‘In Clara’s hand the flowers smell of iron and grass. The same smell as the grass behind the wire factory after a rain.’ (Herta Müller)
‘The Groats were the last family on the island, and had thirteen children. Under the decaying stairs, I find coat pegs marked with their names: Bessie, Isobel, Alice, Eva, Ethel …’ (Amy Liptrot)
‘Share a Coca Cola with Aggie, Ahmed, Barasa, Dorcas, Joe, Mona, Nelly, Patel, Winnie …’
Aggie. Scotland Kissed
Soap washed out your dreams of borrow-pits,|invisible fingers drumming on wet sand, your|childs heart raced|after hoops of rubble, burned the sky down with it.|Some things were not there: your favourite|
place, watching|from the window; your lunch box made of smoke and air;| and the pedestrian, over your shoulder, who did not|exist, alone – relative to the last king of Scotland.
The banks of carriageway were high and overgrown,|running your dreams of bitter grazing on|the verge of light along Thirteen and St. Peter;|in decline, your night career of sleep played and,|in the morning, eyed a city mad with fever where|you chanced to be among houses and lawns burning| in feasts, the mating pit in their mangled hand – Kissed.
Ahmed. Fata Morgana
Light repeats itself travelling| shipwrecked; wall and charcoal| and you, Lord, on its horizon|
cradling a head of bison.| A childs footprint is six red dots.| Your body is a child swimming.| Light answers itself.
‘If we lack grace / it might be because we’ve never known our place / among the elements.’ (George Szirtes)
‘Wraps x 2 Bread Tiger loaf x 3 Wedges x 2 Frie’s x 1 Mozzarella Balls x 4 Greek yoghurt x 1 mixed peppers x 1 O Rings x 1 Tomatoes Punnet x 1 Fairy liquid x 1’ —There is a shop in Perth, in the pale of the town. A sign above the door spells out what you can buy: ‘VHS Tapes, Stornoway Black Pudding, Tattoos.’
‘3 Milk grapes yogurt Bananas Cold Meat Frozen Carrot Small Pies’ —Her hair on a naked shoulder, on a carmine red overcoat. His head on a plate, always with her.
Dorcas. A State of Blood
For Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) it was the allied bombing of the supposedly ‘open’ city of Dresden during World War II, ‘… the largest massacre in European history, by the way. And so what?’ For my parent’s generation, US military action in Vietnam, and Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia will likely be at the top of the list. For my generation, born in the 1960’s, the Gulf War (1991 – present), ‘the longest humanitarian airlift in history’ during the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992 – 1996), the Kosovo war (1999 – present), the war in Afghanistan (2001 – present), the second Gulf War (2003 – present) and the civil war in Syria (2011 – present) are all likely to be indelibly etched into our minds.
Until recently Europe has enjoyed a relatively long period of peaceful co-existence, while not always covertly flexing its consumerist ambitions and murderous tendencies in other, far away parts of the world. Some believe that the consequences of this are finally ‘coming home’; the supposedly distant world of ‘over there’ not so hard to get to and from as the political elites once thought. Perhaps it was just down to the small coterie of sadistic teachers I had at secondary school, perhaps it was my age, fear, lack of confidence and anxiety at the world around me (a mostly cruel, brutalising and unforgiving military school), but there was one other name that remains indexically linked to this malign human, largely male, tendency towards brutality, torture and extreme acts of individual and institutional violence: Idi Amin, ‘the butcher of Uganda,’ who came to power in a military coup in 1971 during a steady and ruthless campaign through the ranks of the King’s African Rifles’ (Britain’s colonial African troops.) I’m not going to go through the catalogue of human rights abuses Amin should have been charged with, instead, if you’re interested, I would urge you to read Henry Kyembe’s account of Amin’s rule in, ‘A State of Blood.’ Amin died in a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2003 where he had lived in exile after ten years in Libya. He was never brought to trial for gross abuse of human rights—The Saudi ruling elite and the British Government should be held to account for this.
I hadn’t thought about much of any of this or particularly followed news of post-Amin Uganda since he fled the country in 1979, until very recently that is. That is, until my stepdaughter intended to travel to Uganda on an adventure trip organised by her school in July of this year.
She is sixteen, and knows nothing of Amin’s post-colonial dictatorship. Knows nothing about the war in the north of the country with the Lord’s Resistance Army, and her teachers have, as far as I’m aware, never brought the subjects up. Should they have done? Should I say something?
Despite recent fraudulent Presidential elections, the on-going war in the north of the country with the LRA, the current refugee crisis in South Sudan and the sometimes brutal suppression of Gay rights, freedom of speech, the freedom to express political opinion, etc., Uganda still appears to be trying to re-brand itself internationally as a modern, thriving East African society ready to do business – promoting in particular environmental tourism, and outdoor adventure opportunities for those who can afford it. That is, it’s pretty much like any other place in the world. But it wouldn’t take much for it to be pushed back into its darker past. That’s the feeling I have when I think about what’s both already happened and is currently going on in the region. Uganda is a landlocked country bordered to the east by Kenya, in the north by South Sudan, to the west by the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the southwest by Rwanda, and in the south by Tanzania. It is the second largest landlocked population in the world (after Ethiopia) and that means a lot of mouths to feed. And revolutions start, as Brecht reminds us, not because of politics but because citizens do not have enough to eat and drink.
Fifty-five bottle caps are used to make this souvenir. It was bought from an elderly woman at a market stall in the Ugandan city of Jinja and given to me as a birthday gift, and I’ve fallen under its spell. (A massacre in 1972 of troops in Jinja barracks during a purge of the Ugandan army of men of Acholi and Lango ethnicity was followed by the disappearance of over a further 5000 soldiers and twice as many civilians by the end of the year. No one knows what happened to them or there whereabouts.) Each candy-pop coloured cap is from a 330ml bottle of Fanta, Coca Cola or Stoney and I imagine each freezing cold bottle in someone’s hand, and the bolt of ice and fizz as they tip it into their mouth; quenching their thirst as they stand, ecstatic, on a dusty, bone-dry city street; the sun splitting everything.As Vonnegut writes in his introduction to ‘Mother Night,’ the moral of the story he is about to tell us is a very simple one: ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’
This particular giraffe has eighteen and a quarter litres of fizzy juice in its veins. No bad thing, I think. Perhaps screaming that you have something other than blood running in your arteries (your mothers tears, engine oil, black ink, laundry liquid …) may be your only chance, if the boys with the knives and automatic weapons kick in the door.
Did I tell my stepdaughter about Amin and Uganda in the 70’s before she left on her trip? No. I decided that on humanities current form she would have enough to deal with in the decades ahead. Fear, because that is what such a tale would create, is pernicious, and absolutely no amount of reassurance would set her young, understandably anxious mind to rest, as she prepared to travel to east Africa, and away from home, family and friends for the first time in her life. I’d talk to her about it afterwards, when she was home.
‘Are you an assassin?’ | Willard: ‘I’m a soldier.’ | Kurtz: ‘You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.’ (Apocalypse Now)
Joe. This is the end …
The first line of Lachrimae Verae – the first of seven sonnets that make up the poem, Lachrimae or Seven tears figured in seven passionate Pavans – reads: ‘Crucified Lord, you swim upon your cross / and never move.’ Published in 1978 by Geoffrey Hill, it is one of the great opening lines in English poetry – complete; unadorned – unforgettable. The voice goes on to say: ‘Sometimes in dreams of hell / the body moves but moves to no avail / and is at one with that eternal loss.’ Our nightmare – my own; these lines, spoken by Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.
Where are we in relation to the figure of Christ in the image Hill has made in our mind’s eye. Drowned – underneath, looking up. On our knees, at his feet. Stood over the scene, looking down? Wherever we choose to be – in time, in space; in our imaginations and our emotions – Christ remains still, we move; we are alive, for the moment. In one of the painting studios in Edinburgh College of Art in the early 1980’s I came across David Mach’s sculpture for the first time. (During the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, the college was often used as a venue for contemporary art.) My recollection of the work is a little hazy – it was thirty years ago – but I remember it consisted of a large collection of clear glass milk bottles, arranged in a rectangle, some of which contained quantities of a dark, grey-blue dye – creating the image of a shark, in water, motionless. While searching for a picture of this I found a more recent work by Mach in an exhibition called ‘Post Pop: East Meets West’ (Saatchi Gallery, 2015). It’s title, Undressed, uses the same method as the shark but with red dye, and depicts a female figure lying on her back, arms and legs spread wide; the image, created in a collection of 1666 clear glass bottles of HP Sauce. It’s a striking and chilling image. (Perhaps seeing the shark some thirty years ago gives me a better sense of what it might feel like to be stood over this splayed, crucified figure, despite having seen it only in photographs.) I say, ‘crucified,’ but I’m not sure if that was in Mach’s mind. The figure is ‘arranged,’ helpless and vulnerable taking the shape of a saltire cross; held down by a violent design; she does not represent the bloody deformed mess of the barrel bomb, more the summary execution. And yet the title at first seems a bit perfunctory, artful, and perhaps even harmless: Undressed. The use of HP sauce bottles – icon of Englishness; ‘By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen’ – further discolours the water, as does their number, which places us in London in the year of the Great Fire. And what is this works affect on our understanding of voyeurism? Do we stand and look at a representation of our seemingly insatiable desire for public ‘execution’ in a culture that is mercilessly confrontational, reductive and condescending to those to whom it purports to want a response from? Mach’s work relies heavily on contingent circumstance. It is usually made – using magazines, postcards, tyres, bricks, coat hangers … the stuff of the everyday – to court the spectacular, but it is in the quieter reaches of these less spectacular works that I think he touches the nerve.
I’ll append another image here, one perhaps as memorable as the picture of Christ swimming on the cross. I wrote above of the atrocities committed by Idi Amin in East Africa in the 1970’s. European history has its genocides too. In a circuitous discussion with a friend over coffee recently (taking in amongst other topics the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann) my friend talked to me about a nephew, N., a forensic anthropologist who has been working in Spain on the exhumation of mass graves from the era of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). N. directs the archaeology, to assist in identifying the skeletal remains of victims for living relatives who do not know where their husbands, grandparents … their loved ones are buried, and who are left ‘not knowing.’ (The poet and playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca, is one of the ‘known’ disappeared although his body has never been found, but recent estimates suggest that there is in the region of 2000 mass graves which may hold the remains of 150,000 victims of execution.) Many of these graves are by roadsides, victim’s shot into shallow ditches. Others, in fields.
N.’s description of what he saw in this one grave is vivid. Each skeleton had a bottle around its neck, held on with a bit of string; and inside each bottle, there was a scrap of paper with the persons name written on it – milk bottles, olive oil bottles; bottles of all shapes, colours and sizes – the dead must have been covered over with soil by people who knew them; by people who believed that one day, their loved ones would search for this grave, and find it.
‘Catalog of Horrors / Descriptions of Natural disaster / Lists of miracles in the divine corridor / Catalog of fish in the divine canal / Catalog of objects in the room / List of things in the sacred river’ (Jim Morrison)
Mona. List —for a Sculpture
‘Lotto card| 15/40 diesel oil| wash powder| milk| face wipes| bottle water.’
Nelly. A Lot Older
The only moment we were alone, with things – pictures, objects, words – in the mirror of the history of art: the privilege of two forms of silence.
Patel. ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead.’
‘We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! / Our dried voices, when / We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass / Or rats’ feet over broken glass / In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed / With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom / Remember us – if at all – not as lost / Violent souls, but only / As the hollow men / The stuffed men.’ (T.S. Eliot)
Winnie. Looks On In Wonder
Finally I wonder at the motivation that brought the giraffe into being. What prompted or necessitated its creation. Why was it made. Was it made out of a profound sense of wonder at the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. Was it made, say, for the same reason as the inscribed images of bison, horses, and buffalo were made on walls – deep inside the earth – in the Chauvet cave; the caves of Lascaux. Or is it a piece of tourist exotica, an ‘objet-souvenir’ made only to sell to foreign visitors? From here, in rural Perthshire, I can only speculate, while I like to imagine that whoever took the time to make this small figurine, did so for all of these reasons, and more besides.