Monthly Archives: November 2006

Reprinting New Nation‘s lead story, and giving Michael Eboda a platform to discuss “Why should Tony Blair have apologised for slavery?” achieved the Guardian’s end: it inflammed all the trolls.

Where Eboda was particularly disgraceful was his facile attempt to flip the script:

Imagine if, today, Africans came to Europe and started kidnapping the fittest young men and women they could find. Let’s say they took them from Norfolk, for example, dragged them down to Bristol in chains, put them on a ship and transported them to Africa, a place they didn’t even know existed.

That, of course, is precisely what did happen. Giles Milton described just that in his White Gold [2004] and Des Ekin in The Stolen Village [which Amazon promises for publication next year, but which was freely on sale in Dublin two months since]. And, by the way, all those defensive towers along the Mediterranean coast, each topped out with its little bell-tower, were built for a purpose.

Milton personifies the whole experience by telling the story of Thomas Pellow, a cabin-boy taken by Barbary pirates in 1716 and a slave (one of perhaps two million) for the next 23 years. Ekin, with limited first-hand evidence, narrates the 1631 sack of Baltimore in West Cork: of the hundred-plus taken, only two would return, and sixteen years later.

The holier-than-thou bit, which goes with denunciation of English (and then British) involvement in the Slave Trade, is myopic and self-defeating. It ignores that Cromwell exported thousands from Berwick, Dunbar and Ireland into forced labour in the Americas. It could equally be argued (and has been by Black American revisionist historians) that the bulk import into North America of Africans only started because the system ran out of Scots and Irish. Then there is the well-rehearsed argument that it was the Irish Famine of the 1840s which made slavery uneconomic: why keep a slave all year round, when it was more economic to hire a labourer by the day? And have we eliminated slavery even in the twenty-first century?

Why, for heaven’s sake, are we teaching “Black History” (which amounts, in most syllabuses in most schools, to the Triangular Trade and a few posters of Rosa Parks and other eminents)? Anyone who doubts this, look here or here. And what is the outcome of such efforts? Malcolm is still stirred by the moment a bright kid in an East London school declared: “I’m black. I can’t be racist.” [Malcolm’s response: to say nothing, cock an eye, let the silence linger, and wait for others in the class to react. They did.]

Meanwhile, what about the “wage-slaves” who persisted (and persist) in our own society, two centuries after Wilberforce? No socialist, no true liberal should forget the mordant self-criticism of Orwell’s 1937 essay:

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But—most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence.

That’s in Chapter Two of The Road to Wigan Pier, but it is also available as Down the Mine in England Your England and elsewhere.

Malcolm declares a double interest here: one of his alter-egos found a namesake, and relative, being a pre-teen witness to Lord Ashley’s 1842 Commission on children in the mines. And that same alter-ego remembers his last conversation with a dying father, remembering his father (a Yorkshire miner): “I came home from school, and the house was quiet, so I knew my Dad was dead. The next day I went to work.” That’s called miner’s lung, folks: and the child coming home from school was twelve years old. Suffering is universal: when and from whom is the pointless apology forthcoming for that kind of industrial exploitation?

Here, then, is Eboda’s conclusion:

Acknowledgement and atonement for slavery, for colonialism and for imperialism is important for its victims and their decendents [sic], but it is also important for the perpertrators [sic] and their decendents [sic]. If they are ever to be whole and to finally neutralise the effects of past actions, nations, like individuals, must face what they did.

That’s tosh, and dangerously so. It emphasises false differences, perceived grievances and petty animosities. It provides platforms for the self-perpetuating, self-appointed petty oligarchs (that weasel-term “community-leaders”) to stir invented past grievances. It is essentially sterile. Malcolm once made the point a different way: he contrasted the positivism of (say) the pink ribbon for breast cancer (which says, “Let’s do something about it!”) to the green ribbon of (say) the social-fascists of Saoirse (a “sign of solidarity”, pandering to past grievances).

What Malcolm finds so distasteful here is that very apologetics-culture, as if there is some kind of “kiss-it-and-make-it-better”. The truth is that we learn from history: we are not condemned to relive it or wallow in it. My griefs are not per se more painful than yours: but together we can make sure neither’s are perpetuated. Malcolm has previously cited Joe Hill as his model: “Don’t mourn. Organise!”:

Would you have freedom from wage slavery,
Then join in the grand Industrial band;
Would you from mis’ry and hunger be free,
Then come! Do your share, be a man.

Leaders of all communities need to be forward-looking, not retrospective; improving the lot of their group or class, not looking for sociological and archaeological scabs to pick over. Eboda and New Nation have that opportunity, and fail to use it, on a weekly basis, by being two ideas, several gripes, and a circulation-war short of an ideology or an activism,

Karl Marx’s ceaseless labour in the book-stacks of Bloomsbury gave us unread tomes; but his youngest daughter, Eleanor, made a difference by unionising the matchgirls and the gasworkers. Malcolm knows whom he finds the more admirable.

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A Malcolm Miscellany

The bees in Malcolm’s hive (or the bats in his belfrey, whichever way you like) seem as buzzy as ever.

He intended to pronounce on the topic of how badly British cartoonists represent women politicians, especially those in our Labour Government—but Jackie Ashley’s piece in Monday’s Guardian comes close to Malcolm’s own conclusions, and did it far better. All that Malcolm would append is his view that gender-in-British-politics is still suffering from PMT (post-Margaret Thatcher). No (male, for that is what they inevitably are) cartoonist seems successfully to caricature female political figures. Even Steve Bell, the Hogarth de nos jours, recognises that his Thatcher was “A largely fictional and frankly psychotic swivel-eyed heroine”. For Malcom the moment that truly skewered her, her overweening vanity and her overblown pretentions, was the Sunday Times Magazine depicting her as Joan of Arc: indeed, she seemed subsequently intent on living the image.

Then it seemed that Malcolm would continue on the ITV-Murdoch-Branson shenangigans—but Grade’s moonlight flit, even if it is for a million-a-year all-up, is a gobsmacker. Whoever schemed it (and Malcolm would love to believe just that) deserves mega-kudos. The Sky-mob had already gone very quiet over the last week, once the dust began to settle. This surely was a sign of weakness. From the beginning Malcolm sensed insecurity in the corridors of News Corp:

BSkyB said that because its stake was below this threshold, it was entitled to invest.

“Sir Richard seems to believe that he and his partners in NTL-Telewest have a unique right to acquire ITV,” a company statement said.

That’s from the BBC news-site, but the same quote, attributed to an anonymous BSkyB source, appeared widely elsewhere. That sounded a bit defensive to Malcolm, and his reaction was: well, as a matter of Stock Market and competition rules, old cobber, Branson and co. do have that right, but not uniquely. BSkyB doesn’t.

It was interesting, too, to see how the papers had treated the developing story of the Sky twilight smash-and-grab. At first, there was been more than a twinge of admiration: words like “audacious” appeared. Quickly the gloom set in. When the Stock Market no-noed it, the general mood approached despair: even a terse summary from Reuters was full of negatives:

Shares in ITV fell as much as 7.2 percent in early Monday trade as hopes of a bid for the country’s biggest commercial broadcaster faded after Friday’s swoop by pay-TV group BSkyB to take a blocking stake.

Nor does BSkyB seem wholly confident about its coup. Originally, Murdoch-the-younger was promising to be a “supportive” of ITV, and helpful in establishing a new Chief Executive for the company. These declarations rightly pass most of the commentators by, like the idle wind, which they respect not. BSkyB was anxious to point out that lawyers had cleared the strategy.
BSkyB’s next statement seemed not quite so rotund, even a bit of a whimper:

A BSkyB spokesman said: “We are fully compliant with both the spirit and the letter of the law.”

If there was one individual who could stymie the Murdochs, it would be Grade. Five years ago, a coup of this magnitude would somewhere have involved the fine Italian hand of one A. Campbell. It couldn’t be, could it?

Malcolm even wanted to celebrate the career of Richard Clements, whose editing of Tribune through two decades was formative in Malcolm’s political development—but the Times deservedly gave Clements a full-page obituary today.

In all this, though, Malcolm had chance to reflect on the curiously-close world of British journos and politicos. Ashley’s partner is Andrew Marr; Clements’ widow is Ramsay Mac’s grand-daughter. By the same token, Malcolm knows of a blood-line which links Young Ireland and the Dockers’ Tanner. And there are numerous other examples.

After all these amimadversions, we had to check Malcolm’s desire to widdle and witter on. Come down to earth, Malcolm, we begged. And then he fixed us with a baleful eye: “Want to buy some Polonium 210? Going cheap.”

Now this is not a light matter in our ‘burb. So we pressed Malcolm further. We then heard how the Web was filled with news of how to acquire the stuff: $69 a shot, for US delivery only. This apparently had even got a mensh on Drudge, until a wiser mind decided to pull it; but the original of this canard seems to be a radioactive equivalent of 800 Cannery Row.

Finally, as we finally sedated him, Malcolm was wondering if any other London suburb is so attached to murder as is Muswell Hill….

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School daze

Malcolm is preparing for the builders to arrive. This has meant some heavy tidying, clearing, filing, shredding and putting away. This has somewhat cut into his reading, thinking and pontificating. It also means—be prepared!—a build-up of unvented spleen.

He animadverts, in passing, to the topic of schooling (significantly, Malcolm usually distinguishes between “education” (good) and “schooling” (err …. he’s ambiguous about that).

For instance, the New York Times Magazine (which goes out with the Saturday instalment of the weekend paperfest) is discussing “Still Left Behind”, the apparent failings of the Bush régime’s attempt at “Education, education, education”. Paul Tough’s extended essay is available on line, and is well worth the study. At the very least, Sunday idlers may readily get up to speed through’s summary:

President Bush originally pledged to eliminate the achievement gap between white and minority students by 2014, but results have been mixed. Test scores indicate a drop in eighth-grade reading proficiency from 2002 to 2005. Fourth-grade math scores are up, but minority students still fall short of their white counterparts. Academics have tackled the question of causes—one team of child psychologists believes parental communication styles affect language development—while educators look for solutions. One approach, coined by the Knowlege Is Power Program schools, is called “Slant.” Teachers train students to “sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker with their eyes.”

Malcolm believes “Slant” amounts to “sit down, shut up, and tune in”. So much for “interactive learning” or whatever “progressive model” is in vogue this week.

In reality, as the full NYT article makes clear, the “No Child Left Behind” program is based on a whole series of continuing deceptions and self-deceptions by the Bushies. The biggest of these is that the attainment gap between rich and poor (which in the broadest terms, US and UK alike also means the cultural, ethnic and racial divides) can be eliminated—and all by 2014! Here comes the cruncher:

In 2002, when No Child Left Behind went into effect, 13 percent of the nation’s black eighth-grade students were “proficient” in reading, the assessment’s standard measure of grade-level competence. By 2005 (the latest data), that number had dropped to 12 percent. (Reading proficiency among white eighth-grade students dropped to 39 percent, from 41 percent.) The gap between economic classes isn’t disappearing, either: in 2002, 17 percent of poor eighth-grade students (measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price school lunches) were proficient in reading; in 2005, that number fell to 15 percent.

The “experts” (in this case, “Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, who in 1995 published the results of an intensive research project on language acquisition”) have come up with an analysis that any teacher with an ounce of wit could have described:

  1. bourgeois kids get talked to more than their less-privileged contemporaries, so
  2. they therefore acquire language skills faster and earlier; and
  3. this is what is generally called “intelligence”.

In passing, Malcolm notes how his generation grew up listening to the radio (where, famously, the pictures are better), and therefore on the receiving end of everything from the Goons and Gruntfuttock to The Brains Trust. Any of that involves a steep learning curve and a broad imagination: Malcolm now wonders just how much of Julian and Sandy’s polari he truly understood. A quick round of appreciation, then, for BBC7—an enlightened DfES would make it part of the “literacy strategy”.

However, at least the British (i.e. the Labour Government’s continuing) attempt at combating the social divide in learning is not so corrupt as that in the US. Tough’s peroration is damning. Watch this:

Goodwin Liu, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has compiled persuasive evidence for what he calls the country’s “education apartheid.” In states with more poor children, spending per pupil is lower. In Mississippi, for instance, it is $5,391 a year; in Connecticut, it is $9,588. Most education financing comes from state and local governments, but the federal supplement for poor children, Title 1, is “regressive,” Liu points out, because it is tied to the amount each state spends. So the federal government gives Arkansas $964 to help educate each poor child in the state, and it gives Massachusetts $2,048 for each poor child there.

And it gets worse:

The most malignant element of the original law was that it required all states to achieve proficiency but then allowed each state to define proficiency for itself. It took state governments a couple of years to realize just what that meant, but now they have caught on … At the head of this pack right now is Mississippi, which has declared 89 percent of its fourth-grade students to be proficient readers, the highest percentage in the nation, while in fact, the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that only 18 percent of Mississippi fourth graders know how to read at an appropriate level — the second-lowest score of any state. In the past year, Arizona, Maryland, Ohio, North Dakota and Idaho all followed Mississippi’s lead and slashed their standards in order to allow themselves to label uneducated students educated. The federal government has permitted these maneuvers …

It seems there are things worse than OFSTED.

While on the topic of “schooling”, Malcolm also managed a brief fulmination on the superficiality of the (usually more sensible) Ham and High’s Broadway (i.e. Muswell Hill) edition. Two stories about schoolkids being disruptive prompted this “Comment”:

Rather than telling students off, there needs to be more of a focus on re-educating them about their anti-social behaviour. By working with them, aqnd not against them, it is possible to show young people that their behaviour is wrong.
But teachers also need to take responsibility for the problem and identify the bullies before they strike. A visible presence on the streets as well as in the school is the only way to ensure students behave.

This is piffle, and dangerous: we are dealing here with youths who have reached the age of discretion and responsiblity. It is not a question of “re-education”, but of active enforcement: such offenders know the difference between right and wrong. It is for general society to invoke sanctions. These events took place in a locality infested with CCTV in every public and retail space. Teachers do not have “responsibility” or any authority in such situations: indeed, a teacher foolish enough go from “visible presence on the streets” to active involvement (which is the logical corollary) would exacerbate matters, even be put at personal and professional risk.

The two different issues that Malcolm addressed here are at opposite ends of the scale of polity. They share common elements:

  1. There are executive agencies who must actively enforce the end, not merely mouthily will the deed.
  2. When the mood music you’ve requested isn’t working, don’t just shoot the pianist.

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An old Dilbert

Malcolm has been busy tidying, shredding and chucking (hence the unaccustomed silence). One item fell out of a book: Malcolm believes its truths are self-evident, and should be preserved for posterity.

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Smugly, Malcolm pushed Saturday’s Guardian across the marmalade: Ashley Seager writing that Price fall opens way for Brown to raise petrol duty, singing from Malcolm’s Friday recitatif. This after the New York Times editorial, Counting the Vote, Badly (16th November) finally got round to saying what Malcolm was declaiming some time ago. Synchronicity, Malcolm, nothing more: we promise.

But Malcolm is already off on a new complaint, or rather an old complaint newly revisited: the nefarious intent of Murdoch’s mob. This, of course, is provoked by the sunset raid of BSkyB to snatch some 18% of the shares in ITV.

The essential problem here is what to do about ITV. To all intents and purposes it is a broken brand: Malcolm suggests that new-comers might start with Scott Bedbury’s discussion, originally from 2002, on the topic, which is available here or here. Bedbury was the consultant behind the branding of Starbucks and Nike, by the way.

Bedbury advises that broken brands should:

Revisit where your brand started out. What did the brand stand for originally? Why did it resonate with customers in the first place? What were its core values? Are they still present? Just as important, are they still relevant?

Well, in the case of ITV, the unique-selling-point was that ITV was not the BBC. It was not “Auntie” and it did not follow the behest of the Establishment. ITV was populist. For years it got by, and even prospered on providing a diet of soaps and sport, with quiz-shows as the fall-back. Furthermore, the public-service and local-content requirements have now been loosened and seem likely to be dropped: ITV is now a national brand (in England and Wales at least), untrammelled by too much regulation. Even so, ITV seems rudderless and close to an iron-bound coast lee shore. And ITV’s response? It made the captain, Charles Allen, walk the plank.

In fact, Allen at one time seemed to be a man with a plan. He recognised that ITV1 was busted, and set about both limiting the damage and diversifying. So, the network was rationalised, and more emphasis given to digital and other distribution media. At first, it seemed to work: profits were up and costs were controlled (for a full account, as of two years ago, see David Rowan’s Evening Standard interview. His nemesis would seem to be Anthony Bolton, fund manager of Fidelity (sic!) who previously held some 14% of ITV shares, who first dispatched Allen, then on Friday sold out to BSkyB for a tasty premium. Since Bolton was largely instrumental in the dumping of Michael Green as ITV chairman-designate in 2003, this is another notch on the pistol. And, because BSkyB’s “poison pill” effectively makes ITV dead meat, has screwed the remaining share-holders.

So, to get back on track, Malcolm sees two issues here:

  1. Should we be concerned about the fate of ITV? Or should we be by-standers, watching the wreck, and enjoying the glug-glug-glug of a once-noble vessel sinking below the waves? (This is also known as the Express posture.)
  2. WTF do we do about the evil Murdoch empire?

In the case of (1), the answer is very definitely “yes”, if only because ITV owns a fair bit of band-width. Murdoch has already sniffed the bum of Channel 5, by some accounts. Would anyone place bets on him getting around the media cross-ownership provisions (for more on which, see below)? Alternatively, how can he be allowed to dictate the rules for any ITV merger (say with NTL, with Branson acting as guardian angel)? Would Chelsea be allowed a blocking 18% share of Man U?

As for (2), there is little hope of reversing history. Murdoch has enjoyed the Danegeld paid by successive British governments, including this one we’ve got, for a quarter of a century—so let’s not get snide about Ethelred the Unready.

All is not lost. There are some straws in the wind in today’s Sunday Times. Notice:

  1. How the article specifically lays responsibility for the raid on James Murdoch (i.e. the Young Pretender) as Chief Executive of BSkyB. Murdoch fils does not have an unblemished record as an entrepreneur (for example, refresh your memory here). So, either young Jimmy has hidden talents, or someone pulling the strings wants a fall-guy. And there will be repercussions: note that the other 600lb gorilla, Branson, is affronted and irate. Hee-hee, says Malcolm.
  2. Now read this, hidden towards the end of the Sunday Times piece, v-e-r-y carefully:

the uncertainty over ITV’s future looks set to rumble on for months. One possibility is that Sky may seek to use its position to facilitate its own entry into free-to-air broadcasting in Britain. One suggestion is that it may look for an asset swap with RTL, taking ownership of Five in exchange for RTL acquiring its stake in ITV.

Malcolm reads that as a statement of Murdoch’s intended end-game. Remember that BSkyB is lumbered with the technology of the last century. The future, in urban areas at least, is fibre-optics and broadband networks. Getting hold of Channel 5 (where SkyNews already have a toe-hold) would give Murdoch a terrestrial channel, access to the Freeview (and any subscription add-on) service, a seat at the same table as the BBC, and more clout with the broadband providers. Doubtless, grumbling and spitting feathers, Murdoch then would ungraciously concede control of ITV to RTL (who presently own Channel 5). Since that keeps Branson out of the equation, blocks the NTL-ITV deal, good result for the Dirty Digger.

Malcolm does not like that at all, at all.

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Demoglad—try it; you’ll like it!

Malcolm begs you to check out Mark Fiore’s animation.

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Unnatural gas

Malcolm recalls a commonplace of the 1960s: only Labour could “deal with” the Unions, and only the Tories could discipline Big Business (he believes the original context for this was when Ted Heath was trying to abolish retail price maintenance). Well, phooey to that.

There is, though, one area of Big Business that urgently needs Gordon’s big stick: the energy companies. Malcolm found himself filling up his daughter’s car yesterday, at 83.9p a gallon. How long ago was the unleaded pushing through the pound-a-litre level?

So that’s good news for inflation, money in the pockets of Chelsea-tractor drivers, more congestion, more pollution, more kids with asthma, lower income for the Treasury. Time to use the price regulator?

Meanwhile, the price of domestic gas and electricity shows little sign of reducing. We are now paying 90% more for gas, and 60% more for electricity than 2003. There are further price increases due in the near future. Scottish and Southern is upping tariffs next January by 12.1% for gas and 9.4% for electricity. In the name of all decency, why?

Last January, the wholesale price of gas was 71.25p per therm: this year it is being offered at 61.7p (a fall of nearly 15%). The “spot” price is just over 40p per therm (half the peak price reached last Spring), though this is not significant because most suppliers are locked into long-term contracts. However, suppliers, to justify price increases, repeatedly quoted the “spot” price. (Addicts of graphs can check ‘em out here).

To their credit, the broadsheets are beginning to bite on the issue. The Sunday Times found space among its usual sarky trivia, though influenced (i.e. partly plagiarised) from other sources (for instance, Yesterday, in the Guardian, Julia Finch’s Viewpoint asked:

is it time for Ofgem to look at imposing some sort of price cap to protect consumers?

This followed Mark Milner, the previous day, commenting on Scottish Power’s defence of

surging profits in the face of soaring domestic gas and electricity prices.

Meanwhile, working on the coarse-rugby principle that “thrice armed is he who gets his retaliation in first”, the National Grid is pressing for Ofgem to make “a significant move” to raise tariffs in its forthcoming price review, as the company reported a 12.4 per cent rise in first-half profits. Furthermore,

The company announced a £1 billion share buyback, helping to lift its shares 6.8 per cent to 7461⁄2p. They have already risen 30 per cent this year.

So, says Malcolm, time to draw the line. Let’s see and hear that the Treasury

  • is leaning on Ofgem to toughen up the proposals for gas and electricity prices for the next five years (that statement is due on 4th December);
  • knows how to get the energy “market” working for the consumer and not just for the overseas investor; and
  • is, in the last resort, willing and able to go for an excess profits tax on those corporations bilking and milking the consumer.

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How to make votes count … not.

Democrats and international friends of democracy, Malcolm maintains, should be keeping a eye on the shenanigans of Sarasota County, Florida.

Malcolm makes no apology for harping on about this scandal (for that it what it is). As he predicted last Saturday, the search for 18,380 missing ballots is going nowhere, because there cannot be a paper trail from the voting machines Florida (guided by Katherine Harris of ill-repute) installed to avoid another 2000 shambles.

The story of the recount is on the Miami Herald website. It should be required reading for anybody concerned about the reliability of the American electoral system, and therefore the whole basis of the “Free World”. Is it not astounding that the two “swing” States, Florida and Ohio (for which see Chris Hitchens in Vanity Fair, March 2005), both are now shown to have voting systems consistently distorted towards Republicans?

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Needing direction?

Malcolm was gruntled by the news of United States Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, a (goes without saying) Republican from Georgia.

The Honorable Mr Westmoreland tried four times last year to pass a bill to have the Ten Commandments exhibited in Congress. Presumably this would be to teach his colleagues right from wrong—particularly since so many have ethical problems.

Last June (and this shows how Malcolm keeps up with the news) Westmoreland was a guest on Comedy central’s The Colbert Report. Yes—everyone sees it coming—he was asked to name the Ten. He got three. His pressman argued that Westmoreland actually got seven, but four got lost in the editing suite.

In Westmoreland’s words, “The Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and respect. If we were totally without them, we may lose our sense of direction.” Hmm: is that a grammar problem as well?

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It’s been a good weekend for verse.

Malcolm, a day late, came upon Adam Phillips in The Observer reviewing James Fenton’s anthology The New Faber Book of Love Poems (and, Malcolm notes, just twelve quid on Amazon). Inevitably Phillips covered some of the ground of Fenton’s own essay on same-sex love poetry in Saturday’s Guardian.

Now Malcolm has no intention of reviewing reviews. What he particularly liked was the box at the end of Phillips’ piece, using Paddy Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road, in its pristine state, as an example of the love-poem.

Almost the last word on this lyric came from Paul Durcan (no mean performer himself) in the May 1988 issue of Magill (on line here), and worth an extended quotation:

The day I arrived back from Canada – Saturday March 19 – was the day Ireland reached its nadir. After twenty years mucking around in the depths of our own nadir, we finally got there, just before noon on Saturday March 19. I was half-asleep – having got off the jumbo from New York at 8.15 am. But strangely enough – strangely – it was on the evening of the same day that Van Morrison from East Belfast climbed up on an open air stage outside the Bank of Ireland in Dublin. And not only that but he chose to collaborate with Mícheal ó Súilleabháin, a traditional musician par excellence who, precisely because he is a truly traditional artist, is more avant-garde than the avant-garde.

And not only again but – and this is the cake beneath the icing – their finale was On Raglan Road.

Van Morrison’s rendition of Patrick Kavanagh’s “On Raglan Road” is fitting because it brings together the two finest poets in Ireland in my lifetime. No other Irish poets – writing either in verse or in music – have come within a Honda’s roar of Kavanagh and Morrison.

Both Northernerssolid ground boys. Both primarily jazzmen, bluesmen, sean nós. Both concerned with the mystic—how to live with it, by it, in it; how to transform it; how to reveal it. Both troubadours. Both very ordinary blokes. Both drumlin men—rolling hills men. Both loners. Both comedians. Both lovepoets. Both Kerouac freaks. Both storytellers. Both obsessed with the Hegira—from Monaghan to the Grand Canal, from East Belfast to Caledonia. Both originals, not imitators. Both first-time cats, not copycats. Both crazy. Both sane as sane can be. Both fascinated by at once their own Englishness and their own Irishness. Both obsessed with the audience and with the primacy of audience in any act or occasion of song or art. Both fascinated by the USA. Both Zen Buddhists. Both in love with namesplacenames as well as personal names:Cypress Avenue, Inniskeen Road; San Anselmo, Islington; Boffyflow and Spike, Shancoduff; The Eternal Kansas City, The Rowley Mile; Madame George, Kitty Stobling; Jackie Wilson, Father Mat; O Solo Mio by McGimpsey, John Betjeman on Drumcondra Road.

Any of that need explaining? You’re on your own, says Malcolm (who demands a certain degree of intellectual sweat in his readership), except that 19 March, 1988, was the occasion of the
Corporals killings by the Provos.

But, Malcolm argues, is it wholly Kavanagh’s Raglan Road? Surely, in its continuing existence it owes as much to Luke Kelly. And, what that, Malcolm begins his story.

Kavanagh wrote the poem in 1946, and its original title was Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away. It was inspired by an unrequited love for Hilda Moriarty, then a medical student at UCD (and half Kavanagh’s age). She appears, explicitly, in A Ballad:

O cruel are the women of Dublin’s fair city,
They smile out of cars and are gone in a flash …

I know one in Baggot Street, a medical student
Unless I am greatly mistaken is she
Her smile plays a tune on my trembling psyche
At thirty yards range, but she passes me by
In a frost that would make Casanova be prudent.

She later married Donagh O’Malley, “The School Man”, and one the few Fianna Fáil TD’s who earn Malcolm grudging respect (though not for his wretched plan to merge TCD and UCD).

Kavanagh met Luke Kelly just the once (according to Kelly in a RTÉ interview, which used to be available on line). The meeting, naturally, was in a pub. Kelly said it was The Bailey on Duke Street, before its tarting-up, a short stagger between Kavanagh’s usual McDaid‘s (in Harry Street) and Kelly’s habitual O’Donoghue’s (on Merrion Row):

I was sitting in a pub in Dublin, The Bailey, and as you know in the old days —it’s changed a bit now—it was known as a literary pub, an artistic pub. I happened to be sitting there in the same company with Patrick Kavanagh and one or two other poets, and someone asked him to recite a poem, which he did, and then someone asked me to sing a song which I did. Being in the presence of the great man I was very nervous. Then he leaned over to me and said in that sepulchral voice of his—he could hardly get his voice out, he was very old … it was just the year before he died —and he said ‘You should sing my song,’ and I said ‘What’s that, Mr Kavanagh?’ and he said ‘Raglan Road”. So he gave me permission. I got permission from the man himself.

Kelly gave the song some pace: nobody has done it better. Others now seek to claim part of it.

Although Raglan Road continues to flourish, Malcolm believes it is not Kavanagh’s best poem. Malcolm, forced to chose one, would opt for Epic:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided : who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important ? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said : I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

The date, 1938, is often included in the title, which means it was written just before Kavanagh left Monaghan for Dublin. And “Munich bother”, however much of a meiosis it was then, has gained in power subsequently.

The essential trick, here and elsewhere in Kavanagh, is parochialism and place. We can look for various antecedents for this: Joyce had Buck Mulligan‘s omphalos (which was also adopted as a key word by Famous Seamus for his Preoccupations, Selected Prose 1968-1978), or we can go back into the dim and distant Celtic twilight to dinnseanchas, poems as tight as haikus which tried to relate a place to its spiritual and legendary context. Kavanagh’s ambition is to go “over the fields to the City of Kings”. Instead:

Mullahinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco –
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.

From the beginning, on the Inniskeen Road: July Evening of 1936, Kavanagh’s place was as circumscribed as a navel, as the island of Alexander Selkirk (as he draws from William Cowper):

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

What makes Malcolm careful of Raglan Road is not just that is become another Oirish pub-ballad. It is more that it has become like Monument Valley, a one-size-fits-everyone, all-purpose cliché on which to hang a sentiment, or by which to sell something. It is sufficiently commonplace to be Raglan Road™ Irish Pub and Restaurant at Walt Disney World, for goodness sake! Malcolm loathes sanitising: he knew Raglan Road, Dublin, D4, in the Sixties, for it intersected Elgin Road where he had a basement flat. It was, even then, upwardly-mobile, but still gritty.

As should be Kavanagh’s ballad: not a dirge before last orders. Quite properly, they put Paddy (albeit tidied up) on a bench by the canal, not on a pedestal.


The Bailey (once full of ruggger buggers) is now a “scrubbed-up-quite-nicely” wine and coffee bar. O’Donaghue’s has become the name for a small chain of tourist hotels. Even McDaid’s, once the epitome of the unhygienic, has built toilets upstairs. And Malcolm? —

I walk in Islington Green,
Finest landscape you ever seen;
I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.

And that’s by poor, dead Paddy, too.

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