Friday, February 28, 2020

We strap our arms round the scarlet red

ANNIE. I'll tell you for what a soldier's good:

       To march behind his roaring drum,
       Shout to us all: 'Here I come
       I've killed as many as I could --
       I'm stamping into your fat town
       From the war and to the war
       And every girl can be my whore
       Just watch me lay them squealing down.
       And that's what he does and so do we.
       Because we know he'll soon be dead
       We strap our arms round the scarlet red
       Then send him weeping over the sea.
       Oh he will go and a long long way.
       Before he goes we'll make him pay
       Between the night and the next cold day --
       By God there's a whole lot more I could say --

What good's a bloody soldier 'cept to be dropped into a slit in the ground like a letter in a box. How many did you bring with you -- is it four?

BARGEE. Aye. Four.

ANNIE. That's four beds in this house?

MRS. HITCHCOCK. I should hope it's in this house. It's the best house in town.

ANNIE (in a sudden outburst). Then you'd do well to see they stay four nights because I'll not go with more nor one in one night, no, not for you nor for all of Egypt!

She lets out a howl and rushes out of the door behind the bar, clattering a tin tray full of tankards on to the floor.

(Act I Scene II)


Most of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance takes place in a coal-mining town some time in the second half of the nineteenth century (The costumes in the first production were from around 1860 to 1880.) The soldiers wear red tunics and blue breeches. Hence the "scarlet red", "blood-red roses", "blood-red flowers o' beauty" etc.

John Arden was born in Barnsley in 1930. His hometown surely lies behind the town in the play, but the latter feels more mythic: compact, remote, surrounded by snowy moorland, still reliant on barges for coal transport. Barnsley isn't very near the moors, and the railway arrived there in 1850. Its canal, now disused, was constructed in the 1790s. (Britain's worst mining disaster took place in Barnsley in 1866; at least 361 men and boys died in a series of explosions.)


ANNIE. But you'll not leave me behind?

      He has started dressing, very confusedly, putting his tunic on first.

ANNIE. Swear it.

      He has his trousers ready to step into. He lets them fall while he takes her for a moment in his arms:

SPARKY. Sworn.

      HURST nips in and seizes the trousers

      (Releasing ANNIE)  Now then, sharp. Hey, where's me trousers?

HURST. Here!
SPARKY. What's the goddamn -- give 'em back, you dirty --
HURST (triumphantly). Come and get 'em, Sparky! Heh, you'll be the grand deserter, won't you, running bare-arsed over the moor in six-foot drifts of snow!
SPARKY. Give me them!

       He grabs one end of the trousers and a farcical tug-o'-war begins.

HURST (in high malice). A man and a soldier! Jump, natter, twitch, like a clockwork puppet for three parts of the night, but the last night of all, you run! You little closhy coward.

        ATTERCLIFFE has woken and tries to intervene.

ATTERCLIFFE. What the hell's the row -- easy, easy, hold it!
SPARKY. He's got my bloody trousers!

        He gives a great tug on the trousers and pulls them away, HURST falling down.

HURST. I'm going to do you, Sparky.

        His hand falls on SPARKY'S belt, with bayonet scabbard attached, which is lying on the floor. He gets up, drawing the bayonet.

ANNIE. No, no, stop him!
ATTERCLIFFE. Drop that bayonet!

         ANNIE mixes in, seizing HURST'S wrist and biting it. The bayonet drops to the floor. ATTERCLIFFE snatches it and HURST jumps upon him. Together they fall against SPARKY and all three crash to the floor. SPARKY gives a terrifying, choking cry.

(Act II Scene III)


Sparky's accidental death, which later contributes to the failure of Musgrave's mission, has been considered a weakness of John Arden's play, but I think that's completely wrong. Musgrave's idea that he can somehow put terrible things right by deploying the military virtues themselves, i.e. by being disciplined and sticking to what's material, is always liable to be knocked off course. The chances of that happening are multiplied by the erratic energies of Musgrave's traumatized band of troopers (and himself). And drink. Hurst's threat is really murderous.  But the bayonet was in poor well-meaning Attercliffe's hands. As apparently in the death of the little girl, Attercliffe can't seem to keep his hands free of blood. Join the army and though you may be a good man you cannot be a harmless one, the play seems to say. Sparky's death follows hard upon his poignant plan to escape with Annie; individual escape, too, is a bolthole blocked off by the play's logic.

The modern reader's or producer's doubts lies elsewhere, I think. We easily accept that Arden's play isn't naturalistic, and we easily accept that Musgrave's mission (bringing both salvation and violence) is madly incoherent, but still, (for me at least) there remains a nagging question about its credibility. Perhaps it's to do with soldiers themselves assuming the mantle of trying to cure a society in which they are the sickness personified.

From the distance of sixty years, it seems -- odd, at least -- to see a play about the ills of colonialism that contains not even a mention of race or ethnicity. We might pick away at this a bit further, wondering if the play inadvertently prolongs the voicelessness and facelessness of colonial victims, or if there's something potentially patronizing about the assumption that a remedy for Britain's military swaggering can only be carried out by Britons themselves. Perhaps the colonized peoples themselves might have something to say about that? 

Other doubts may also contribute to the lack of recent performances of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. It deploys folkloric motifs to magical effect, and this gives the play a lot of its power. But motif and stereotype are two sides of the same coin. For example, in the figure of the bargee, crooked Joe Bludgeon, Arden made great symbolic capital of a physical disability; just what we teach our children not to do. And the two women in the play, though they're certainly at its moral centre (as Arden says), are quite intentionally refracted through ancient stereotypes of the prostitute, the betrayed maid, the motherly provider, and so on.

But with all these concessions, it remains a drama of great verve and eloquence, and an essay on complicity whose questions remain pressing and unresolved.


Serjeant Musgrave's Dance was first performed by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre on 22 October 1959.

It's a pacifist play, and the author wasn't messing about. Arden was active in the peace movement throughout his life. And his widow the Irish actress Margaretta D'Arcy, now 86, still is -- not to everyone's amusement, as demonstrated by the comments to the link below. Her most recent imprisonment was in 2014, protesting against the use of Shannon airport as a refuelling point for US warplanes. .
The couple, who settled in Galway, could be said to have sacrificed their promising professional careers to their political beliefs. The NPG biographical note, for example, says that since the early 1960s "Arden's Marxist views have distanced him from mainstream theatre".

It wasn't such front page news in the 1950s, but Britain had various niggling military operations on the go, notably the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and the Kenya Emergency, better known as the Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1960). But it was the Cyprus Emergency (1955-1959) that supplied the impetus here.

John Wyver quotes Michael Billington as saying that Arden's play was prompted by

a particularly horrifying incident in Cyprus […] A British soldier’s wife had been shot by terrorists in Famagusta in October 1958. In retaliation some of the military went wild and five innocent people, including a little girl, were shot in the resultant round-up. (State of the Nation, p. 116)
John Newsinger in British Counterinsurgency: From Palestine to Northern Ireland (2002), p. 110, gives a somewhat different account of what took place:

Frustration finally exploded in Famagusta on 3 October [1958] when an EOKA gunman shot two British service wives, killing Mrs Catherine Cutliffe. In less than two hours troops had rounded up a thousand Greek Cypriot men and taken them off for screening and interrogation. Over 250 required medical treatment, 16 were seriously injured and three were killed, one a 12-year-old boy. While they were being rounded up, a 12-year-old girl had collapsed and died of shock. One soldier wrote home that the boy had been strangled by a sergeant major in the Military Police and that the dead girl had been raped. He wrote of 'wholesale rape, looting and murder, including four more men killed in reprisal in Varosha. Everything had got 'particularly bloody and disgusting'. 
The Secretary of State for the Colonies, in Parliament (Nov 1958), reported only that two men had died during the operation, and while admitting that the Security Forces were "disgusted and angry", denied that they had acted inappropriately. Brian Drohan's recent account in Brutality in an Age of Human Rights: Activism and Counterinsurgency at the End of the British Empire (2018) (pp. 72-79) doesn't mention the rape allegations in the soldier's letter quoted by Newsinger; nor does he mention the death of a 12-year-old boy. But evidently there was plenty of looting and evidently the troops had, in fact, furiously beaten up many of the detainees, both during arrest and in custody. (Britain ducked any responsibility for the girl's death, on the inadequate grounds that they were rounding up men, not girls.)

Serjeant Musgrave's Dance wasn't a great success when first performed (it lost a lot of money), but it came into its own a few years later, during the era of the Vietnam war and then the troubles in Northern Ireland. In schools it was studied at A-Level (which is evidently how my copy arrived in Swindon). There were more performances in 2003, when Britain got involved in Iraq. .

John Arden in 1960

[Image source: National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Roger Mayne.]

The graveyard scene, from the 1961 Granada production for ITV. 

[Image source: . Arden's screenplay for the Granada production reworked the beginning and end of his play so that all the action takes place within the unnamed mining town. Patrick McGoohan starred as Serjeant Musgrave.]

Advert for Taddy Nut Brown Ale from the 1950s 

[Image source: .]

BARGEE. A quart o' taddy. Best!
MRS. HITCHCOCK (impassive). Can you pay for it?

(Act I Scene II)

A "taddy ale" was an ale from Tadcaster (near York), probably brewed by John Smiths or Sam Smiths, probably a brown ale but not necessarily.


Friday, February 21, 2020

our river

River Ray at Westmead, Swindon

As befits a town in the middle of England, Swindon is very close to the east-west watershed. Three or four miles west, the waters drain into the Avon basin. But here, the water drains east, eventually. Swindon has no main river, it was all about the railway, but the little River Ray winds through West Swindon, on its fifteen-mile journey north from the Marlborough Downs to meet the infant Thames at Cricklade.

I was thinking about our deeply ingrained dream of being transported, of moving without effort, the excitement of motion that even a thousand commutes can't quite numb. It wasn't all a dream, even before BMWs, before express trains and horse carts. Even in prehistory, children began life by being carried around. We can pretend that there's something heroic about racing drivers and jockeys and fighter pilots and astronauts, but still, there's something infantile about it, these small figurines being hurtled along by forces greater than their own.

In prehistory, too, someone could have dropped a coracle into the river just here, and been floated (if not quite effortlessly) for two hundred miles downriver and into the wide arms of the Thames estuary.

Because we are animals, moving around is the essence of our way of life. But moving around under our own steam quickly becomes hard work. The dream of being transported is to get a free ride.

Transport has meant so many things; liberation, enlargement, discovery, the greed of knowledge. Pioneering, penetration, exploitation. Escape, from suffocating home, from consequences, from the tribe's pettiness and from ourselves. Mastery and display. Finding God, finding our destiny. An unhinging, perhaps an illusion, a flight of fancy, out of our minds.


Thursday, February 20, 2020

end of an empire

Crossness lighthouse on Leather Bottle Point, the boundary between Barking Reach and Halfway Reach

[Image source: Wikipedia.]

17 April 1958. Osaka

Anchored off Osaka last night. I was on anchor-watch, just keeping a general eye and checking bearings to make sure we weren't dragging. I couldn't see much until first light, then it was just like one of those Japanese paintings. The water's completely still, and as the sun came up all the other ships and boats were blodges, not sharp enough to be silhouettes, just blodges against the yellowy-brown (I think that's the colour) mist. Ainslie came up to the bridge and I said wasn't it an amazing colour. It's shit, he said. He's really got a way with words. I said I thought it was beautiful. You would, he said. That's because you know sod all about sod all. It's yellow because it's sulphur from the sodding factories. Forget the fancy toe painting or Madame Butterfly crap. It's part of their wonderful industrial revolution. They chuck all the industrial waste into the air or the sea. I said it was just like London and smogs. He said everyone was the same. Didn't matter where you went. You had a sodding great world war. Killed as many people as you could and then tried to kill the rest with progress coming out chimneys instead of gun barrels. I asked him what he was going to do about it. He said if Mr Churchill couldn't care a toss why should he. Just remember two things, he said. Don't drink the water and always remember to wash your willy after you've shagged their women.
      Ainslie is strange. He comes out with something as strong as the thing about smoke and philosophy and then somehow spoils it by saying things like that. Somewhere deep down he's very angry. I wish he liked me, then I could ask him why. 


The area round Belvedere used to be called Lessness. I just couldn't resist using that word for two posts in succession!

Belvedere lies west of Erith and north of Bexleyheath. It was and is a working-class area but its name has fancy origins. One story is that the village was named after a wooden tower erected by Sir Culling Eardley in the mid 19th century. The other is that his forebear Sir Sampson Gideon's house was already named Belvedere when rebuilt by James "Athenian" Stuart, c. 1765. At any rate, the name alludes to the fine view over the Thames from its upland location.

Belvedere House in 1910

[Image source: .]

Eardley's son fled England for America in 1869, facing accusations of bigamy. Belvedere House ended up in the hands of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society and, after many years service as a retirement home for sailors, was demolished in 1959. The Kentish lad may have been home in time to see it come down, not that he was staying. His world had become a lot bigger in the past 18 months. Eight Bells and Top Masts (2001) is based on teenage diaries of his time as junior deck apprentice on a tramp steamer, flying an archaic red ensign and pursuing an archaic trade across the world in the last days before container shipping: salt from Port Sudan to South Korea, phosphates from Nauru to Colombo, sugar from Cuba to Shanghai.

[Tramping meant undertaking ad hoc voyages; as contrasted to a liner, i.e. a ship that plies back and forth on the same route.]

The Kentish lad was Christopher Lee, who later became a historian and prolific author of radio plays. The diary entries have a dramatist's sense of arrangement and pace. I'm guessing that sometimes the author of 2001 lent his 17-year-old self a helping hand.

31 January 1958

I'm not yet sure who speaks and who doesn't. The Mate is quite fierce. He's not as tall as me but he's very round and he's got an enormous beard. And he's Irish. When he speaks he makes gurgling sounds at the back of his throat. It's like he had a bit of his whiskers caught down there. The Second Mate just stared at me when Ainslie said who I was. Then he nodded. Then he said was I keen on crosswords. I said I didn't know. I'd never done one. He just walked away. The chief steward's Chinese and has a big smile. Ainslie says we have to keep in with him. Because he's got the food? No. Because he's the biggest sneak on the sodding ship and he'll tell on you if he feels like it. Ainslie says I'll soon get to know everyone. He says there was no need to speak to the engineers unless you wanted to. He says you'll soon know who they are. They always wipe their hands on their trousers before they shake hands -- even when they're perfectly clean. Habit, he said. Don't take any notice. They're not like us. I said, my grandfather's an engineer. He said, you'll know what I mean then.

The point was, even the lowly junior deck apprentice was, prospectively at least, a sailor, and sailing was a profession. Engineering was a trade. Even though the Chief Engineer had unparalleled access to the godlike Captain, that distinction still held: there were two separate hierarchies within the white British part of the vessel. The afterdeck (bosun, deckhands, stokers, donkeymen) were Chinese. To them, as to all other foreigners, the British applied a simplifying set of stereotypes; chinkies, darkies, dagoes... It was sufficient for their limited contact with the world they roamed. Our apprentice had all the lingo, but was thoughtful enough and young enough to know his ignorance, and to feel his ingrained belief in Britannia's sway contradicted  by Nasser at Suez, by a world that neither feared the British nor liked them.


15 March 1959, Gibraltar

I reckon I'm really lucky to be alive. I think we all are. We were coming through the Strait of Gibraltar last night. Very, very foggy. Engines on Slow Ahead. Long blasts on the ship's whistle [hooter]. I went on watch at four this morning and was sent for'd as fo'c's'le lookout. You stand right up for'd on a metal platform in the bows. There's a bell with a clapper. T|he mate said that if you see anything on the starboard bow then you hit the bell once. On the port bow you hit it twice, and if anything's ahead then you hit it three times. That way the bridge will look in the direction rather than you shouting and not being understood. I got up on the fo'c's'le and it was so dense that when I looked back I couldn't even see the bridge properly. We were hardly moving through the water. Then we blew two blasts, which meant that the engines were stopped and we weren't making any headway. We kept on signalling this. I think it was lucky we weren't moving. Or maybe if we had been, the tanker would have missed us. There were foghorns everywhere, but we couldn't see any other ships. Then I heard engines, but I couldn't see her and I wasn't even sure where they were coming from because the fog distorts everything. There's no bell signal for that. So I yelled back at the bridge: Engines! Engines! Suddenly from nowhere this huge tanker is coming at us on the port bow. As I rang the bell I could see we were going to hit so I ran for the ladder. I jumped it. I was just landing on the main deck when I heard someone shouting from the bridge: Clear the fo'c's'le! Got something right, I thought. At the same time I could hear the bridge telegraph ringing. It must have been Full Astern. The whole ship was shuddering, but we hadn't even moved when . . . Bang! We hit. next thing I'm up in the air, then on my backside sliding across the deck, luckily into the hatch coaming and not the other way, which would have been over the side. All I could think of was, Please, God, make her fully laden. Please. Please. If the tanker had been light ship [empty], she could have exploded. She was full. 

[Empty tanks were more dangerous as the space would contain inflammable vapour from the previous cargo. ]


P&O began in 1837 as the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. "Peninsular" meant the Iberian peninsula, another trace of the once-great importance of the "Atlantic" trade, like the marmalade I wrote about recently.


Monday, February 17, 2020

sheet-metal nights

Pagham Harbour

An empty screen,
                     the rooftops' sheet-metal nights;
and the     sky's tepidness!
I wanted to fly, slowly, that I might be anywhere
                                   at once.

                      Conceived a sentence. Memorized it. Forgot.
                                Here, in the world, thus,
                       signing it.

The sky's freezing puddles, all along the shores
                                   trees upended.
I am on my way toward a speaking point, against which
one gets things right side upside down.

(Three untitled poems by Leevi Lehto)


I've just found out that the Finnish poet and translator Leevi Lehto died last year aged 68 (22 June 2019). I knew he was very ill, had been diagnosed with the dread condition MSA (multiple systems atrophy), but I didn't know how swiftly it had done its work.

A month before he died, he said, "Death doesn't scare me. Already in my childhood home, I learned to look beyond the current situation and not trust the truths. It is also better to keep hoping that my condition will improve, even if hope is impossible. I would like to continue to be inspired and inspire others". ( .)


The three poems are perhaps about writing poetry, but not in a way that excludes those of us who don't write poems; it speaks to the part of all of us that wonders about reality. In different ways each of the three finds a way of saying that much of reality (three-quarters, say) can't be apprehended by the familiar methods.

These poems come from Lake Onega and Other Poems, a selection translated into English, mostly by himself. His English wasn't completely fluent and he turned this to his advantage; it was a wonderful instrument.


These poems, translated from Ihan toinen iankaikkisuus (Quite An Other Eternity, 1991), are within the register of Finnish modernism (reminiscent of Paavo Haavikko, maybe?), but Leevi Lehto kept on evolving; increasingly, as he lucidly put it, his poetry wasn't written "against the horizon of meaning", at any rate not the poet's own meaning. But I'm not getting to his later poetry in this post, I'll just quote some of the beautiful "Snowfall", from Kielletyt leikit (Forbidden Games, or Games Made Into A Language, 1994):

And even before you         begin
to compose, words are          named darkness         in the light

And even before you say them, you have named them

the same
and their name is

from this world some
dumb food

a little of wine a
little of understanding, a little less

as if in the snowfall there could be as few as many as possible

you want to talk to me in a simple manner, but we
cannot see       any of you         from each other

That, I mean, means society: now,
when the door and the snowfall are two same things

and as thaw isn't an adjective or concrete

And two same things in the winter's bedroom is nonsense
and what else do I have to compare, to what

when inevitability and coincidence sleep separately
you, sweating, wake up in a forest through which only a path

(Image source: .)

In English:

Interview with Leevi Lehto from 2010, about his publishing imprint, ntamo.

About Leevi Lehto's Lake Onega and other poems, by me:

"My Finnish Poetries", by Leevi Lehto (text of a 2005 talk for Charles Bernstein's class on 20th-century poetry outside the US):

PennSound's repository of Leevi Lehto's sound recordings and videos:


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

February cherry

An arresting sight in a Bath front garden, near the river, on 8 Feb 2020. A very small mop-head, with bright pink single flowers. I suppose it's something like Prunus 'Pendula rubra', grafted onto a standard of Tibetan Cherry (Prunus serrula) with its unique glossy red bark, a best-of-both-worlds thing. I didn't know you could do that, but the Wikipedia entry for P. serrula does mention that P. serrulata crowns are sometimes grafted onto it.

Prunus 'Pendula rosea' is often placed within the Prunus x subhirtella complex, which makes sense given that it flowers in mild spells throughout the winter.

But I have also seen it named Prunus pendula 'Pendula rosea' and Prunus spachiana 'Pendula rosea' .

Prunus x subhirtella (Higan Cherry, winter-flowering cherry) has no wild population. 

 Prunus spachiana has been supposed to be one of the parents of P. x subhirtella, but its own taxonomic status is uncertain. The other hypothetical parent is Prunus incisa (Fuji Cherry), itself regarded as a cultigen. All very complicated!


Saturday, February 08, 2020

thy sword of peace

Gĩcaamba (factory worker) to his friend Kĩgũũnda

    ... Do you, son of Gathoni, call this a house?
    Would you mind living in a more spacious house?
    And remember the majority are those
    Who are like me and you!
    We are without clothes.
    We are without shelter.
    The power of our hands goes to feed three people:
    Imperialists from Europe,
    Imperialists from America,
    Imperialists from Japan,
    And of course their local watchmen.
    But son of Gathoni think hard
    So that you may see the truth of the saying
    That a fool's walking stick supports the clever . . .

NJOOKI [GĨCAAMBA'S wife] [Sings Gĩtiiro*]
    Let me tell you
    For nobody is born wise
    So although it has been said that
    The antelope hates less he who sees it
    Than he who shouts its presence,
    I'll sing this once,
    For even a loved one can be discussed.
    I'll sing this once:
    When we fought for freedom
    I'd thought that we the poor would milk grade cows.
    In the past I used to eat wild spinach.
    Today I am eating the same.
GĨCAAMBA: [Continuing as if he does not want his thoughts to wander away from the subject of foreign-owned companies and industries]
    What did this factory bring to our village?
    Twenty-five cents a fortnight.
    And the profits, to Europe!
    What else?
    An open drainage that pollutes the air in the whole country!
    An open drainage that brings diseases unknown before!
    We end up with the foul smell and the diseases
    While the foreigners and the local bosses of the company,
    Live in palaces on green hills, with wide tree-lined avenues,
    Where they'll never get a whiff of the smell
    Or contract any of the diseases!

* Gĩtiiro: name of a dance song, a form of opera

The rich neighbours deign to visit Kĩgũũnda and his wife Wangeci.

JEZEBEL: [To NDUGĨRE but loud enough for everybody to hear]
    That tractor driver is very mature.
    He does not argue back.
    He does not demand higher wages.
    He just believes in hard work,
    Praising our Lord all the time.
    He is a true brother-in-Christ.
    You have spoken nothing but the truth.
    If all people were to be saved,
    And accepted Jesus as their personal saviour,
    The conflicts you find in the land would all end.
    For everybody,
    Whether he does or does not have property,
    Whether an employee or an employer,
    Would be contented
    To remain in his place.
WANGECI scoops out rice on plates and hands a plateful to everyone.
JEZEBEL: [Looks at the food as if she is finding fault with the cooking]
    You know, with me, when lunch time is over,
    However hungry I might have been,
    I am not able to swallow anything!
    I am also the same,
    But I could do with a cup of tea.
    I'll make tea for you.
    But you can't come into my house
    And fail to bite something.
KĨGŨŨNDA starts to eat heartily. WANGECI is busy putting water for tea on the firestones.
    Let's say grace.
    Say grace before we eat!
HELEN: [Eyeing the KĨGŨŨNDAS with ferocious disapproval]
    Let's all pray . . .
    God, Creator of Heaven and Earth,
    You the owner of all things on earth and in heaven,
    We pray you bring to an end
    The current wickedness in the land:
    Breaking into banks and other people's shops,
    Stealing other people's coffee,
    Placing obstructions on highways,
    All this being Satan's work to bring ruin to your true servants.
    Oh God our Father
    Tame the souls of the wicked
    With thy sword of peace,
    For we your servants are unable to sleep
    Because of the terror inflicted on us by the wicked.
    You to whom all the things on earth do belong
    Show the wicked that everybody's share comes from Heaven,
    Be it poverty or riches.
    Let us all be contented with our lot.
    We ask you to bless this food,
    And add unto us that of the Holy Spirit;
    We ask you in the name of your only Son,
    Jesus Christ, our Lord.

(from Act I of I Will Marry When I Want)

The complete text (English translation by the authors), along with many other writings by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, can be accessed here:'o/

Ngũgĩ's play is among many other things a classic of left populism: it conceives a nativist "people" unjustly oppressed by a local elite in league with foreigners.

It's uncomfortable to meet this familiar populist myth in a context where it was perfectly true. Successful colonizers have always appointed a local elite to manage things on the ground; the "homeguards" in Kenya's case.

Kamĩrĩĩthũ is a suburb of Limuru in the central uplands of Kenya.

The Kamĩrĩĩthũ Community Education and Cultural Centre was formed in 1976.

The novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was invited to write a play in the Gĩkũyũ language (this was his first work in his mother tongue; his earlier novels had been written in English). Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want)  was created jointly, with input from Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ (educator and social worker involved with the centre) and also the large cast of villagers, especially in connection with the play's many songs and dances. (The title itself was the name of a popular song of that time.)

The four acres reserved for the Youth Centre had at that time, in 1977, only a falling-apart mud-walled barrack of four rooms which we used for adult literacy. The rest was grass. Nothing more. It was the peasants and workers from the village who built the stage: just a raised semi-circular platform backed by a semi-circular bamboo wall behind which was a small three-roomed house which served as the store and changing room. The stage and the auditorium -- fixed long wooden seats arranged like stairs -- were almost an extension of each other. It had no roof. It was an open air theatre with large empty spaces surrounding the stage and the auditorium. The flow of actors and people between the auditorium and the stage, and around the stage and the entire auditorium was uninhibited. Behind the auditorium were some tall eucalyptus trees. Birds could watch performances from these or from the top of the outer bamboo fence. And during one performance some actors, unrehearsed, had the idea of climbing up the trees and joining the singing from up there. They were performing not only to those seated before them, but to whoever could now see them and hear them -- the entire village of 10,000 people was their audience. (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, in Decolonising the Mind (1986)). 
[This anecdote has been misunderstood as implying that the theatre itself had an audience of 10,000 -- a claim that can be found on Wikipedia and elsewhere.]

The Kamĩrĩĩthũ performances ran for six weeks from 2nd October 1977 into November 1977, when the government withdrew the centre's license for public performance. The authors were arrested in December 1977 and detained without trial for a year. In March 1982 (when their second play, Mother, Cry for Me, was being rehearsed at Kamĩrĩĩthũ in preparation for performance in Nairobi) the government placed a ban on all further theatre activities and razed the theatre to the ground (it would be replaced by a polytechnic). Both authors went into exile.

I've found just two online photographs of the Kamĩrĩĩthũ community in action, the ones shown on the book jackets above.


The issues that the play raised were based on the actors' real live experiences and so the relationship between reality and fiction was collapsed. He [Choru wa Mũirũrĩ, one of the lead actors] gives examples of men and women who had taken part in the struggle for independence reliving the pains of betrayal, while the wounds of their experience in the same were quite visible: women with partial fingers, limping men, those with crutches etc. He claims that some did not even need the playwright's words: they would re-enact the reality of their experiences on stage using their own words. One of the play's protagonists, Gĩcaamba (Kamau wa Wakaba) and his co-actor (Karanja wa Fred), were actually workers at the Bata Shoe company and the sounding of the siren on stage mirrored the reality of their day-to-day working experience. Some of the characters were so real that one of the directors had to remind them that this was a play, not reality, and sometimes the audience's hatred of characters like Ikuua was visible.

(Mũgo Mũhĩa, "Choru wa Mũirũrĩ: Reflections on Kamĩrĩĩthũ", in African Theatre: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o & Wole Soyinka, ed. Martin Banham, James Gibbs, Kimani Njogu, Femi Osofisan (2014).


Eucalyptus is widely grown in Kenya, but its environmental impacts have gradually become more apparent.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2020

you see the flight pattern but no bird

A couple of weeks ago I felt fed up with my longstanding moratorium on buying new books. So I broke out and ordered As When, Miles Champion's selection of Tom Raworth's poetry. Charity shops can supply nearly all my reading needs, but they're not much good if you want modern poetry, especially not the kinds of modern poetry I like best.

Thus I reflected. As was perhaps bound to happen, later the same day we were in a charity shop in Frome, and I picked out Shira Dentz' How Do I Net Thee, published by Salmon Poetry in 2018.

The floodgates were well and truly open now. A couple of days later I succumbed to a three-for-a-pound thing in Swindon: Christopher Lee's Eight Bells & Top Masts, memoirs of apprenticing on a tramp steamer in the late 1950s; John Arden's play Serjeant Musgrave's Dance; and a novel by Michael Frayn, Towards the End of the Morning. A couple of days after that, I was back in Frome and failed to resist Åsa Larsson's Until Thy Wrath Be Past, a scandi noir thriller set in Kiruna, a place I may be passing through this summer. And finally, this past weekend, Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn.

This post registers a well-founded caution about how many of these books I'll really get round to reading  (and what about the forty already on the go?)... but I like to imagine it.

[Most of them, as it turned out. The above links are to my subsequent considerations of the individual books.]


A girl of freezing ice in my stomach; papoose;
skinning my meat.

see-through ice
at my caverns

a tongue wider than

Who can turn down the volume?

biting myself. i'm a basket full of eels on the backseat of a car.
curled like question marks.

Am i the girl who makes the empty plank of a brother

white keys on the far ends of a piano

a baldness, with nothing around it


                                                                       vaseline on my senses

being angry comes in waves             you see the flight pattern but no bird


For a few minutes i sit in front of a white sun aglow. watch it move behind a

                    the moon a white eye. roundness is so common

a navy sky
bitter cold and a missing
            how can i take a bird i saw once
all i want is warm, mango-colored. it'll go down like wine.

then you become a voiceaholic.

his voice, a flock of pigeons.
sky is water
a voice like a raincoat
what spare change

(Shira Dentz, beginning of "Marsupium")

Marsupium = pouch

This is the first two pages of eight; I wish I could quote it all, because exciting things keep on happening, for example "those yellow fruit that have accordion sections", or "a brief flick in the air like light from a lighter".

Many of  the early images are referenced again later e.g. tongue, eels, question mark, brother, piano, bald... It suggests a developing argument, which is perhaps a delusion as the poem seems quite unwilling to be circumscribed, each line has its own horizons.

But let's tug at one of the threads. The "voice like a raincoat" is followed almost at once by "A voice descending". That could mean in pitch, as in the piano keyboard, but "cascading" and "Waterfalls" definitely suggest downward movement. As in "talking down to", a sermon from on high? But nurturing too, like the coat? For the voice is "his voice", "the chop suey of my father's verbal egg", "My father's younger voice wears a cap I call salvation".. But the poet has a voice too, to deploy or dispose of ("Throw my voice a way the potter throws clay"). Perhaps, though,  voices cannot be so easily owned, though they come from within. What about "loneliness is everyone's spitting... the man on the other side, spinning... viny voice ripping through crinoline yellow and pretty that's no way to pick up the alphabet"? (I'm seeing that yellow fruit splitting open.) The sounds of the voice aren't always verbal or voluntary or constructive, they often parrot someone else (a parent for example), and what they mean to a listener isn't necessarily what the owner of the voice means. We are transmission devices, resonators...

Shira Dentz lives and works in upstate New York. She has published five poetry collections since 2010 (though I think some of the others might be contained within this one).

I've had it in mind to read more Tom Raworth for ages, but what finally prompted the purchase was poetry by the editor Miles Champion. There's a generous ten poems here: .
I've spent most time feeling my way round the first one, "The Beige Suprematist". So here's how it starts:

We made some drawings of the volume lengthwise.

There was a typewriter key in the sweat.

What of the resolve that curtains us into a solid trope.

I see him loosen what's moist,

   and acquire a mute pathos.

"That", says Kazimir Malevich, "makes a soap man."

On an island of noise, attach

the sockets to a mucuslike substance.

But what are these wooden pipes on the floor.

Points of beforehand in Deanna's basement.

In the end, though, I came out on the square.

He said it was white and felt cheerful.

Our smooth shapes angled off in flakes of noun breath.

They have the inner beats.

Seems Tim swam off, forming two domes, whose crystals had dislodged.

Put literally the cylinder seems to striate the flicks.

The box that holds it has a burly dynamism.

A sausage-shaped ball roosters about this.

In constructing it, what I say breaks

   into heavy props.

Basic plastic strain exhausts artistic feeling on the roof.

So language, stopping, creates a square.

My sharp eye out, the size is no break, it words the interstices

                          and creates a split.

That chairs be ladders, each chair rescuing a flake.

Chet bakes the fast eye.

(Miles Champion, from "The Beige Suprematist".)

This poem and some or all of the rest subsequently appeared in A Full Cone (2018), which looks a great book. If I say that it reminds me of vintage Ashbery, that's supposed to be praise, but I know sometimes that sort of remark doesn't go down well, because who wants to be thought of as evoking the art of fifty years ago? But what I mean is, the poetry has a particular kind of effortlessly eloquent amplitude, something I'd almost forgotten about.

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