Skip to content

The unacknowledged legislators

August 30, 2017

Shelley wrote that poets – by which I think he meant all creative artists – were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, in part because through their art they can get closer to truth. How, then, do creative writers engage with issues of justice during and after periods of conflict and political change; and how does the idea of justice evolve and interact with other factors, and especially the need for stability and reconciliation? These are two question asked by Mike Newman in his book Six Authors in Search of Justice, which was published last year by Hurst and Co.

Newman seeks clarity about how justice might be approached in such circumstances, by examining how six writer-activists did so, and how their ideas changed as their circumstances and understanding evolved. His short book starts with a summary of different philosophical and historical interpretations of justice, which is followed by a chapter of around 25 pages each on Victor Serge in revolutionary Russia, Albert Camus in post-war France, Jorge Semprún in Spain from the Civil War through to the post-Franco era, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in colonial and post-colonial Kenya, Ariel Dorfman following the Pinochet coup in Chile, and Nadine Gordimer during the liberation struggle in South Africa.

All six were radicals in their context, embracing the need for transformational change. For example, Serge wanted to overthrow the capitalist system not just in Tsarist Russia but globally, Camus served in the French Resistance, and Gordimer’s fundamental belief in the equality of all peoples burned like an eternal guiding flame. All had an abiding belief in social and economic justice as a central element of the better world they sought. From his reading of their lives and their creative output, Newman maps the journeys they travelled, as their revolutionary dreams were enacted or frustrated, and explores the ways their ideas evolved.

Each lived through times of transition, and their ideas developed as they were confronted with changing political realities, which altered their views of what was appropriate and what was right, fair and just. During the Russian revolution, Serge agreed with Lenin’s view that their goals justified violence and the deaths of many who would stand in their way, to overcome resistance, demonstrate commitment, and in proportion to the fundamental nature of the transformation they sought. But later he became disgusted by Stalin’s use of terror tactics as a method of governing. He held that no revolutionary aims could justify trampling continuously on human rights, nor the use of secret trials, and came to the view that that Marxism and social justice were impossible without freedom.

Camus emerged from his initial belief that the execution of Nazi collaborators was a necessary ingredient of the post-war moment in France. Quite quickly, amid thousands of executions which were carried out in 1944, he came to abhor the scale and manner of what he understood as mainly a retribution process. He became a fervent believer that, even if retribution might have been necessary for a short period following the departure of the German occupiers, it should have been replaced as soon as possible by a project of reconciliation, in order to establish a just post-war order. This was an unpopular view among fellow cadres.

To take another example, Ngũgĩ, having grown up amidst – and been personally touched by – the Mau Mau rebellion against the British, held very powerful beliefs in the need to overcome colonial and then post-colonial domination by the imperial power. He shared with Gordimer an increasing disaffection as their new governments seemed to move away from the economic and social justice project, and become corrupted. He understood that the search for justice was an ever-more complex and comprehensive process, embracing social, economic, political, judicial and cultural dimensions.

For Newman, all six authors illuminate the fundamentally multi-dimensional and nuanced character of transitional justice, and this seems absolutely right. All six shifted from simpler to more complex notions of justice: for example from the fight against Nazism or imperial power, to the struggle for a just society, and for politics and culture emphasising fairness. All, to a degree, witnessed transitional and post-transitional governments fail to deliver and uphold the values which they increasingly saw as essential to justice. Values became more important than other structural factors. Accurate conjunctural and historical narratives were also essential, as they saw truth fall victim to change. As Newman writes, the “attempt to eliminate a particular form of injustice can produce new forms of injustice” which themselves need to be acknowledged truthfully and addressed. The process is a continuous one, not something to be achieved all at once by revolution – even one as transformational as the Russian revolution.

All six also came to understand that the process of achieving justice is contingent on circumstances, involves compromise, and that decisions of emphasis taken today will affect the future. This is perhaps most obviously seen in terms of the balance between punishment (and its close cousins, revenge and retribution), and reconciliation – an important characteristic of most “transitional justice” policies and programmes playing out today. Semprún wanted political stability after Franco, above all, even if this meant sacrificing socialist principles he had embraced throughout his life, and he accepted that crimes committed during and after the civil war could remain unpunished, provided they were at least acknowledged. But as political freedom became more and more bedded in in Spain, he became an advocate for a clearer and more balanced telling of a history in which all sides, including his own, had committed human rights violations.

Newman quotes the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comment that fiction can illuminate the truth and ‘infuse the world with meaning’ – which brings us back nicely to Shelley. All six authors in Newman’s book used their art to explore and illuminate critical issues of justice and political moment in their times. But from Newman’s reading, they were generally undidactic in so doing, believing that – as Ngũgĩ put it – they were ‘not in art because of politics; [but] in politics because of [their] artistic calling’. By writing fiction, describing human characters dealing with human challenges and living out human relationships in a fictional context, they not only developed their own thinking but influenced the way their readers encountered and understood the real world. This is a fascinating book which, by exploring the way in which six real-life humans encountered their real-life circumstances, more or less achieves the same goal. For this reader, Newman’s book says emphatically that the search for fairness is a never-ending, multi-dimensional project – one that is intimately bound up with, and ultimately contingent on, freedom, and on people’s ability to shape and constrain the politics of their place and time.

 

 

Advertisements

Years

July 15, 2017

Years

 

Were I to live another ten

I’d reach the very brink of old,

the gorse would bloom ten times again,

 

I’d reconnect with long lost friends

and see my children’s dreams unfold –

were I to live another ten.

 

I’d turn my face to church and mend

my broken faith; in blazing gold

the gorse would bloom ten times again;

 

I’d visit towns like this and spend

my evenings looking in, alone,

were I to live another ten.

 

We’d make love, winter nights, and then

as springtime warmth replaced the cold

the gorse would bloom, ten times again.

 

The years ahead diminish when

I measure what they may not hold:

were I to live another ten,

the gorse would bloom ten times again.

 

Kent & Sussex Folio 2017

Blackberries in Ukraine

July 15, 2017

 The news tonight showed fighting in Ukraine.

My eye was drawn, not to the scenes of war,

but swollen brambles glistening in the sun,

in the hawthorn hedge behind the soldier’s arm.

 

The camera didn’t catch him quietly claim

his harvest, but I somehow saw

his hand release the rifle, reach, and one

by one dislodge the berries to his palm.

 

Though I can’t wage his war, nor feel the pain

his comrades, enemies and he endure,

I taste the same sharp juice which dyes his thumb

and fingertips, and stains his uniform.

 

Were he to visit here, would what is strange

or – as for me – familiar strike a chord?

In foreign fabric, does he see homespun:

his world and mine lit by a single star?

 

Abroad, we introduce ourselves again

to what we know; to where we’ve been before –

and hear the chorus crows and doves have sung

at dawn since days began: discord and calm.

 

Gold Dust magazine, Issue 31, June 2017

The small things goddesses do

July 15, 2017

In ancient Greece, a goddess, nymph

or god was always near at, and

prepared to lend a helping hand

to make a herdsman from a prince,

a shipwrecked sailor reach the shore,

and war from peace, or peace from war.

Too neat, I always thought, too neat…

 

Until, collapsed from drink and stress

in a London park, and hauled to my feet

and then let fall, by CID,

an Aphrodite in a summer dress

appeared, with the warmest smile,

and sat with me as I revived

enough to shuffle, sheepish, home,

while she returned to the hills, alone…

 

And when they set the pumps to flood

the Athens park, beneath whose shrubs

we’d slept, and sent us scurrying with

our sleeping bags for higher ground,

Demeter, dressed in widow’s black,

emerged unbid from dawn to give

us carrier bags of bread and grapes,

then turn and walk away

without a further glance or sound.

 

So they were right, the poets, that

the gods descend in mortal shape

and influence the course we take:

slight variances of fate, perhaps –

no major shifts of plot; as acts

of kindness surely cannot not

impact how those they touch proceed,

nor how they impact those they touch

in turn…

 

But are they kindnesses?

We count as playthings merely, seen

from Mount Olympus, and I need

to ask those careless goddesses

who squandered intercession on

my undeserving youth, have I

exhausted all my share?

 

There’s neither shade nor sky. I watch

you slump against the hollow rim

of where what’s yet to come, or gone,

is dried and lifted by the wind

to fall and fleck the dunes; you dare

not dream nor raise your eyes beyond

horizons where the haze begins.

 

I do, and see that neither what

nor how we pray, makes any odds

at all to goddesses who change

the views they look down on, at whim,

between this arid lowland, and

a valley blessed by quiet rain.

 

Published in Anima, Issue 4, Summer 2017 http://www.animapoetry.uk/new-products/anima-issue-4

The scent of green

July 15, 2017

I’ve all I need: my books, TV, a view

of sparrows and squirrels in the apple tree;

and when they mow the lawn, I almost dare

breathe unlost summers in the scent of green.

 

Other girls never returned to their life before –

I quietly hid my uniform, away

from where my hands might search the wardrobe rail,

and placed my demob bag in the attic, to fade.

 

My family welcomed me to their routines,

but the clouds of peace hung heavy on our home

and no-one wanted more for me, nor seemed

to wish me to want more, than I’d once known.

 

I couldn’t wish what they did not, nor keep

my raw imagination under rein:

she flew too fast – and when horizons loomed

she shied, I fell; and never rode again

 

and half forgot I’d shared a bond, dark hours

and dreams with friends, and helped to win a war,

and danced the conga in Trafalgar Square.

Days pass. In here I’m safe; I’m fed; I’m warm.

 

Crannóg, issue 45, June 2017

Buzzards

July 15, 2017

I hear her first – a screech half stolen by

the wind; then glimpse her lift away; flat tail,

white band along the underwing, as sail-

like storm clouds race behind. Again her cry

guides me towards first two then, when they’ve flown,

four buzzards, where there had been one, aloft

above the skylark field, adrift but deft

in their control, each twice as wide as long.

Within a moment they have veered away

atop the wind; my spirit soaring free.

I’ve walked and worked this valley more

than thirty years; complained about the way

the world has changed, but never thought I’d see

four buzzards, where there had been none before.

 

 

Commended in the 2017 Fosse way Writers Competition.

 

 

The flower preserver

July 15, 2017

Dusk almost hid behind her eyes

as with a voice of quiet tears

she handed me the columbines

her sister’s unforgiving man

had picked, the day he reappeared,

still labelled in his brutal hand:

Our love is stronger than your lies.

 

They bring me flowers to preserve,

my clients: quiet memorials

to love, death, marriage, birth;

to people, moments, days now past –

parched, pastel talismans that pull

like tides upon the heart and cast

their fragile shadows on the earth.

 

I work in silence. When the shop

bell rings I read the blooms and how

they’re brought – a bridal bouquet dropped

with nonchalance, a frail fern leaf

less held than touched, the tightly-wound

ivy and easter lily wreath,

a chaos of forget-me-nots…

 

I give them what they come here for:

a clue to whom they may have been;

a bar to whom they might become.

I can’t preserve, much less restore

that April day, nor all those dreams

we shared under the springtime sun.

I’ve kept the primroses I wore.

 

A slightly edited version of this was runner up at the Shepton Mallet Poetry Competition, 2017