Archive for November, 2014


Ataturk dissolved seven centuries
of the Sultanate and the British
cloaked-and-daggered the aging Sultan
by sea to San Remo and exile.
Ataturk made the Sultan’s middle aged
cousin, Abdülmecid II, Caliph.
He seemed to carry his descent, as it were,
from the Prophet as lightly as a Pope
from the Saviour. He liked the pomp
and the public circumstance of the role
so much Ataturk sent him packing too.

Classical composer, husband of four wives,
painter, lepidopterist, gardener,
a Victor Hugo fan and of Montaigne’s
Essays – especially perhaps ‘By
Divers Means Men Come To A Like End’ –
he went into exile on The Orient
Express en famille and lived in Paris
and Nice. ‘He may be seen strolling with a mien
of great dignity along the beach,’
wrote a foreign correspondent, ‘attired
in swimming trunks only, carrying
a large parasol.’ He died in his bed
in his house on Boulevard Suchet
as Paris was freed from the Nazis –
his beard, of which he was proud, still resplendent.
He was buried in Medina – Madinat
Al-Nabi, City of the Prophet –
as, officially, the last of the line.
It could have been worse. His seems to have been
a charmed, perhaps even charming, life –
with an enviable retirement, due,
in large part, to Ataturk’s shrewdness.

What would either of them have made of
caliphate proclamations from the deserts
of Syria and Iraq; stage-managed
beheadings broadcast worldwide; Semtex strapped
to the gut and the heart?




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Beneath the Edwardian village hall’s
high ceiling, under its oak hammer beams,
beside the Roll of Honour ‘For the Fallen’,
a squad of four year olds does the Conga, plays
The Farmer’s in his Den, Passes the Parcel.
The birthday girl is dressed as Spiderman –
her choice – eschewing Snow White, Rapunzel.

The backcloth of the proscenium stage
is a painting of part of the village
in halcyon shades of early summer –
the elm-lined road from the hall to the church.
There are eighteen names on the Roll – initial,
surname – rankless and ageless in death.

She snuffs out the candles with one breath.
We sing the song, share the cake and play
one last game of Musical Statues.
Everyone wins. Party bags in hand,
goodbyes and thank yous said, children exhausted,
adults relieved, we turn off the lights –
to leave the hall’s long wooden wall clock,
electrified now, to click past each
unrelenting minute.




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As the First Gulf War began, I watched
the Cardinals – in their brewery
sponsored stadium in downtown St Louis –
beat the ‘Frisco Giants. The home team
is named for the scarlet-breasted bird –
the visitors (aka the New York
Gothams before they went west) for chuzpah.
The fixture was part of the USA’s
annual baseball World Series, which,
of course, includes no teams from abroad.

It was a weekday, early evening –
very much a family occasion.
The programme, advertising caps and tee-shirts,
urged us to ‘think of our boys in the Gulf.’
Most of the players had Hispanic names.
In the intervals, the black vendors
climbed the terraced steps. ‘Any of you farmers
want a coke?’ they called and the mostly white
crowd took no offence Missouri being
a state of farms – soya beans and hogs.
Meanwhile, the quadrille of baseball resumed,
its restrained drama accompanied by the theme
from Jaws each time a player made a home run.

As twilight became night, I remembered
the wide river a couple of blocks away –
rising in the hills of Minnesota
and debouching, two thousand miles
and more, through the shining, shifting Delta
into an altogether different gulf –
and I thought of the immense Republic’s
dark, inviolate fields.




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The Armistice was agreed at 5.10 –
in Foch’s personal railway carriage
– among the cigar and brandy fumes.
The Chancellories of Europe knew
thirty minutes later. Big Ben was rung
for the first time in four years and gas lamps
lit in Paris. There was dancing and streamers.

Foch insisted the truce would not take effect
until 11.00 – ostensibly
so the news could be keyed and carried to
each trench and dugout on the Western Front.

Thousands of soldiers were killed that morning.
The last to die – at 10.59 –
was Private Henry Günther from Baltimore,
advancing with comrades in ignorance
through the wild woodland of the Argonne.
The division’s history records: ‘Almost
as he fell, the gunfire died away
and an appalling silence prevailed’.




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..the randomness: it could have been any soldier,
just as found, crossing the road near the barracks
as they hunted in their Vauxhall Tigra;

the futility: his death, their failed martyrdoms;

the iconography: his bearded murderers brandishing
their weapons, issuing statements for the media,
going viral – like his photo in dress uniform;

the kindness: from strangers in that terrible street;

the bandwagoning, the cant,
the high-horseing, the rabble-rousing:
variously from face-bookers, police,
politicians, tabloids, tweeters;

the closure: military funeral, life sentences, memorials;

the grief: a widow, a son, families…




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