Archive for November, 2015

AMONG THE TRUMPETS

A committee of eight Hebrew scholars –
politically balanced between high church
and puritan – produced in Cambridge
University four hundred years ago,
what Tennyson called ‘the greatest poem’,
the King James’ version of The Book of Job.
They were not paid but promised possible
preferment – essential for some comfort
in the church and the groves of academe
of a country racked by civil strife.

Their contribution to the new monarch’s
pursuit of national unity
was ten books: from Chronicles – ‘These are the sons
of Israel…’ – to The Song of Solomon –
‘Let him kiss me with the kisses
of his mouth.’ The Book of Job was the sixth.

Imagine a committee of divines,
an octet of cloistered pedants producing
not a camel but a steed that ‘saith
among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he
smelleth the battle afar off, the
thunder of the captains, and the shouting…’

 

 

 

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THE AQUEDUCT

At the bottom of the valley – here briefly
more gorge than valley – the ice age river
runs white and rapid. Deep in its narrow banks
rest the vast brick columns of the aqueduct
that carries, in a narrow cast iron canal,
one hundred and twenty seven feet above,
water from the river tapped upstream –
Thomas Telford’s genius, recognised
as one with the Statue of Liberty,
the Taj Mahal and the Acropolis
and become a stop for Japanese tourists.

Above the valley along the toll road
Telford built from Holyhead to London
is the scattered village developed and named
for the aqueduct – Froncysyllte* –
of a thousand souls at its zenith.

On the war memorial by the roadside
there are thirty six names – the first two
from the Boer War. Two small plaques list
the World War dead – and, between them, an ornate,
tiled drinking fountain (now dry) for the lads
lost on the high veld, one in battle,
the other from typhoid. The legend is
Parcher Y Dewr – ‘respect the brave’.
By chance or design, you would have had to
bow your head, when, at the turn of a tap,
the waters from ancient volcanoes
would spring into your mouth.

 

*Pronounced: Vron-cuss-ulth-teh.

 

 

 

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TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

‘Half winged-half imprisoned, this is man!’
PEDAGOGICAL SKETCHBOOKS, Paul Klee, 1925

 

Cruising from Westminster to Greenwich, we passed
Tate Modern, the old Bankside power station –
art as regeneration. The current show
was ‘Paul Klee – Making Visible’. “Making
a fool of himself, more like!” called the captain
over the tannoy. There was much laughter
and some applause. The 02 Arena
and the Thames Barrier came into view –
two works of abstract art as engineering.
In the Royal Hospital’s Painted Hall
are Thornhill’s baroque maritime murals –
representational art as décor
and establishment propaganda.

On the return trip, a different captain
made the same remark – to the same effect.
Klee and his peers had been many decades
dead and were, seemingly, still a threat –
despite the sponsor, EY – Ernst & Young –
trusted global accountants and auditors!

Klee catalogued his work precisely.
‘Making Visible’ followed his schema.
In the ‘20s room, I studied his ‘Wohin?’ –
‘Where to?’ – oil on paper, A4 more or less –
a stylised landscape of seven trees –
straight trunks, leaves and branches circular,
six deep green, paint richly daubed, the seventh
a discreet orange – and varicoloured,
irregular fields, no lanes, paths – the title
painted in as part of the picture.

I had seen the work before: exhibited
in Chicago’s Art Institute, built
as part of the 1893 World Fair –
architectural art as marketing.
The exhibition was a reprise –
a sort of victory roll – of the Nazi’s
‘Entarte Kunst’ – ‘Degenerate Art’,
mastered by Goebbels, opened by Hitler
in ’37 in Munich’s Chamber
of Visual Arts. In addition
to Klee’s, there were works by Chagall, Grosz,
Kandinsky, Kokoscha, Mondrian et al –
snatched from the public galleries of the Reich.
One might have expected the exhibition
to have been followed by the public
immolation of the works of art,
like the burning of books in ’33.
Some disappeared as Europe broke apart.
Many, like ‘Wohin?’, travelled safely
abroad. Money makes the art go round.

In ’33, vilified by the Nazis,
he left Germany and returned to Bern.
His was, as he put it, ‘a thinking eye’,
seeing truly the scope and the nature of things;
Picasso’s ‘master of colour’; versatile
in his use of materials; prolific.
In ’36, he was diagnosed
with scleroderma, an incurable
degenerative disease, that affects
motor skills. He died the month the Werhmacht
took Paris. He painted to the end.

 

 

 

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SOME CORNER OF A FOREIGN FIELD

‘”…you…will not enjoy their coming. War, fierce war,
I see: and the Tiber foaming with much blood…”‘
The Sybil from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 6, lines 86–88

 

We found the grave by chance – stopping in Warwick
on our journey south. What drew us in
always beckons: the sad purposefulness,
the dark evergreens – towering larch, spruce, pine –
old graves, their lettering past pollution
almost erased, askew with ivy, moss,
lichen, the shadows of stories, echoes –
‘In Memory of Hannah Louise,
beloved wife of John Freeman, died
aged 21, April 1919
and Irene Louise, died aged 5 months,
December 1918′ – echoes, stories…

Although he died in 1998,
his is a military headstone, a
war grave marker – with John Enoch Powell,
his dates, his army rank, his offices.
Behind his stone, facing his back, as it were,
are ten genuine second world war graves,
paraded five by five: two Germans, a Pole,
an Italian, the rest British including
a woman – driver, stoker, able seaman,
sapper, engineer, assorted squaddies.
He was buried in his Brigadier’s
uniform, the Warwickshires’ emblem,
an antelope, carved in the Portland stone.
On the grave is a bunch of plastic flowers
and a handwritten note in Ancient Greek.

A Brummie, born next to a railway cutting,
he was a truly renaissance man: poet,
scholar, classicist, polyglot, soldier,
orator, equestrian, politician,
contrarian, tribalist, bigot.

He suffered survivor’s guilt. ‘I should have liked,’
he said on Desert Island Disks, ‘to have
been killed in the war,’ and wrote that soldiers
like him – a boffin, a desk wallah
who had not served in the frontline carried
‘a sort of shame with them to the grave.’

One of his poems begins ‘When I am gone,
remember me…’ seemingly addressed
to his mother. After marriage he published
no more poems but wrote one for each
of their wedding anniversaries.
His wife buried the forty or so with him.

‘When I am gone, remember me, not often,
but when the east grey light is growing.’
By happenstance, a word he would have used,
he is leading forever northwards his
motley squad of the dead.

 

 

Note: Another poem about Enoch Powell – ONLY ONE IN STEP – was first published on the site in 2010: http://www.davidselzer.com/2010/04/only-one-in-step/

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AYLAN KURDI

The photograph will become as iconic
as Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ and Ut’s
‘Napalm Girl’. The tall Turkish police sergeant,
stooping as one should cradling something precious,
holds the Kurdish infant as if he were
carrying his already sleeping son
to his small bed – except that he would have
gently brushed the wet sand from the little boy.

 

 

 

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