MORE MEANS WORSE

Nearly always, more means worse. Increasing the number of university students lessens the value of a degree; the more popular a film or book, the more likely it is to be rubbish;  the longer a memorandum,  the more confused its meaning; while an individual display of emotion may or may not be genuine, a display of public emotion is almost certainly bogus; the more teams in a sporting competition, the more inferior players; the more politicians in a legislature the more likely that a lot of them will have shit for brains. More means worse.

The title of this post is a slogan that I first read in some non-fiction piece by Kingsley Amis. I don’t even remember the context in which Amis – a proverbially moderate and judicious commentator on the human experience – used it, but I have found it useful ever since.

From time to time politicians boast that more people now attend university than was the case under previous regimes. In other words, they are proud to have overseen a decline in academic standards. Here in Australia that process began in the late 80s or early 90s when the federal government (Labor, if it matters) in an attempt to hide the true rate of unemployment, announced:

“In future, universities will not seek to attract the smartest elements of the population. Instead, they will become post-secondary kindergartens: everybody will be welcome and nearly everybody will win a prize. Starting tomorrow Wallaby Crossing Tech will be known as Simpson Desert University and will offer degree courses in marketing, public relations and women’s studies.”

All those who think that our culture is the richer for this process please go and drown yourselves.

My education was  interrupted by several years of compulsory school attendance.  Among the handful of useful things I learned in that period was that good writing is succinct and compressed. I thank Lips Murray, for showing us that a passage of Shakespeare, rewritten into common speech, will be greatly extended in length and diminished in value.  This example provides a double whammy. Not only will the shorter passage be better in itself but it will also be understood by fewer people, thereby illustrating yet again how the majority’s judgement is always inferior. More means worse. Almost everything you read is too long. Tempted to add extra words  to something you’ve written? Ask yourself what new information the new words add. What will the reader know now that was not known before? If the extra word or phrase or  paragraph doesn’t add a clear new meaning, take it out. Everybody should memorise George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language.  Go to link  and start now.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule (except this one). While most really popular books or films are awful some moderately popular works are OK.  I am almost tempted to be optimistic when I see authors like Donna Tartt riding high on the charts (and, of course, I love her name); but there is really no hope for a civilisation that enriches the authors of “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “The Secret”. Most lists of all time best sellers are headed by three works which have an unfair advantage: they are religious texts with a guaranteed circulation among their insane devotees: The Koran, The Bible and Quotations from Chairman Mousy Dung. The fact that one of them contains passages of rare eloquence is a fluke, pure and simple, like Glen McGrath’s 50 against New Zealand.

If I drop a brick on my foot the resultant display of emotion will be heartfelt and genuine. On the other hand, some of you may remember  when the ditzy ex-wife of England’s most shameless dole bludger was killed in a car accident. For weeks the streets of London were jammed with extras from Coronation Street littering the capital with flowers and maudlin placards in memory of somebody they didn’t know. That was amusing; but it has been emulated so often, so tastelessly, that the joke is wearing thin. Every time some Moslem idiot brings eternal happiness to a few Christians we have vigils and candles and hand-holding and journalism – all the nauseating manifestations of public emotion that we have come to expect. But let’s be fair: are they any more spurious than our older traditions of Anzac Day (Australia), Memorial Day (America), Remembrance Sunday (England) and so on? We must always beware of being sucked into mass displays of emotion, especially in celebration of people from whom we are too far separated in time or space to have anything in common. More means worse.

 

Advertisements

THE MOST POWERFUL DRUG – some cautionary examples

“Words are … the most powerful drug used by mankind. Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize, and paralyze, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain ….” – Rudyard Kipling

It is a truth not yet universally acknowledged that a single cause in possession of multiple titles must be in want of credibility.

This truth is independent of the merits of the cause. A cause with multiple titles is not necessarily nonsense but it merits closer scrutiny and greater scepticism than would otherwise be the case.

Take, for example, what used to be called Global Warming and now is more often described as Climate Change. There was always something a little bit fishy about it and the change of name encourages the suspicion that it is just a successor to the Y2K bug. I’m inclined to believe that those parts of the theory that are true are not significant and those parts that are significant are not true. So the geography of the planet changes over time? Wow! Hold the front page! Some species which exist now might not exist at some time in the future? Gee, that’s never happened before.

“Creationism”, in its frantic but unavailing struggle against its own risibility, took to calling itself “Creation Science” and “Intelligent Design”.  No luck. Those who believed in it under the first name still do and those who can count to twenty without taking their socks off still don’t.

The controversy about homosexual marriage is another illustration .  I suppose I need to state my own position: I’m in favour of changing the legal definition of marriage to encompass same sex couples.  I made up my mind on this question some time ago and so haven’t recently read many arguments against the change. Most opinions I do come across these days are from the advocates of change. These are the people who set the terms of public debate and let me emphasise that these are the people with whom I agree. For the most part they express their views in a mixture of sloganeering and hysteria. They seem to start from the assumption that anybody who disagrees with them is wicked or stupid or both. And in the course of the debate the title of the objective has changed. First we heard “Same Sex Marriage” then “Gay Marriage”  (presumably because “sex” has been booted out of the enlightened lexicon in favour of the appalling solecism “gender”) and now “Marriage Equality”. So if you have reservations about the issue, you’re in favour of inequality, right?  You expect this nonsense from religious knuckleheads but I, naïf that I am, have always wished for better from people on my side of the fence.

“Language” said Virginia Woolf “is wine upon the lips”.   Yes, Virgie, but sometimes it’s goon.  Here are some more examples.

When it comes to political discourse familiarity, sadly, breeds a lack of contempt. The first time I heard expressions like “political correctness”, “ethnic cleansing” or “sexism” I laughed.  I appreciated the trouble somebody had taken to invent a satirical term as a way of skewering a particular form of muddled or dishonest thinking.  Most other people (those without a vested interest) did too. Not now, though. If you are critical of the cliché you are assumed to be critical of all the ideas that lie behind it.  Once the cliché has passed into common usage it functions in the general population as a substitute for knowing what you’re talking about.  Other examples are “islamophobia”, “misogyny”,   “un-Australian”, “ageism”, “accountability”, “wellness” and “think outside the square”.  Some dangerous clichés achieve this status (i.e., becoming a substitute for thought) without even having provided a laugh in the first place: “patriotism”, for instance, or “holocaust”.

Another perversion of language that gets up my nose is the cliché that is an example of what it seeks to condemn. “Soundbite” and “dog whistle” are terms that identify dangerous tendencies in public discourse. “Soundbite” means “the replacement of a complex argument by a word or phrase simple enough for the stupidest person to remember” (the best example of a soundbite in literature is “Four legs good, two legs bad”). But take the sentence “You can’t complain about soundbite politics and then hound anyone who doesn’t deliver it”:  here “soundbite” is a soundbite.  Similarly “dog whistle” means “political language that has an unspoken meaning aimed particularly at one section of the audience”. The phrase “dog whistle” is itself an example of just such a message. It feeds paranoia (see Betsy de Vos, below).

Different code words (to use a code phrase) occur in different contexts. The other day I came across a recent American example. In line with their current policy of putting the fox in charge of the fowlhouse, a woman named Betsy de Vos is Czarina of Education. (I can’t resist the temptation to say that only in this sense is our Betsy a fox). It seems that the de Vos family have spent lots of money in support of organisations that favour the teaching of “intelligent design” as a legitimate alternative to the theory of evolution. Apparently these groups have designated the expression “critical thinking” as  code for “promoting theistic alternatives to evolution”.  Every time Betsy slips that apparently innocuous phrase into the conversation the religious knuckle-draggers are able to nudge one another meaningfully and snigger, secure in their knowledge that the righteous are back at the top table.

And does any of this matter? Is language important? Well, obviously I think it is. So did W.H. Auden; in his In Memory of W.B. Yeats he wrote:

Time that is intolerant

Of the brave and innocent

And indifferent in a week

To a beautiful physique

Worships language and forgives

Everyone by whom it lives.

We can only hope that the reverse is also true and that time will eventually condemn those who pervert and misuse language. More to the point, I hope you join me in condemning them now.

AN ANTIDEMOCRATIC RANT

 

The basic principle of our political system is that every idiot’s opinion is as valid as mine. We’ve all heard the condescending line that what we call democracy is “the worst system except for all the others”.  I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the people who mouth this cliche are usually those who profit by the present arrangements.

Our present political system is not a democracy. It is an oligarchy chosen from among the most ovine elements of society by  manipulation of the brainless majority.  John Reith, the first boss of the BBC, was once asked what he thought was the ideal form of government. He replied “Dictatorship, tempered by assassination.”  I’m sometimes tempted to agree with him.

Look at the range of nitwits who are allowed to vote: Scientologists, archbishops, anti-whaling activists, child molesters, creationists, television celebrities, evangelical Christians, Carlton  supporters. They are all  incapable of carrying on an adult conversation yet their political views carry as much weight as  yours (or, more importantly, mine). As Philo Vance once remarked  “The democratic theory is that if you accumulate enough ignorance at the polls, you produce intelligence”. It’s hard to believe that even the American electorate could have been guilty of electing Donald Trump. Here we had a candidate so bad from every point of view that a vote for Hillary Clinton must have seemed almost rational by comparison. Astonishingly, not only did several people actually vote for him, but some of them have not yet done the decent thing and jumped off a cliff.

Naturally I don’t want to appear too negative. So I thought it only fair to present some concrete recommendations for how we could improve the political system.

Every vote in Parliament should be secret (all the arguments in favour of a secret ballot at the polls apply with equal validity in Parliament). This measure would crush the party system at a stroke. I acknowledge that the new system would not be perfect but at least any member of parliament who possessed a vestigial conscience would be able to take it out for a bit of exercise occasionally.

Any politician responsible for the provision of public services should be dependent on those services. So the Minister for Transport should not be provided with a car and a driver. The Minister should be obliged under pain of dismissal and imprisonment to make all journeys by train, bus or tram. Similarly there should be a law forbidding the Minister for Health from receiving any medical treatment anywhere except in the casualty department of a public hospital. The children of the Minister for Education should all attend government schools.  You get the idea?

All political advertising (newspapers, television, internet, billboards) should be limited to black letters of a specified size on a white background saying “The xxx Party’s candidate for the electorate of xxx, (name of candidate),  will hold a public meeting at (time, date and venue) to discuss the forthcoming election. This advertisement was paid for by a donation from xxx.”  Those public meetings should be the only permitted form of electioneering. No more Liberal speakers at the Chamber of Commerce and no more Labor spruikers given open slather at the ABC. Now there could be a bit of a problem here: the speakers at these public meetings are entitled to be heard so there must be severe penalties (the knout is one suggestion) for members of the audience who try to drown them out. Those elements of society who prove utterly incapable of learning good manners (I’m thinking in particular of the Middle Class Trotskyites Club or whatever it’s called this week) will be rounded up and packed off to the Gulag which I propose to construct in Double Bay (between the needle exchange and the Syphilitic Winos’ Home).

It should be forbidden to publish the results of public opinion polls for a period of six months before an election. If that means that longer notice of the election must be given, all well and good.

And, lest you think I have nothing good to say about politics, I will end by quoting HL Mencken:

“I confess I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.”

A SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS

I’m not a fan of nationalism. I wish the basic political unit of the world was something other than the nation state. I also wish that rainwater was red wine and that Collingwood always won the premiership. Sadly I’m forced to live in a world where none of those things is true (although the Collingwood one may soon be if yesterday’s demolition of the Weegirls is anything to go by).

The problem of illegal immigrants claiming refugee status in Australia is currently a stick to beat the Liberal Party with. A couple of years ago it was a stick to beat the Labor Party with. In fact it is an ideal cause for supporters of whichever party is out of power. They can claim moral superiority without having to actually do anything about the problem. Since I despise all political parties equally I am well placed to come up with a practical solution.

I start by suggesting that any government has a right to decide which people are welcome. Does anybody disagree with that? Does anybody think that every person who turns up has a right to come in? It’s a defensible position and might be even more so if we had a different form of government but I haven’t heard anyone espouse it.

OK, how should we decide? Well, there is apparently an official way of deciding whether or not to grant a person “refugee status”. I don’t know anything about it and I’m sure it’s as bodgie as most bureaucratic procedures but let’s stick with it for now. Let that be the first part of the process. Now it gets interesting.

There are some people who are reluctant to admit Muslims. I can see that there are plenty of  reasons for that. I’d have no problems letting bad Muslims in, but I’m wary of devout ones. Do you believe that homosexuality merits death? Are you in favour of mutilating young girls? Do you think that apostates deserve to be killed? Should it be a crime to burn your fantasy book? Well, fuck off then. We have to find some way of separating the sheep from the goats and excluding fanatical lunatics would be a good start. It might also be necessary to make them confirm their opinions publicly in some way. I leave it to you to work out the mechanism.

But is it enough to just exclude devout Muslims? What about other religious dingbats? Most of their beliefs are not very dangerous but they are insane. Let’s get rid of them as well. There is no doubt that a country which discriminates in favour of atheists will have a saner, more intelligent population. And there is also no doubt that immigrants are a net gain for the receiving country. So any illegal immigrant who passes our tests (a genuine refugee who is also an atheist) is welcome. Our population will improve both in absolute numbers and in moral fibre (I’ve waited for years for a chance to recycle that expression!)

So what do we do with all the others who don’t qualify? Aha!

The countries with the greatest numbers of refugees are those who are next door to the wretched countries from which the refugees emanate. Turkey, for instance or Jordan or Lebanon or Rwanda.  So the Australian government says to the governments of those countries “We will take off your hands three (or four or five) refugees who pass our tests for every one who doesn’t pass that you will take from the current population of our detention camps.” It’s a good deal for both governments (though certainly a better one for Australia). It has another virtue as well: unlike the present “system”,  it doesn’t give rich illegal immigrants an advantage over poor illegal immigrants.

I make no charge for this modest proposal.

 

 

HOW LONG SHOULD YOU CARRY A GRUDGE?

(This post is adapted from one that was first published on my earlier blog The Disappointed Solipsist)

If you hit me with a brick I’ll still be angry about it five minutes from now. On the other hand, I don’t care that  your Cro-Magnon ancestor stole a bone from my Neanderthal forbear. Somewhere in between those extremes of time lies the point at which a sensible person will say “There’s no point in obsessing about this any further. I am more than the sum of my ancestors’ resentments.”

Some examples are worth preserving for the amusement they provide. The fanatical Protestants of Northern Ireland who make such a cult of their hatred for the Bishop of Rome need to be aware that England only invaded Ireland in the first place because Pope  Adrian IV said it was OK. I always get a chuckle out of that one.

Unfortunately a whole industry has grown up to encourage people to carry historical grudges past the point of common sense. A related phenomenon is the habit of identifying ourselves and others by one strand of our mongrel heritage as if it were the only one. In a country like Australia people  choose to say that they’re Irish or Greek or Spanish or Tongan or whatever. But the truth is that even if my ancestors had all been Irish back to the Dark Ages I would still be a mongrel, just like you.

My great-grandfather was a convict. He and his brother were transported to Tasmania in the mid-nineteenth century for giving a bloke a hiding in a dispute over the ownership of some potatoes. By our standards the laws under which he was sentenced were monstrously unjust, but that doesn’t compel me to turn myself into a stage Paddy to be sure, to be sure. I don’t read history with the preconception that the Pommies are always wrong (although they are, most of the time). It doesn’t incline me to favour the IRA ( I despise it). I don’t think of Ireland as “the ould country”. I don’t know all the words to “Danny Boy” and if I did I wouldn’t admit it. I’m not Irish. In fact if you count percentages I’m more Pommy than Irish and I’m not proud of that, either.

When I was young, people with convict ancestors used to keep quiet about it but now it’s  regarded as something to boast about. Both positions are absurd. When it was a disgrace it wasn’t my fault. Now that it’s fashionable it reflects no credit on me.

All Australians can claim some sort of historical grievance if they are unimaginative enough to want to do so. Irish against English, Greek against Turk, Aboriginal against European, Serb against Croat. But most “Turks” are a bit Greek, most Irish are a bit “English”, most “Aborigines” are a bit European and most Serbs are a bit “Croatian”. This country (and all others) would be a lot better off if people could just forget about all that nonsense and get on with the job of interbreeding. Embrace your mongrel heritage! Certainly in a few years time Joe Average-Australian will have a different skin colour from mine; he might not like CJ Dennis or the Collingwood Football Club or mutton birds and from my perspective it would be a pity for such glorious cultural eminences to disappear. But Joe will  know and love things that I’ve never heard of and from the perspective of history his world, and his complexion will be just as good as mine.

 

Unjustly neglected poems

The trouble with trying to do justice to the unfairly neglected is that while I might think Joe Bloggs deserves to be more widely known, you might find him irritatingly familiar. Similarly, I might think the public’s neglect of Joe is unjust while you believe it’s well and truly deserved. With that preliminary comment, I offer some  poems that I think deserve to be better known.

Robinson Jeffers was an eccentric American who, among other heterodox opinions, believed that his country should have stayed out of the Second World War.  Mostly for that reason he has escaped the notice of subsequent generations. A couple of his poems (the magnificent “Hurt Hawks” for instance) can still be found in anthologies but “We Are These People”, written at the end of the war, surely qualifies as an unjustly neglected antidote to American exceptionalism. If you want to give it even more contemporary relevance replace “Germany” with “Iraq”.

I have abhorred the wars and despised the liars, laughed at the frightened
And forecast victory; never one moment’s doubt.
But now not far, over the backs of some crawling years, the next
Great war’s column of dust and fire writhes
Up the sides of the sky: it becomes clear that we too may suffer
What others have, the brutal horror of defeat—
Or if not in the next, then in the next—therefore watch Germany
And read the future. We wish, of course, that our women
Would die like biting rats in the cellars, our men like wolves on the mountain:
It will not be so. Our men will curse, cringe, obey;
Our women uncover themselves to the grinning victors for bits of chocolate.

Here’s another American poet, Sara Teasdale. Her poetry always stirs me by the fact that every word seems perfectly  inevitable and the slightest  change would be for the worse (music gets me in the same way). “I Shall Not Care” is a brilliant, bitter lyric.

When I am dead and over me bright April 
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair, 
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted, 
I shall not care. 
I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful 
When rain bends down the bough, 
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted 
Than you are now. 

 

A quick change of pace: Chidiock Tichborne was publicly tortured to death  in 1586  for his involvement in a political conspiracy. He is supposed to have written this poem the night before.

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares, 
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain, 
My crop of corn is but a field of tares, 
And all my good is but vain hope of gain. 
The day is gone and yet I saw no sun, 
And now I live, and now my life is done. 
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung, 
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves are green, 
My youth is gone, and yet I am but young, 
I saw the world, and yet I was not seen, 
My thread is cut, and yet it was not spun, 
And now I live, and now my life is done. 
I sought my death and found it in my womb, 
I lookt for life and saw it was a shade, 
I trode the earth and knew it was my tomb, 
And now I die, and now I am but made. 
The glass is full, and now the glass is run, 
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The next poem always reminds me of my grandfather, who fought on the Western Front in the First World War. This is “The Farmer Remembers the Somme” by Vance Palmer.

Will they never fade or pass!

The mud, and the misty figures endlessly coming

In file through the foul morass,

And the grey flood-water ripping the reeds and grass,

And the steel wings drumming.

 

The hills are bright in the sun:

There’s nothing changed or marred in the well-known places;

When work for the day is done

There’s talk, and quiet laughter, and gleams of fun

On the old folks’ faces.

 

I have returned to these:

The farm, and the kindly Bush, and the young calves lowing;

But all that my mind sees

Is a quaking bog in a mist – stark, snapped trees,

And the dark Somme flowing.

Bruce Dawe’s poem “Life Cycle” refers specifically to Australian Rules football, particularly in Melbourne, but it isn’t hard to imagine a universal significance for it.

When children are born in Victoria
they are wrapped in club-colours, laid in beribboned cots,
having already begun a lifetime’s barracking.

Carn, they cry, Carn … feebly at first
while parents playfully tussle with them
for possession of a rusk: Ah, he’s a little Tiger! (And they are …)

Hoisted shoulder-high at their first League game
they are like innocent monsters who have been years swimming
towards the daylight’s roaring empyrean

Until, now, hearts shrapnelled with rapture,
they break surface and are forever lost,
their minds rippling out like streamers

In the pure flood of sound, they are scarfed with light, a voice
like the voice of God booms from the stands
Ooohh you bludger and the covenant is sealed.

Hot pies and potato-crisps they will eat,
they will forswear the Demons, cling to the Saints
and behold their team going up the ladder into Heaven,

And the tides of life will be the tides of the home-team’s fortunes
– the reckless proposal after the one-point win,
the wedding and honeymoon after the grand-final …

They will not grow old as those from the more northern States grow old,
for them it will always be three-quarter-time
with the scores level and the wind advantage in the final term,

That pattern persisting, like a race-memory, through the welter of seasons,
enabling old-timers by boundary fences to dream of resurgent lions
and centaur-figures from the past to replenish continually the present,

So that mythology may be perpetually renewed
and Chicken Smallhorn return like the maize-god
in a thousand shapes, the dancers changing

But the dance forever the same – the elderly still
loyally crying Carn … Carn … (if feebly) unto the very end,
having seen in the six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk their hope of salvation.

 

Francis Brett Young is little remembered.  I intend to get around one day to reading his novels, and his poem “The Quails” has stuck in my memory since I was a child.

 

(In the south of Italy the peasants put out the eyes of a captured quail so that its cries may attract the flocks of spring migrants into their nets.)

All through the night

I have heard the stuttering call of a blind quail,

A caged decoy, under a cairn of stones,

Crying for light as the quails cry for love.

Other wanderers,

Northward from Africa winging on numb pinions, dazed

With beating winds and the sobbing of the sea,

Hear, in a breath of sweet land-herbage, the call

Of the blind one, their sister….

Hearing, their fluttered hearts

Take courage, and they wheel in their dark flight,

Knowing that their toil is over, dreaming to see

The white stubbles of Abruzzi smitten with dawn,

And spilt grain lying in the furrows, the squandered gold

That is the delight of quails in their spring mating.

Land-scents grow keener,

Penetrating the dank and bitter odour of brine

That whitens their feathers;

Far below, the voice of their sister calls them

To plenty, and sweet water, and fulfilment.

Over the pallid margin of dim seas breaking,

Over the thickening in the darkness that is land,

They fly. Their flight is ended. Wings beat no more.

Downward they drift, one by one, like dark petals,

Slowly, listlessly falling

Into the mouth of horror:

The nets….

Where men come trampling and crying with bright lanterns,

Plucking their weak, entangled claws from the meshes of net,

Clutching the soft brown bodies mottled with olive,

Crushing the warm, fluttering flesh, in hands stained with blood,

Till their quivering hearts are stilled, and the bright eyes,

That are like a polished agate, glaze in death.

But the blind one, in her wicker cage, without ceasing

Haunts this night of spring with her stuttering call,

Knowing nothing of the terror that walks in darkness,

Knowing only that some cruelty has stolen the light

That is life, and that she must cry until she dies.

I, in the darkness,

Heard, and my heart grew sick. But I know that to-morrow

A smiling peasant will come with a basket of quails

Wrapped in vine-leaves, prodding them with blood-stained fingers,

Saying, ‘Signore, you must cook them thus, and thus,

With a sprig of basil inside them.’ And I shall thank him,

Carrying the piteous carcases into the kitchen

Without a pang, without shame.

“Why should I be ashamed? Why should I rail

Against the cruelty of men? Why should I pity,

Seeing that there is no cruelty which men can imagine

To match the subtle dooms that are wrought against them

By blind spores of pestilence: seeing that each of us,

Lured by dim hopes, flutters in the toils of death

On a cold star that is spinning blindly through space

Into the nets of time?”

So cried I, bitterly thrusting pity aside,

Closing my lids to sleep. But sleep came not,

And pity, with sad eyes,

Crept to my side, and told me

That the life of all creatures is brave and pitiful

Whether they be men, with dark thoughts to vex them,

Or birds, wheeling in the swift joys of flight,

Or brittle ephemerids, spinning to death in the haze

Of gold that quivers on dim evening waters;

Nor would she be denied.

The harshness died

Within me, and my heart

Was caught and fluttered like the palpitant heart

Of a brown quail, flying

To the call of her blind sister,

And death, in the spring night

 

David Campbell was a pilot in the Second World War. His poem “Men in Green” is about flying reinforcements up through the notorious “Gap” in the Owen Stanley Ranges. Since my father fought as an infantryman in that area the poem has a special poignancy for me. I’ve often thought that “Men in Green” would be an ideal basis for a combined history/poetry lesson for schoolchildren.

Oh, there were fifteen men in green,
Each with a tommy-gun,
Who leapt into my plane at dawn;
We rose to meet the sun.
We set our course towards the east
And climbed into the day
Till the ribbed jungle underneath
Like a giant fossil lay.
We climbed towards the distant range,
Where two white paws of cloud
Clutched at the shoulders of the pass;
The green men laughed aloud.
They did not fear the ape-like cloud
That climbed the mountain crest
And hung from ropes invisible
With lightning in its breast.
They did not fear the summer’s sun
In whose hot centre lie
A hundred hissing cannon shells
For the unwatchful eye.
And when on Dobadura’s field
We landed, each man raised
His thumb towards the open sky;
But to their right I gazed.
For fifteen men in jungle green
Rose from the kunai grass
And came towards the plane. My men
In silence watched them pass;
It seemed they looked upon themselves
In Time’s prophetic glass.
Oh, there were some leaned on a stick
And some on stretchers lay,
But few walked on their own two feet
In the early green of day.
(They did not heed the ape-like cloud
That climbed the mountain crest;
 They did not fear the summer sun
With bullets for their breast.)
Their eyes were bright, their looks were dull;
Their skin had turned to clay
Nature had meet them in the night
And stalked them in the day.
And I think still of men in green
On the Soputa track,
With fifteen spitting tommy-guns
To keep the jungle back.

 

I hope you’ve found these poems interesting.  I would be overjoyed if you’ve found and liked one that you didn’t know before.