VANISHING HERO, VANISHED PEACE - [SILLITOE AND OTHERS]
We think we are living in the world, when in fact we are being positioned in a perspective …The hero, the ruler, the superstar, the millionaire, the expert… how often have they sold out all they held most dear?
[Raoul Vaneigem: The Revolution Of Everyday Life, 1967]
In Woburn Walk, London, where Yeats once resided long ago, can be found the excellent Aquarium Gallery. A small but significant exhibition, entitled Pax Britannica: A Hellish Peace, was shown there, featuring work from “distinguished artists who do not believe in war as a means towards peace, who deplore organised aggression and the killing of innocent civilians and soldiers”. Among those included were Richard Hamilton, Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe, Sir Anthony Caro, Steve Bell, Billy Childish and Martin Rowson, and on the evening of 31st March 2004, over a dozen poets read in protest against the American and British ‘coalition’ involved in the invasion of Iraq.
Reading together with other literary friends, colleagues and acquaintances, on what turned out to be an extraordinary night – inspiring, moving, occasionally even hilarious – I was glad to re-encounter some writers I liked but hadn’t seen for years, notably Adrian Mitchell and Ruth Fainlight. Conspicuous by his absence, however, was the latter’s husband, Alan Sillitoe. This was scarcely a surprise in the light of what Sillitoe had recently written about the so-called ‘war’ against Iraq, but it did give me both reason for wonder and cause for regret.
I recalled the only time I’d actually met Sillitoe. This was back in the late 1970s at the Arvon Foundation’s Yorkshire centre, Lumb Bank, where I was tutoring a writing course. The Sillitoes and their young son David appeared one day accompanied by Ted Hughes, whose family house the centre had previously been. A brief but convivial enough occasion, or so I remembered it… As a writer in my thirties, one engaged by then on his own seventh or eighth novel, I was naturally interested to meet the internationally celebrated author of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner.
Those days, I was surely more naïve than I now am, but I still thought I knew better than identify authors with their fictional protagonists or projections. Not that I necessarily expected to be introduced to some dour, pugnacious hulk from the Midlands. Nor had I really imagined he’d be any kind of angry misfit – brash brawler or workingclass hero. I’d not have been disconcerted, though, to meet somebody cast more in the mould of characters incarnated by Courtenay and Finney – the combative Brit stars of those equally famous films based on Sillitoe’s influential books.
Sillitoe himself, however, seemed no rebel, appearing shy, pallid and frail. Thin mousy hair was slicked across his scalp. Slight of build, he was suited, quite surprisingly, in a three-piece outfit complete with waistcoat; across the waistcoat pockets, very visible, hung a fobwatch and chain. For an autodidact who had left school at fifteen, this might have been regarded as mere affectation: or had he playfully reinvented a personality? When it was a question of drawing down a sash-window (although the weather, even to a southerner like myself, wasn’t especially cold), some awkward wrestling ensued, and he seemed hardly able to perform this simple act of closure. I also noted a pair of round gold-rimmed spectacles he produced: at the time, these glasses seemed unduly neat, prim rather than macho, and more mannered than cool. Like his serious – twelve-year old? – boy, Sillitoe struck me as reserved and somewhat precious, a little short on humour.
Yet what true picture might be expected of The Author, or of any other author, in those distant days? Long before sighting this rare, elusive creature in its unusual plumage, I must have formed my own very fanciful view of Sillitoe. Unconsciously, if unavoidably perhaps, a rather different picture had filtered through to me, transmitted by the youthful vigour and energy of his earlier work. The ‘real’ or actual image in my mind’s eye, that retinal snapshot, remains nonetheless, nagging the memory thirty years on. Can it, should it, be retained or adjusted? What about the doubtful wisdom of experience, doubt-filled cynicism, belated sexagenarian hindsight? Now I’m inclined to think that a curiously disconcerting first impression was both intuitive and accurate. I suppose I sensed a vague unease, a baffling disappointment I couldn’t explain to anyone – least of all myself.
Not given to hero-worship, I tend to be sceptical rather than too readily impressed. But it’s true we had nothing much in common, apart from the English language: in my case, even the latter was acquired; I was a foreigner, a perpetual outsider, classless exile from an utterly different country and culture. Sillitoe’s breakthrough early writing, however, had struck home where I was concerned. Anger at injustice, principled and dogged endurance, resistance to exploitation or the bullying tactics of corrupt Authority – all these I could recognise and very much cared about. Alas, fame, money and the years intervene, and most of us sell out somewhere along the line. Even the good writers of their time succumb – in and with time. Take the classic U-turns later effected by those talented, angry-hungry, committed young socialists – individuals setting out as workingclass heroes, writing and raging with wit and power, but ending up self-indulgent, drunken old codgers! (Name names? Amis, Osborne & Co. Always plenty more where that old firm came from.) I don’t suggest that this undignified ageing process – the near-deathly hankering for honours, wealth, comfort, popularity and the like – has yet caught up with Sillitoe, though my initial misgivings recently resurfaced after reading his comments in Authors Take Sides On Iraq And The Gulf War (Cecil Woolf, 2004).
Flashback one moment please to 1937: Nancy Cunard edited and published her questionnaire, much imitated since, inviting nearly 150 authors to comment and take sides on the Spanish Civil War. Only five supported Franco; two of whom (had I been alive then) I’d probably still have read but no longer respected. Both, predictably, were elitist reactionaries, snobbish Catholic aesthetes, convinced religionists if ever literary men were; both, too, must sincerely have believed in the quasi-mystical Rightness (no pun intended) of their cause. Yet Arthur Machen and Evelyn Waugh defended an irrational illegal crusade like Franco’s: by their armchair assent to fascism, these untypical British representatives of la trahison des clercs let their readers know they stood for removing democracy and installing dictatorship.
By 2004, Bush and Blair, another pair of far less intellectual yet quite as fervent believers (both in God and themselves), can scarcely make shift to defend their own irrational and illegal crusade. Having pre-emptively removed one ugly dictatorship, they plan to replace it at countless human cost by imposing another, equally vile. As vile yes, if possibly more treacherous and deceptive, since what’s envisaged is merely the simulacrum of democracy. More exactly – although purporting to help the poor Iraqis bled dry and bombed for so many years – our two just men, themselves wealthy warmakers-turned-lawmakers, propose a most acceptable final solution to the Iraq problem. Lo and behold, they intend installing a business-driven, militarist oligarchy for the longterm benefit of the civilised Judaeo-Christian West! Doubtless some rigged elections will follow, and a succession of puppet goverments and ‘friendly’ rulers, paid off to pacify and presumably ‘unite’ the Iraqi populace. The latter must be persuaded of our good faith, that euphemistic phrase for the benevolent capitalistic plans being laid for its future. Do we hear talk of geese and golden eggs? Think contracts, think oil and gas reserves, imperial bases; talk up lucrative ‘reconstruction’ of everything recently used up or destroyed. What sublime opportunism, to be able to play the moral card too, making the civilised world (i.e. a small percentage of the west) safer (i.e. wealthier), while enjoying a righteous killing in the process. As for this blatant collective killing, these blameless individual killings, all’s being done and made in order to clinch the cleanest deal of all, Democracy-in-Iraq!
Who truly credits the botched British and American arguments, the crude, noxious lies? Who falls for this rotten arm- and word-twisting, the hatefilled propaganda pumped out daily with the pilfered oil? Millions around the world marched in protest against the invasion of Iraq. Fewer and fewer people now can still continue to believe – either in our compromised leaders’ good sense or in their good faith. Misinformation and planted rumour are seen through, are no longer reassuring or encouraging, and yet dirty political tricks and disinformation still rule: the scum rises on a tide of rubbish, swelled by generally craven media compliance. Alongside the unmentionable blank spaces sit glib denials, matters of censorship, official briefings or downright (downhome?) mendacity. By contrast, writers, of all people, should insist on the truth, shouldn’t they?
That rhetorical question brings me back to London, to the reading in Woburn Walk, and to Cecil Woolf’s recently published questionnaire to authors. For I was distressed by the comments of one particular writer who, among only two or three others, has wholeheartedly supported this illegitimate, pre-emptive attack on Iraq. Alan Sillitoe stoutly declares himself “in favour of the war in Iraq”. Seven bad enough words (and note the last four, themselves making up a phoney definition of the conflict), but Sillitoe concludes: “One can only congratulate the United States forces, and the soldiers of Great Britain. And, as for settling things in the Middle East, if this won’t help the process nothing will. Israel and the west must stick together.”
Leading up to those appallingly blinkered statements, Sillitoe has the gall to quote Milton. He enlists of course, that great radical out of context and into his own dubious cause. Cavalierly annexing a well known chorus from the elegiac epic Samson Agonistes – quite as if it’s a separate piece, standing on its own – Sillitoe next informs us, certainly mistakenly and clearly deliberately, that this is “a poem…called ‘The End of Violent Men’”. He proceeds to quote the famous 15 lines (“Oh, how comely it is and how reviving”, etc) ending with the defeat of “the wicked, who surpris’d / Lose their defence distracted and amaz’d”. The wrath of God and of Gee Bush, indeed.
It seems to me that Sillitoe – smugness and borrowed triumphalism aside – wilfully misses the vital point here. (And aren’t these dangerously shifting sands for an autodidact misquoting or quoting out of context?). Surely Samson himself, the great rebel vilified and confined like Vanunu in vindictive and dreadful isolation, is far from cowardly: humiliated, yet defiant in his blind desperation, Samson may be reckoned the original suicide bomber. How ironic that this archetypal hero-as-victim, the bold fighter for freedom, viewed by the blind and disappointed Milton as the instrument of divine justice, should be an Israeli(te)! Ironic too, that Sillitoe signally fails to distinguish between oppressor and oppressed: if he thinks Sharon’s Israel, financially and militarily supported by the US and UK, is the underdog of the Middle East, I doubt that we inhabit the same planet.
At the London reading, therefore, I couldn’t help wondering how Ruth Fainlight – writer of some fine poems and adamantly opposed to the US/UK bullyboy tactics in Iraq – might view her longterm partner’s belligerence. I didn’t risk asking, aware that on one level it was none of my business. But on a broader front than the purely domestic, it’s everybody’s business – the important question of whether such vexed issues can be understandingly and sensibly discussed. In fact, if none of us ever listens to, or engages with, the essential arguments pro and con, we are all lost and the Middle East may yet become our Armageddon. Such a catastrophic scenario can be dubbed cynical, far-fetched or indeed impossible, but before any final version of it is drafted, an urgent need remains for justly critical, genuinely outspoken voices, for enragés – angry workingclass heroes in life as in literature.
Armed with Swiftian saeva indignatio, they’ll be required to dispose of the widespread ignorance and self-perpetuating apathy, everywhere prevalent as muck – a peculiarly foul-smelling mulch, moreover, emanating from the smug lies daily excreted by the deviously racist, late-capitalist rich. There’s an urgent need anyhow, somehow, to sweep away those very greedheads (Lord Buckley’s fiercely apt coinage) who currently plot and control our destinies… “Gold is the idol they worship,” wrote Jean Rhys. Nowadays it’s ‘black gold’ too, the oil that lubricates our lumbering, criminally wasteful Western power structures.
As for writers, they must speak out not sell out, since free speech matters more than ‘free’ enterprise, and if you compromise with the truth, you end up compromised yourself. Emily Dickinson believed “Truth is so rare, it’s delightful to tell it”, but published virtually nothing in her lifetime. Our own so-called free press would have appalled and repelled her. Feel free to write what you choose? Well in theory, at least…Best keep heads down and keep silent, or give the public what it’s supposed to want. You can always try voicing criticism of, or dissatisfaction with, the status quo and see just how long you retain your job, your column, your reputation! Who among those resolutely superior, un-angelic orders will hear you, let alone print your prose, however passionate, accurate or well-argued it may be? Upwardly mobile they may be, the workingclass heroes of the twenty-first century, but they surely can’t all have vanished…
So what was that Battle Song? Where have all the young men gone? Off to fight for New Labour or the Neo-Cons, I daresay. Or else they’re even more gainfully employed, projecting their own nasty, narcissistic media vomit. It’s the age of the new cash barbarism, the pressing promotion of nonsense, non-stories, nonentities. The advertising apocalypse is here, now: buy it or die! Die anyway, and in instalments, inevitably, but meanwhile All Hail the Media Potentate in His longed-for Second Coming! Many names hath He – always He, as of Right – for such is the Advent of true tabloid drivel. Yea, and the acolytes and Initiates shall purvey pap regurgitated, selling prose wholly fit to fool the proles…
With us or against us, reads the latest Public Health Warning. It’s the current home-spun terrorist-alert siren-song to be whined and droned by the party-faithful, the apparatchik-priests, the throng of PR-paparazzi, the lobbyists, the well-embedded hacks of the Press gang. –– Against us? [They recoil in simulated horror.] Against US? No, surely not, not if you know what’s good for you. And since we know what’s your best interest, you must accept that the voices of protest won’t be heard. Protest is unpatriotic, hence unreported, refuted, ridiculed and denied. Dissent is indecent. Make that nice cosy lucrative U-turn! Just give in, go with the apathetic flow. Or else sink without trace, choke under an endless tide – our current stream of mischievously dumped sludge, of dumbed-down rotting verbal garbage…
So it goes, as one ancient satirist’s refrain put it. To hum another’s, it’s simply The way of all flesh. As for long time passing, earth is simply what we have and finally return to, and our time’s running out. And yet nothing’s in vain: heroes vanish as they too must, but they’re never forgotten. Even this late in the day there are “flowers for the rebels who failed”. If there seems nothing much left to cheer about, it’s always worth continuing the struggle, continuing at least to raise a fist and a shout. Plenty of “good, brave causes” left… Where, though, is the new young breed of revolutionary with the fighting spirit and the fire? Declare yourselves without delay poets and radicals! Be ready to write your hearts out and bring some hope to this confused, war-ravaged world of inevitable entropy, futile greed, needless hate and careless love.
(May Day 2004)
Note: The above article was originally published in the periodical Tears In The Fence, ed. David Caddy, autumn 2004. A shortened version appeared in the anthology London – City of Disappearances, ed. Iain Sinclair, 2006.
Now, ten years on, it’s Halloween 2014, and in the light of subsequent events in Iraq (and Afghanistan and Gaza etc), various of my literary-polemical reflections above may still be of horribly topical interest to UK readers!