Tag: rant

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Every autumn, round this time, we exercise our dead,
from Hallowe’en through Bonfire Night to the Sunday of Remembrance.
Then, after guns and bands, a minute’s silence in conclusion,
but is a minute long enough to reflect on our collusion?

I remember well enough the waiting and the marching,
the fifes and drums, the dragging steps, the brass and bellowed orders,
the stink of blanco, polish, leather, oil and constipation
and all the other bull used to acquit our bloody nation.

The phrases full of gratitude, relief and satisfaction,
the ritual ablution of each survivor’s lousy conscience,
we listened bored and foot-sore to the padre’s pious prattle
of how fine a thing it was to sacrifice oneself in battle.

You know where you can put the Great and Patriotic War,
the military dreams and priests who sanctify the slaughter.
You can screw your King and Country and all that that implies –
that old excuse for shiny boots and uniforms and lies.

You keep the dead. They’ve paid the price for all your greed for glory.
We’ll keep the living and the future for a peace together.
We’ll fight and kill again, I’m sure, if there’s no other choice
but, when we speak of dying, leave the pride out of our voice.

rs 12.11.89 (Remembrance Sunday)

a reply to Derek Walcott

1. For beginners

Yo spar!
Come sit down here and let us talk.
I too have had a sound colonial education,
but we’ve been colonised and colonisers so long now,
there is no memory left except in books.

Nothing I can say will wipe away the crimes.
Though always there were those who practised solidarity,
most of us turned out prisoners who’d tasted power,
becoming cruel gangsters in their turn.

Yet we’d been slaves and bonded servants too –
the anger and the hurt lasted many generations,
only to be eased by crumbs from off the masters tables,
that newer serfs like you supplied instead.

What can I say?
Stupidity must rule
when people are denied the right to make their own decisions
and grow then into weak and vicious frightened children
– all of us have been abused some way.

We, at least, know who are fathers were.
Or do we?
Sure, we know their names and their fathers too
and can trace them back to an earlier migration,
but that’s not all there is to know.

We should try again, while there is time,
to help each other finally begin to climb
out from the trenches and the plague pits of our history
and work towards our common destiny.

We have to look around at who is here,
to recognise we have to share this earth alive or dead
and that it would be best if all were allies in this matter,
who prefer the former to the latter.

It’s no “inferior love” we should give those
who we adopt or who adopted us, than what we owe
to any who are joined to us by family or race.
I’ve said enough. So what do you say, ace?


Be careful what you wish for

The morning after the ceremony a deputation of elders arrived at the hut. I dressed quickly and staggered out to meet them. Their leader stepped forward and delivered a long and impassioned speech. When he’d finished, Kofi (not his real name*) translated (* many of those described here have pseudonym’s to protect their identities).

“Now you ngútsu mtogbé (tribal champion), we have job for you. You bankrobber.”


“You muss rob bank ..”

My head swam and only partly with the hangover from the ‘medicine’ I’d drunk the night before.

“You’re kidding!”

Kofi held up his hand to stop me and stepped forward to murmur in my ear, “You agree to ceremony. You agree to job.”

“Yes, but I thought it was just a ceremonial title. This is crazy!”

Kofi shrugged but looked serious.

“I need to think. I need coffee!”

Kofi turned to the deputation and spoke briefly. They bowed and left.

“What did you say?”

“I told dem you think how to do it.”

“Thanks a lot!”

I went to grab my mug, the tin of instant and bottle of Scotch, then headed for the kitchen area to find some hot water. Sat under the fig tree I alternately sipped the brew and slugged the booze. How the hell did I get into this?

I’d come to this village as an anthropology graduate, hoping to do more than simply study these people, though with no idea what. So when, after they’d got used to me hanging round and asking idiot questions, the offer of a form of initiation had been made, I accepted immediately. Participant observation was a valid process still and seemed the best way to get some deeper insight into this society and to discover how I might be of use to them. That seemed to have paid off big time. My head hurt.

Unpacking this request, nay commission, I reasoned that I’d sleepwalked into a cargo cult dream. The local TV, which my hosts got to watch occasionally when they worked in the city, showed endless repeats of old Westerns and gangster movies that the national service bought cheap from other broadcasters. In these the only way anyone got rich quick was by robbing a bank; the guys who did the robbing were white; I was white; ergo, to help them I had to rob a bank. Simple. Oh, shit.

The one thing I had on my side was time. Africa time, especially in rural areas, is a flexible thing, as with country-dwellers all over the globe. So my options were either to walk away and leave them disabused about the trust they could place in whites – not altogether a bad idea – or stall and hope my new friends would come to recognise the impossibility of their demand, or to come up with a cunning plan that didn’t involve me ending up in gaol or shot dead. A more immediate problem was: how exactly was I going to write this up in my study notes?


“Come, we are brothers now”
say the dolphins to the fish,
“the sharks have all gone.”

Only little brown men*

The journalists came to the country
to discover the truth, so they said.
“The good folks back home need to know
why so many are tortured and dead.”

The people didn’t want to show them,
they feared for their own lives, it’s true,
but the hacks persisted in asking,
’cos they had their assignments to do.

At last they found a poor boatman
to ferry them over the lake;
their expense sheets would scarcely notice
the twenty dollars he’d take.

So they came to the scene of the slaughter –
an entire village wiped out.
These words cannot do justice to the graves,
to the flesh and the bones spread about.

Though they almost were drowned while returning,
the boatman got them safely away;
back in the city they develped their films
and wrote their reports on that day.

The papers did carry the story,
it made the front page everywhere.
The newsmen felt proud of what they had done –
they’d make us all more aware.

But the death squads didn’t like the attention –
their public image looked bad –
so they gave the poor boatman four bullets
to go with the dollars he had.

The price of truth can be heavy –
when you’re poor, twenty sounds like a lot,
but tweny’s not much compensation
when for a bonus you get yourself shot.

Our ‘civilised’ liberals worry,
shake their heads and ask again why:
why the rich do such things to hold on to power,
why do so many poor people die?

Stop asking your self-serving questions.
Stop pretending you haven’t a clue.
Journalists and mercenaries doing their job
and they’re doing it all just for you.

After Rain – to the tune of Alexandra Leaving – (for Jayne C & Leonard Cohen)

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speaker iconClick on the bar below to listen Leonard Cohen’s song Alexandra Leaving

The ground is wet, the smell of petrol strong,
the weather’s been intemperate again –
just when we think that winter should be gone
there’s sun and snow and wind and freezing rain.

Mimosas are outlandishly in bloom –
the yellow sprays, like tansy gone deranged,
they look like giants who’ve strayed away from home
and haven’t learned the seasons have been changed.

Even magnolias already light their candles –
each pale pink flame it struggles with the light,
this is not the season that generally handles
such luxuries as gently as it might.

Some have been released, while others are imprisoned,
and more are torn to shreds without a fight.
Many are forced to disappear for ever,
or come back dead or scarred and never right.

Everywhere you go there is more pain and terror –
unfinished business poisons every road.
We live and die and look for buried treasure
and think the secret’s written in some code.

Look to the sky, you cannot see a border,
though you are lost or safe where you belong.
We search for sense amongst all this disorder
with lies and numbers, histories and song.

Swifts (for Sankaram Kumar*)

Seasonal migrants of our global economy,
they don’t need papers to come here to work,
dashing all over like underpaid waiters,
they screech as they whirl about and never stop.

Harvesting much of our surplus winged insects
with no time to relax, they eat on the wing,
ducking and diving so long the sun shines,
‘cos any bad weather will bring down the crop.

When the picking is over they queue up to fly
back over continents, mountains and seas
but, if they only go south for the winter,
the question arises as to where they belong.

In a world without frontiers, as it is for the birds,
the question is meaningless, pointless to ask –
life is a struggle, as it’s always been,
if they claim a homeland, they do it with song.

rs 8.6.07*

* [‘voluntarily’ repatriated this day]