, sweet teasing Calvus,
far more than my own eyes, then for today’s gift
I’d hate you with the hate of Vatinius;
for what have I said or done to deserve it
that you’re killing me now with all these poets?
May the gods frown down on whichever client
settled accounts with this roll of miscreants
(unless, as I suspect, it’s that school-master
Sulla, writing off debts by setting these texts,
then I bear no hate, have no complaint to make:
at least your hard work receives due recompense).
God, here’s as cursed a verse as one might expect –
a book, I know, you sent to your Catullus
to finish him off, to floor and to bore us
on Saturnalia, our day for pleasure.
No, not so fast, you can’t escape, my false friend,
for if this long night of torment ever ends
I’m off to the bookshops to buy Caesius,
Aquinus and Suffenus, all poison pens,
to pay you back in full for your own torture.
Until then, goodbye, farewell, it’s time to quit:
let those bad feet limp away, lines and couplets,
disease of the age, unreadable poets.

(translated by Josephine Balmer)

Feliz cumpleaños Rafael Alberti

One of the Spanish poets of the “Generation of ’27” the flowering of Spanish poetry in the inter-war period which has been called the Silver age of Spanish Poetry.  Cernuda, Lorca and Guillén were all members.

Alberti left Spain at the end of the Civil War (1936-39) and refused to return until Franco died.  He moved to Paris and shared an apartment with Pablo Neruda until the Germans occupied Paris.  He died aged 96 and his ashes were scattered in his favourite place in the world, the bay of Cádiz.

Here is an ode to that city.

Cuba Dentro de un Piano

Cuando mi madre llevaba un sorbete de fresa por sombrero
y el humo de los barcos aun era humo de habanero.
Mulata vuelta bajera.
Cádiz se adormecía entre fandangos y habaneras
y un lorito al piano quería hacer de tenor.
Dime dónde está la flor que el hombre tanto venera.
Mi tío Antonio volvía con su aire de insurrecto.
La Cabaña y el Príncipe sonaban por los patios del Puerto.
(Ya no brilla la Perla azul del mar de las Antillas.
Ya se apagó, se nos ha muerto).
Me encontré con la bella Trinidad.
Cuba se había perdido y ahora era verdad.
Era verdad, no era mentira.
Un cañonero huido llegó cantándolo en guajiras.
La Habana ya se perdió. Tuvo la culpa el
Calló, cayó el cañonero.
Pero después, pero ¡ah! después…
fue cuando al SÍ lo hicieron YES.

African Vandals


General Belisarius

The Battle of Tricamarum ended the rule of the Vandals in North Africa, Dec 15th 533.  I have always felt sorry for the Vandals.  Originating in the Baltic Shield area of Scandanavia / Northern Germany they were shunted through Europe by pressure from other tribes.  Constantine gave them permission to move from modern day Poland southwards of the Danube to Pannonia, an area now covered by Austria /Hungary.

When the Huns began to raid the Roman empire the Vandals & Alans found themselves in an exposed position.  They shifted westwards through Gaul, crossed the Pyrenees and settled in North Western Spain.  The Visigoths followed them and pushed them further south.  They established themselves in southern Spain, giving their name to the region of Andalucia.

Then they migrated across to Africa and established a kingdom in the former territory of Carthage in modern day Tunis.  For a time they held sway in the region, extending their reach to Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Malta and the Balearic Islands.  When they sacked Rome in 455 they for all time associated their names with the act of Vandalism.  In 534, a mere 80 years later, they were wiped out by Belisarius, the famous general of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

The last king of the Vandals was given estates in modern day Turkey where he lived out his final days.  I can’t imagine it was a happy retirement, and inspired this poem.


Gelimer in Galatia

With iron fist I rule
this soft slave army
maintaining broad estates
that sour my stomach
which was made for coarser food.

I was raised on brutal fare,
the savage greatness of my folk
in days when we sacked Rome
and carried off her wealth
to our African kingdom.

My wet cousin, Hilderic King
I ousted with my brothers
for his milksop conversion
to Eastern Heresy
and the favour of that Roman Emperor.

Three years free I led my Vandals
before my nemesis landed
and slew my brother Ammatas
the day I executed
my cousin Hilderic, prisoner.

My last hope died on the winter sands
bathed by blood of my blood, Tzazo,
his regiment, my faithful soldiers
my city, my heart,
but not my life.

A hard, cold mountain winter
glued the ribs to our bellies
and though I refused to kneel
not once but twice
at last I bowed my head.

I marched in triumph once
before cheering Roman crowds
through Constantinople’s streets
bound in chains to celebrate
the glory of Justinian.

King without a crown,
with these fine lands, soft subjects,
suitably tamed
stripped of regal pride
I delivered the words they gave me.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”

Musings upon learning that today would have been the 90th birthday of James Arlington Wright, had he lived beyond 1980.


Happy 90th Birthday to James Wright.

An award winning poet who was writing during the peak of the Beat generation, but remained outside of that movement.  He is influenced by Spanish Surrealist poetry, and he was a translator of German and South American poetry.

If you come across his poetry it is fun just to read the titles alone.  He has written poems called:  “In response to a rumor that the oldest whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, has been condemned”  and “Depressed by a book of bad poetry, I walk toward an unused pasture and invite the insects to join me”.  The first of these is quite a damning condemnation of the town of Bridgeport, Ohio and I doubt the people of that town have much time for Wright.  He grew up in Ohio and appears to have had an unhappy childhood, so he does not love Ohio.

As well as interesting titles he delivers some great last lines.  This has an OK title and a brilliant finale.

It is called

Lying in a hammock at William Duffy’s farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
asleep on the black trunk,
blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
the cowbells follow one another
into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
in a field of sunlight between two pines,
the droppings of last year’s horses
blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.


Enter a Pilgrim


On this day, Dec 11th, 100 years ago, 1917, General Allenby entered Jerusalem.  In doing so he became the first Christian to take effective control of the city since Bailan of Ibelin surrendered the city to Saladin  in 1187.  (Excluding a limited negotiated return by Frederick II in the 6th crusade 1229-1244).

Allenby clearly understood the deep significance of his arrival in the holy city.  For this reason he elected not to enter in triumph as a conqueror.  Instead he entered as a pilgrim.  He walked in via the Jaffa gate in what was a low key affair, as depicted by the photo above.

I contrast this with the recent decision by Donald Trump to overturn decades of US foreign policy and order the removal of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Trump has done exactly what Allenby sought to avoid.  He made a clear political statement favouring one community over all others.

The result of Donald Trump’s announcement is widespread rioting in the Middle East, not only in Palestine but also extending into neighbouring countries.  The usual flag burning is taking place outside US embassies all over the muslim world.

This manic and destructive act neatly focuses US media attention away from his tax bill, which rewards the super-rich at the expense of the middle class and poor Americans.  So what if a few muslim youths are shot, buildings torched and the people of Israel face a violent backlash?  The important thing is that US Oligarchs can look forward to even greater expansion of their wealth.  And let’s not forget, Trump is one of them.





I have a 19 year old daughter.

Christine Keeler was 19 when she was “introduced” to John Profumo.  If a 46 year old married politician started carrying on with my daughter I would promptly knock his lights out, phone his wife, and expose him in public for the scumbag that he is.

Christine Keeler was a vulnerable girl.  Product of a broken home, her parents split up when she was a child.  Her mother moved in with a boyfriend who made the pretty young Christine feel very uncomfortable if they were ever alone in the disused railway carriage that was their home.

She had a fling with a US serviceman who left her, when he found out she was pregnant.  Her mother basically forced her to have the baby unassisted and the child survived only 6 days.  It is little surprise that Christine escaped as soon as she could.

In the “glamorous” Soho club scene of the 1960’s she was a lamb to the slaughter.  Described by some as a “party girl” and others as a  prostitute she lived in a gray world in the middle.  Exploited but not paid for it.

Christine Keeler had a number of unfortunate relationships with some pretty nasty characters.  She saw firsthand how the “swinging 60’s” was in fact a pretty seedy scene.  There were rumors and the press heard some juicy tales but had no proof.

Everything came to a head when one of Christine’s “boyfriends” lost his temper and fired a gun outside the flat she was hiding in.  Stephen Ward’s flat.

The journalists had a reason to investigate and what they turned up was just too good to believe.  The British Minister for War was in a relationship with a call girl who also shared her attentions with a Russian Embassy attaché who was probably a KGB agent.

When it came to light that Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies were involved in parties with one of his government ministers the PM, Harold McMillan said that his government would not be brought down by 2 tarts.  Profumo lied in parliament about the affair.  He ended up resigning.  The government fell.  Many people blamed the 19 year old girl, by then 22 years old and dragged through the courts.

Christine Keeler died this week.  She never profited from her affair.  She had a pretty sad life.  She is best remembered for the saucy image in the photo above.  A long way from working as a tea lady to make ends meet.

John Profumo, the disgraced minister, devoted his life to the poor.  He had the money to do it.  When he died in 2006 he was lauded for his good works and not blamed for his part in the affair.

As the father of a 19 year old girl I say he was a creep and she was a victim.   It appears that rich and powerful people can attain redemption but that is more difficult for poor people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.  But what do I know?


Happy Birthday Ralph McTell



Born on this day in 1944 Ralph May is most famous for the songs “Streets of London” and “From Clare to Here”.  He changed his name from May to the stage name of McTell, after one of his favourite blues singers, Blind Willie McTell.  His first name is from the Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams because his father worked as Vaughan Williams gardener.

A corner stone of the UK folk scene through the 1960’s and 1970’s.  I love this quote:   “Nearly all my guitar heroes are black, American, usually blind and most of ’em dead,”

Streets of London was one of what my brother and I nicknamed the “Seven Deadly Songs”.  They were the songs that everyone could sing along to.  They were guaranteed to get a room going at a party.  Others of the seven deadly songs are “The Boxer” by Paul Simon, “The Wild Rover”, “Spancil Hill”, Father and Son” by Cat Stephens.

Streets of London