‘The Town Blazing Scarlet’: Swansea’s Blitz


They take you up on Townhill at night to see the furnaces in the pit of the town blazing scarlet, and the parallel crossing lines of lamps…If it is always a city of dreadful day, it is for the moment at that distance a city of wondrous night.
Edward Thomas, ‘Swansea Village’

I: The Bombing

In 1914, when The English Review published Edward Thomas’ essay ‘Swansea Village’, the town was at the peak of its industrial wealth and prestige, a position that would be temporarily damaged by the First World War (a war Thomas would not survive: he was killed in action in Arras on Easter Monday, 1917). Thomas’ portrait was debated by the Swansea Council Library Committee, with angry objections raised to descriptions of the town as “a dirty witch” and “compared to Cardiff…a slattern” (1, although in response to Thomas’ judgement that “many of its dark-haired and pale skinned women are beautiful,” Mr Moy Evans objected, “he is all wrong about the women”). In fact, as at least one person present noticed, Thomas had successfully conveyed the paradoxical qualities of the town. It was left to Mr Crocker of the Committee to explain, with bracing common sense: “I beg your pardon, he says the town is witchingly attractive…nobody ever said that Dickens ruined London when he painted Bill Sykes.” As Thomas recognised, and Dylan Thomas would later immortalise, Swansea is a town of insoluble contradictions, inspiring mixed emotions that amount to something more than mere hometown ambivalence. Part of this has always been due to despair at the scars of industry and urban disrepair, a despair equally matched by delight in the natural beauty of the bay. Although the comparison was never as exact as later claimed, in 1826 Walter Savage Landor did write: “The Gulf of Salerno, I hear, is much finer than Naples; but give me Swansea for scenery and climate. I prefer good apples to bad peaches” (2). There also remains, dating from its failure to become a famous Georgian seaside resort, a sense of unfulfilled potential that persists despite a rich industrial history and city status. It is probably impossible to write well about Swansea without running the risk of offending somebody from there, although most will recognise this conflict of feeling.

This conflict was intensified by the destruction of the town during the Second World War. Swansea was one of many major Blitz targets in Britain and while the bombing did not equal the tonnage dropped on cities like London, Liverpool or Birmingham, the concentration of the attack was as ferocious. Swansea and Gower had been subject to random, individual bombing since June 1940, with the first significant air raids taking place in September and the following January, but it was the devastating three night raid of the 19th-21st February 1941 that was subsequently remembered as the Swansea Blitz. In concentration and effect, this attack resembled Coventry: Swansea’s commercial centre was almost completely destroyed, causing a profound historical, physical and psychological rupture for the town.

This was the result of a change of strategy by the Luftwaffe. In early 1941, Luftflotte 3 began to target the west coast seaports that served Allied shipping routes in the Atlantic, switching to night raids following heavy losses during previous day time bombing campaigns. Like Coventry, whose fate was sealed by unusually bright November moonlight, the success of the Swansea Blitz was the result of atmospheric luck: the nights of the raids were cloudless, with moonlight bouncing back off a fresh layer of February snow, creating conditions of exceptional visibility. The first night set the pattern: pathfinders lit up the town with parachute flares and incendiary bombs, illuminating key targets for the main bomber force that saturated the town with thousands of incendiaries and high explosives. By the third night, huge fires consumed the centre. The water mains had been severed by the previous bombing; hoses stretched from the North and South Docks in a desperate attempt to stop the fires, but were continuously destroyed by explosions (3). Neath, Port Talbot and Llanelli dispatched rescue parties which struggled to get in due to bomb-cratered roads and the debris of collapsed buildings. The glow in the night sky caused by the fires could be seen from the far end of the Gower Peninsula. 

After three nights of bombing seven thousand people had been made homeless and the commercial district almost entirely razed. Social cohesion remained and the town was not abandoned, but the Evening Post quoted an eyewitness who succinctly articulated the emotional impact of the raids, stating simply: “Swansea is dead”. The scale of the destruction was an existential event: the industrial infrastructure had survived, but the ruthless immolation of the old town defined the postwar development and identity of the city.

II: The Rest of the World

What made this identity, and what happened to it? The key to these questions lies in the relationship between the town and everything outside of it: both the international contacts which made Swansea a key industrial port, but also its relation to Welsh nationalism and the construction of a ‘Welsh’ identity that took form in the Twentieth Century. 

Swansea was established by Norse raiders who first settled at the mouth of the River Tawe during the tenth century and gave the town its name. Following the Norman Conquest, Henry I transferred the commute of Gwyr to his trusted vassal Henry de Newburgh, the Earl of Warwick, who, recognising the natural advantages of the Tawe, made Swansea his headquarters and built a castle. Exercising the rights of a Marcher Lord, Warwick founded a borough originally populated by non-Welsh settlers who established a successful agricultural market centre and port community of merchants, fishermen, mariners and boatbuilders. For Swansea, modern history began with the Acts of Union, which proved a mixed blessing: the town was absorbed into the new county of Glamorgan, losing its caput status to Cardiff but also tying it into an administrative system facing East towards English markets. From this point, because of the Union settlement and its commercial and political benefits, Swansea thrived. During the Tudor period, the town was able to exploit government policies to capitalise on existing trading contacts and geographical advantages. As a result of rapid population growth that stimulated the economies of all existing Welsh towns after 1540, Swansea’s identity as market destination, international port and centre for crafts and services was enhanced. This had been achieved by immigration, settlement and external investments; through integration into the wider Tudor economy, and exploitation of the international trading links that could be accommodated by the Tawe harbour. It is worth noting that the Act of Union effectively gave the Welsh equal legal status to the English, thereby encouraging local migration from the Welsh-speaking rural communities into English-speaking towns. Like other South Wales towns, therefore, the administration and culture of the Swansea elite remained English, but Welsh-speaking settlers started to become part of the linguistic and social mix. 

Swansea, therefore, was more than ready for the Industrial Revolution. As Glanmore Williams wrote: “[t]he foundations of the future industrial greatness of Swansea and its environs were already being laid in Tudor and Stuart times and the way being prepared” (4) for the era of coal and metal. In fact, the town was an early exporter of coal: shallow outcrops had been mined in the Swansea valley and North Gower from the Elizabethan era, finding ready markets in Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, the South Coast of England and France. By the early eighteenth century Swansea was a busy coal port with hungry export custom in France and Ireland and a population swollen by the large influx of workers from the surrounding countryside and Ireland. The next stage in the town’s evolution was once again driven by outsiders: English entrepreneurs with the necessary wealth and expertise established a thriving metal-smelting industry, importing copper and zinc ores from Bristol, Cornwall and London and strengthening links between Swansea and the West Country. By the end of the nineteenth century, the growth of tinplate manufacturing fed a hungry American market, opening long-lasting trade links and migration routes to the new continent. 

The construction of a great system of docks accelerated the political and cultural development of the town, linking it into a global network of import and export trading partners. Copper, zinc and iron ore imports landed from South America, Cuba, Australia, and later South Africa, Algeria, Chile, Venezuela, California, Italy, Spain, Norway and Sweden. The American tinplate market dwindled following the 1890 McKinley Tariff, but new customers were found in South America, China, Japan and Europe. Coal and patent fuel exports reached France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Brazil, Algeria and America. As industry grew and wealth accumulated, the middle classes moved away from the social and ecological furnace by the Tawe: as Victorian suburbs spread west, to the uplands and higher, the townscape became more refined, with the building of Georgian-style villas like Belgrave Gardens and elegant, tree-lined terraces like Walter Road. In the gardens and parks, such as Cwmdonkin, the air was clear, the view back over the town decorated with the red glare of the furnace and the winking rhythm of Mumbles Lighthouse. These years before the First World War, the precise moment captured in Edward Thomas’ essay, represented a peak in Swansea’s industrial history. This was emphatically not a provincial story: in 1913, with a record six million tons of global exports, Swansea was a town with much more than parochial interests. 

In fact, the First World War led to a slump in Swansea’s productivity: the copper and tin plate works ossified before the war and lost out to external competitors after it; hostilities meant the temporary loss of important markets in Germany, Austria and Belgium; while conscription gutted the mines of their workforce, thereby limiting exports from the South Wales coalfield. However, Swansea was revitalized during the interwar period by two strokes of fortune: the decision of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to open a refinery at Llandarcy, and the sale of the entire port to the Great Western Railway Company which linked the town into the world’s largest dock system. By the Second World War, Swansea was importing crude oil from the Persian Gulf, with 10,000 ton tankers discharging cargoes from Abadan, Haifa and Tripoli (5), while exporting refined petroleum, coal, iron and steel products to Europe, America, Canada and Argentina. This was the town Dylan Thomas grew up in, watching “the dock-bound ships or the ships steaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions” (6), a place to be reckoned with and closely connected to the rest of the world. The port expanded and modernised, and was there to be converted to wartime purposes when required: after 1939, the docks took war production orders, handled weapons and the transit of troop reinforcements. The sheer scale of Swansea’s productivity and prestige made it a target for the Luftwaffe in 1941, but the irony is that through strategic confusion and apart from one early, isolated attack on the King’s Dock in July 1940, the Germans left the port facilities intact, while destroying the rest of the town. With the centre in flames and water mains severed, it was the hose pipes stretching out from the docks that came closest to saving Swansea’s old heart.

III: ‘The Broken Sea’


The burning of an age.

Vernon Watkins composed a powerful epitaph for this erased town in his long poem ‘The Broken Sea’. This may not be obvious at first, because the poem is a very broad canvas in which Swansea plays one part. A cycle of twenty shorter poems, formally separate yet thematically entwined, it is dedicated and partially addressed to Watkins’ Godchild, “Danielle Dufau-Labeyrie, born in Paris, May 1940”: this birth, and its date, is the foundation for a sprawling meditation on destruction and creation, darkness and light, their cycles and interdependence, obscurely rendered through esoteric Christian symbolism and neo-Romantic imagery. It is, in its way, potent, poignant, even epic, and places the Swansea Blitz within a wider international and even cosmic context: “the burning of an age.”

The poem opens with an invocation of “the visions of Blake,” the first in a series of literary reference points that provide their own specific, personal associations (a habit that Watkins indulged throughout his work, dismissed by William Wootten as “paying minor homage to major talents,” 6): Dante, the Books of Job and Kings (“Elijah was fed by ravens”), Hans Christian Anderson, Hölderlin and Kierkegaard. This referential texture provides clues to the coordinates of a rarefied and singular cosmology that seeks, in the grand sweep of the poem, to make sense of the birth of a child within the context of the invasion of France, the bombing of Paris and the destruction of Swansea. The network of symbols created by Blake is crucial to this poem and its imaginative root in dualism and antithesis, the opposition of darkness and light with all of their spiritual associations and implications. The second poem of the cycle is set in Paris after the opening of the Nazi offensive in May 1940, with the city making preparations for the bombing raid that would finally come in June. Plunged into darkness (“‘Put out the lamps! Put out the lamps!’”) but for “a long shaft of moonlight” the City of Light is shut down in anticipation of night attack: people walk in darkness, “moving in ghostly ritual”, “the shroud descending” over Notre-Dame and the Sorbonne, while “singular lives” are “found in the deeper dark…the restive weariness and writhing cramps/of sleepers underground.” Light is a threat in this atmosphere, and people live in shadows or hide in darkness; Paris, crepuscular, cowering, scared of the future (like the new born child, “bursting with terrors to be”) presages the blackouts and Underground station shelters of the London Blitz and the destruction of Swansea: “Perishing in a moment, in a night,/A wave running over the Earth”. These dark shadows both contrast and are entwined in the imagery of light that shrouds the newborn child in her cradle, portrayed by Watkins as a vivid transfiguration:

A cradle in darkness, white.
It must be heavenly. Light

Must stream from it, that white sheet

A pavilion of wonder…

But also a violent conflagration:

...meteors; thunderbolts hurled
From clouds; coil upon coil of spiral flame.

The child becomes a symbol of the future, of hope and light, but in the shadow of a portent: a future of fire, violence and fear that Paris will face within a month and Swansea within a year. The date that Watkins names (“I remember the tenth of May”) also contains this duality: it is the date that Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg on the West and, though Watkins does not allude to this, the day that Churchill became Prime Minister.

The ninth poem of the cycle is Watkins’ epitaph for Swansea. It is also the section that caves into rage and despair, listing landmarks that have been obliterated, leaving memories suspended in a void. It is the most vivid section of the poem, and possibly why it was the only part anthologised by Kenneth Allott in his 1951 Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse. The emotions that the destruction of Swansea stirred in Watkins are elemental, crude, raw, unprocessed, lines not rarefied with theological symbolism or literary allusions, but seared onto the page with a furious clarity. “You were born when memory was shattered” Watkins writes, to his Godchild, in the most bitter line of the entire cycle: the ninth poem (“My lamp that was lit every night has burnt a hole in the shade”) is an act of memorial for this lost town, a cry of anguish against shattered memories, the violent erasure of a past now recalled with precision: 

The burnt-out clock of St. Mary’s has come to a stop,
And the hand still points to the figure that beckons the house-stoned dead.

Child Shades of my ignorant darkness, I mourn that moment alive
Near the glow-lamped Eumenides’ house, overlooking the ships in flight,

Where Pearl White focused our childhood, near the foot of Cwmdonkin Drive,

To a figment of crime stampeding in the posters’ wind-blown blight.

I regret the broken Past, its prompt and punctilious cares,
All the villainies of the fire-and-brimstone-visited town. 

I miss the painter of limbo at the top of the fragrant stairs,

The extravagant hero of night, his iconoclastic frown.

Through the criminal thumb-prints of soot, in the swaddling-bands of a shroud,
I pace the familiar street, and the wall repeats my pace,

Alone in the blown-up city, lost in a bird-voiced crowd,

Murdered where shattering breakers at your pillow’s head leave lace.

Watkins continues to address his Godchild in her cradle: “Listen” he says, “below me crashes the bay.” The imagery of the sea is as central to this poem’s symbolic economy as light and darkness. Swansea, burnt out in the arc of the bay, is soothed by the rhythms of the water: those who grow up in Swansea can often sense, innately and unconsciously, the importance of the sea to the phenomenology of the town. In Watkins’ poem it is an all-consuming symbol of destruction and regeneration, and permeates every single part of the piece in a way that is as repetitious and as varied as the tides. The sea is “a wave running over the Earth”, a hurling “sea-mass” “of pitiless history”, “the engulfed, Gargantuan tide” and “the magnificent, quiet, sinister, terrible sea”: an elemental force that is unpredictable, threatening and destructive. But it is also “that eternal Genesis”, “regenerate”, a “resurrection-blast” that “gave back a sigh”: an eternal source of renewal, comfort and vitality. 

For Watkins, destruction contains renewal. Memories are classified by the physical details of the town: the clock of St Mary’s Church stopped dead at the moment of bombing (the roof had collapsed following fire damage); the Uplands Cinema (“Eumenides’ House”) in which he watched his childhood heroine Pearl White; his image of the artist Alfred Janes who lived above a College Street florist (“the painter of limbo at the top of the fragrant stairs”); and Cwmdonkin Drive, the childhood home of “the extravagant hero of night”, Dylan Thomas (10). Not every one of these memory traces was destroyed by the Luftwaffe, but like the eyewitness who declared “Swansea is dead” Watkins articulates a broader truth: the old, historic town with its delicate fabric of memory and association, its layers of time and experience, had been irrevocably eradicated by the fires that raged unchecked after three nights of bombing. 

The wave runs over the earth, and also regenerates. Watkins returned to Swansea and Gower to recover from a nervous breakdown triggered while working in Cardiff: the town and peninsula became, in a very literal sense, a place of refuge for him. For most of his life he lived a regular, repetitious, comfortable existence as a cashier at the St Helen’s Road branch of Lloyds Bank, commuting every day from the clifftop village of Pennard (my mother would see him on the Number 64 bus when she got on at Bishopston in the 1960s). Watkins’ imagination was captured by this wider idea of Swansea: an expansive area incorporating the limestone and gorse cliffs of South Gower, with its gorgeous suite of sandy beaches and beautiful, secluded houses (his childhood home was one of these: Redcliffe, a Victorian house at the head of Caswell Bay that was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with a concrete apartment block). This was a town and a peninsula defined by the sea, and its regenerative effect was the dominant reality: both for his personal health, and for the post-war rebuilding of a modern port. 

His 1962 ‘Ode to Swansea’ is a tribute to this vision of Swansea: a “bright town” (11) that emerges from the ruins of war: 

Leaning Ark of the world, dense-windowed, perched
High on the slope of morning,

Taking fire from the kindling East: 

This is the Swansea of light and water: a view down over the bay from the Victorian suburbs of the Uplands and the coiling streets and sprawling estates of Sketty and Townhill, over the 

…shell-brittle sands where children play, 
Shielded from hammering dockyards

Launching strange, equatorial ships.

The renewal of industry in the docks through the oil refinery which attracted the vast tankers that my grandfather would have known in some detail, working as a ship broker for Burgess & Co in 1962, provides, for Watkins, an image of the vitality of the town and its participation in the global pursuit of wealth and power. The poem is also infused with the perspective of a man of the Gower: gulls, pigeons, starlings, shags and cormorants all populate the picture, alongside the Mumbles Lighthouse, limestone rocks, Lundy and the fishing nets dropped off the coast. For Vernon Watkins, unlike Dylan Thomas, Swansea became a “loitering marvel” that contained multitudes: a lovely window onto a wide and teeming world, rather than a narrow, small, provincial place. “Prouder cities rise through the haze of time,” he wrote, “Yet, unenvious, all men have found is here.” 

IV: ‘Return Journey’

In 1947 Dylan Thomas was commissioned to write a radio feature for the Home Service series ‘Return Journey’. At this time he was tempted to move to America, encouraged by his publisher James Laughlin who promised to look for a suitable house near New York, and very actively discouraged by his friend Edith Sitwell who tried to convince him to consider Switzerland instead, or Italy. This was an unlikely move: Thomas once told Laurence Durrell, “the highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark…If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun” (12). In February 1947, he went instead to a very cold and dark Swansea yet to be rebuilt and with the clock of St Mary’s still stopped dead at the moment of attack. This was the brutal winter that led to huge snow drifts and power cuts and shortages; broadcasting was limited, exposed cattle froze to death and the presiding Labour administration fatally damaged (they lost to the Conservatives in 1950). February, in particular, was the coldest month on record; the ruins of the town froze under layers of snow in conditions that recalled the nights of the Blitz six years before. Thomas was not exactly yearning for home at this time, but had been around Swansea in 1941, and the impact of the destruction on him was profound. Bert Trick met Dylan and Caitlin in the town centre the morning after the final raid and later wrote: “The air was acrid with smoke, and the hoses of the firemen snaked among the blackened entrails of what had once been Swansea market. As we parted, Dylan said with tears in his eyes, “Our Swansea is dead”” (13). Even more than the anonymous Evening Post eyewitness, the emphasis was highly personal: “Our” Swansea had been destroyed, a site of shared experience assumed to be universal but certainly not collective. The Nazis had destroyed his memories, the imaginative and emotional contours of his town; it was almost as if Hitler had aimed his bombs directly at Dylan Thomas. This was not the burning of an age: it was the razing of his youth. But as the ‘Return Journey’ script revealed, there was value in this perspective.

The recollections of ‘Return Journey’ go wider and deeper than the Blitz, although this event gives the script focus and also overshadows everything in it. The narrative perspective is suspended in time and space, a voice from the unconscious interrogating apparitions from Swansea past and present, drifting in and out of “the snow and ruin” (14). A barmaid, some Evening Post reporters, a Minister, a School Master, a Park Keeper, among others, collectively piece together impressions of Young Thomas chasing girls, drinking too much, filing useless newspaper reports, mooching around the promenade and sand dunes, climbing trees and cutting off branches in Cwmdonkin Park. Like Under Milk Wood, the medium allows a form that is fluid and overlapping, not bound by any conventional narrative devices or visual or spatial limitations. The texture of memory is key: shifting perspectives and dialogic cacophony; chaotic and vivid visual traces, triggers and clues. This drift of voices is filtered through Thomas’ dense poetic mannerisms: a barrage of alliteration and assonance; adjectives and verbs piled on top of each other or promiscuously modified (“he could smudge, hedge, smirk, wriggle, wince, whimper, blarney, badger, blush, deceive, be devious, stammer, improvise…” etc. 15). Memory is heightened with a poetic luster that conveys the distortions and poignancy of nostalgia. 

This is punctuated by another technique that has a  crucial and specific purpose: the careful recording of the names of vanished streets and shops and people dead and alive (“Mrs Ferguson, who kept the sweet-shop in the Uplands where he used to raid wine gums, heard her name in the programme, and wrote to say, ‘Fancy remembering the gob-stoppers’”, 16). Cecil Price later asked Thomas how he remembered all the lost shops that he lists: “‘It was quite easy,’ he answered. ‘I wrote to the Borough Estate Agent and he supplied me with the names’” (17). Like the scattered memories that Watkins crystallizes momentarily in ‘The Broken Sea’, this recording is a deliberate act of memorial, a motivation made explicit, and tragic, by a roll call of dead school contemporaries (“The names of the dead in the living heart and head remain forever. Of all the dead whom did he know?”, 18). The whole script is permeated with death, but the act of writing and the reading of names is an attempt to cheat it: to immortalise a lost world, at least partially. The inevitable failure of this attempt, for Vernon Watkins and Dylan Thomas, provides the emotional core of their acts of memorial.  

Thomas had a more complicated relationship with this dead town than Watkins, for whom Swansea became a revitalising landscape and a refuge. For Thomas the town was a source of material inspiration that was the springboard for his flight out to the rest of the world. His recollection of the Kardomah Cafe gang through a litany of conversation topics and shared obsessions and references makes this point: “Einstein and Epstein, Stravinsky and Greta Garbo…Communism, symbolism, Bradman, Braque, the Watch Committee, free love, free beer, murder, Michelangelo, ping-pong, ambition, Sibelius, and girls” (19). The excitement of discovery and ambition that contact with the world ignites goes beyond the narrow confines of the locality in which you grow: for Thomas, Swansea is not necessarily enriched by this external world, but he is enriched by it despite the dampening provincialism of the town. The plan, like so many before and after, is to get out: “Dan Jones was going to compose the most prodigious symphony, Fred Janes paint the most miraculously meticulous picture, Charlie Fisher catch the poshest trout, Vernon Watkins and Young Thomas write the most broiling poems, how they would ring the bells of London and paint it like a tart.” The strain of nostalgia evident in ‘Return Journey’ is partly the affection of the escapee, looking back on what has been left behind, with all small town frustrations exorcised. But it is also a reaction to the violent eradication of the landscape of his youth, which robs him of an immediate physical environment upon which to reminisce. So much of such worth is easily lost: “The Kardomah Cafe was razed to the snow, the voices of the coffee-drinkers – poets, painters, and musicians in their beginnings – lost in the willy nilly flying of the years and the flakes.” For Dylan Thomas, in ‘Return Journey’, the Blitz was simply a more definitive, and cruel, expression of time. 

V: The Anglo-Welsh

They went outside and stood where a sign used to say Taxi and now said Taxi/Tacsi for the benefit of Welsh people who had never seen a letter X before.
Kingsley Amis,
The Old Devils

To have high esteem for a language you don’t actually use, while holding the one you do use in low esteem, is to be in a parlous mental and moral condition.
Conor Cruise O’Brien,
Ancestral Voices

The Kardomah gang eulogised by Thomas and Watkins represented a creative sensibility that was part of an outward-looking, modern, anglicised urban and industrial culture clustered around the ports and coalfields of South Wales with related pockets in the Medieval Anglo-Norman enclaves of South Pembrokeshire and Gower. The productivity and the money that flowed from and into these areas was the source of a cultural and commercial dynamism that was noticed, momentarily, by the rest of the world. This was a crucial and even central component in the political and economic development of the principality and, therefore, any notion of Welsh identity and ‘nationhood’.  It was a Welsh identity that was located in Swansea, Barry, Cardiff and Newport, with their commercial and mercantile character and their international links and contacts. It was also the Welsh identity of the Valley communities with their own internationalist links and aspirations fostered by the trade unions, the Labour party and Communist, Trotskyist and Syndicalist organisations, all traditions with no use for Welsh nationalism. As John Davies pointed out in his history of Wales, the most influential exponent of this world view, progressive from its own perspective, was Aneurin Bevan:

As he was convinced of the virtues of central planning, Bevan saw no necessity for that strategy to have a Welsh dimension. In his speech on 17 October 1944, he mocked the notion that Wales had problems unique to itself…Peter Stead has argued that, in the 1940s, it was Bevan specifically who frustrated any significant advance in the recognition of Wales; furthermore, he maintains that in subsequent decades every scheme for devolution would have to wrestle with Bevan’s notion of political priorities. (20)

The star poet of Wales and international exponent of Anglo-Welsh literature, woven well into the fabric of the contemporary Welsh heritage industry, was also hostile to Welsh nationalism and, even, the very confines of a Welsh identity. As Paul Ferris notes, for Dylan Thomas,

Wales was incidental. Thomas had no intention of being regarded as a provincial poet, and there was no substitute for living in London. It was only later that the question of Thomas as a specifically ‘Welsh’ poet arose; and when it did arise, he decried it…In 1952, in a letter to Stephen Spender, thanking him for his review of Collected Poems, he wrote, ‘Oh, & I forgot. I’m not influenced by Welsh bardic poetry. I can’t read Welsh’. (21)

Ferris qualifies this stark declaration by arguing for the Celtic character and technical influence of Welsh verse on Thomas’ strictly monolingual output. What cannot be argued is that, in common with other Anglo-Welsh writers, Thomas derived the bulk of his subject matter and inspiration from Welsh communities and characters and landscapes. This was a tendency dismissed savagely by Kingsley Amis, who met the poet in Swansea and considered him to be

a pernicious figure, one who has helped to get Wales and Welsh poetry a bad name and generally done lasting harm to both. The general picture he draws of the place and the people, in Under Milk Wood and elsewhere, is false, sentimentalising, melodramatising, sensationalising, ingratiating. (22)

The case against this tendency in Anglo-Welsh literature was given more measured and biting articulation in fictional form in The Old Devils, out of the mouth of Charlie: “Write about your own people by all means, don’t be soft on them, turn them into figures of fun if you must, but don’t patronize them, don’t sell them short and above all don’t lay them out on display like quaint objects in a souvenir shop” (23). From the scathing portraits of Caradoc Evans to the socialist ballads of Idris Davies and the pastoral mysticism of Vernon Watkins, this rootedness in the subject of Wales was both a weakness and a strength: but, more than anything, it helped to articulate the culture and aspirations of the English-speaking Welsh communities. Swansea was a central connection in this Anglo-Welsh artistic network, with its own creative cluster around Thomas, Watkins, Dan Jones and Alfred Janes, with flourishing satellites like the Swansea School of Art which produced the Surrealist painter Ceri Richards. 

The Welsh nationalism that eventually found political form in Plaid Cymru defined itself in conscious opposition to this tradition. From inception, the focus of Welsh nationalism was language: this came to be the basic element of Welsh identity, and its legal and cultural resurrection the foundation of independent nationhood. The significance of this fact lies in the nature of the English-speaking regions of Wales, as described above. Welsh nationalism was at root a vision of Wales centred on the Welsh-speaking rural communities, the ‘Welsh Wales’ uncontaminated by the external and foreign influence of the modern industrial world. This conception of Welsh identity was regressive and insular, based on an artificial aesthetic of ruralism and a cult of the past augmented by Welsh folktales and Celtic legends, Bardic traditions and peasant superstitions. It was, basically, nativism, with a reactionary right-wing tendency at its core. Saunders Lewis was its authentic heart, a Roman Catholic partly responsible for bringing the ideas of French Catholic conservatism, Charles Maurras and Action française into the movement in the 1930s (24). By the Second World War, the Lewis faction was propounding an anti-democratic, extra-parliamentary platform that called for abstention from the ‘Imperial War’ against Hitler and a form of direct action that led to an arson attack on RAF Penrhos in 1936. Lewis was incarcerated in Wormwood Scrubs for this adventure and became a  martyr for the Welsh cause, electrifying activist sentiment within the more militant Welsh-language communities. In the end, Welsh nationalism did not follow this violent course but it did re-frame the idea of Welsh nationality along the lines of language rights and a rural aesthetic that found expression in, for example, the Welsh Language Act of 1993 and the professional regeneration of the Eisteddfod. This would find its true home in the ‘liberal’ nationalism of a primarily middle class milieu attached to Plaid Cymru, the Church, the University of Wales and the provincial BBC. 

This had an indirect effect on Swansea, which had no significant Welsh-language enclaves like Cardiff, and maintained a residual, resolutely anglicised culture which had been the basis for its civic and cultural identity during the years of industry. In reaction to the new cultural and political definition, or ideal, of ‘Welshness’, Swansea’s sense of self-identity crumbled alongside its vanishing industries in the 1980s and 90s. It had no clear way to orientate itself in this new, post-industrial Wales of the Assembly and the Language Act. Its major industrial history, like that of the Valleys, was reduced to perfunctory heritage trails and unenthusiastic school trips, or dismissed as a legacy of ecological disaster in the case of the Tawe and Swansea Valley. Swansea’s greatest cultural achievement — the outward-facing, expansive, experimental, anglicised coterie of the 1930s-50s — was eclipsed by the capture of Dylan Thomas for the Welsh cause, despite his own antipathy to nationalist sentiment and his own conflict with Welsh identity that both animated and distorted his work. Swansea, itself, was reduced by this new idea of the nation: both the complexities of the “two-tongued” city characterised by the anglicisation of its rural, Welsh-speaking settlers, and the Anglo-Welsh culture of its elite and middle classes that found literary expression in the work of Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins, were downplayed and even erased by this political project. This was a large part of the reason why, despite the apparent health of the Dylan Thomas industry, Swansea struggled to capitalise on or communicate the full significance of its own past: that past was now debased currency in Wales. Swansea, like Newport and Barry, was shortchanged by Welsh nationalism: nationalism was not interested in Swansea, or in its interests. 

VI: The City

Swansea’s postwar history is a story of temporary renewal followed by steep decline. Following the Blitz, the local authority was faced with the task of rebuilding the entire central commercial area, a project which did not begin until 1947, in the months after the writing of ‘Return Journey’. In some ways, reconstruction never ended. The town centre was rebuilt in the clean concrete style of the New Town: the Kingsway became the wide central thoroughfare, a grey wind tunnel capped by a monolithic, Brutalist Odeon cinema. The town was, in a way, rebuilt in a manner befitting a modern city: a status finally bestowed by the Queen in 1969, by which time Swansea was rapidly losing all the elements that gave it national and even international prominence to begin with. Slowly the traditional industries were dismantled or relocated: the Llandarcy refinery was reduced to a specialist lubricating oil producer in the late 1980s, fully closing in 1998; Landore steelworks was converted into a small engineering factory in 1980; the Velindre tinplate works closed in 1989; finally, the Baglan petrochemical plant began to disappear from the Eastern horizon in 1994 and was gone by 2004. I grew up in the city from 1982, watching oil tankers lumbering impressively across the bay; by the time I left for university in 1996, they had, almost imperceptibly, completely disappeared from the channel. For the majority of people in Swansea, by this time, the change hardly registered at all. 

So, the city redefined itself, reverting to an earlier ambition to create a glamorous seaside resort. “From the 1780s to the 1830s,” wrote J.R. Alban,

Swansea had great pretensions to becoming a seaside resort of some standing. ‘The Brighton of Wales’ or a ‘Welsh Weymouth’ were some of the comparisons made by contemporaries. During this period, the town was provided with bathing houses, bathing machines, public gardens, circulating libraries, public assembly rooms, theatres and a newspaper; in fact, all the accoutrements needed to make it a genteel and fashionable place or resort. (25)

Swansea did not become the Brighton of Wales. But, in 1982, the South Dock was transformed into a yacht marina, with hotels, cafes, bars and restaurants added throughout the decade. This was one of the first such post-industrial redevelopment projects in Britain and was, initially, a success, chiming with a new (definitely not parochial or Welsh at all) consumer and enterprise culture, ruthlessly mocked by Kingsley Amis in The Old Devils. Swansea, in this new world of services, leisure and tourism, stripped of its industrial identity, was more closely tied to the Gower than ever: one part became an adjunct of the other. The middle class commuter worked in Swansea but lived in Langland or Bishopston; tourists stayed at Oxwich or Llangennith but brought supplies or spent rainy days in the city. There was a new enterprise zone with a tropical hothouse, a multiplex cinema, and Toys-R-Us. The memory of Dylan Thomas was absorbed, mobilised, sold: the Swansea Year of Literature in 1995 was the apotheosis of this process. This redefinition of the city and its identity still stopped short at the border of Welshness and the politics of Welsh identity. This had not been an issue, or even at stake, in the city I grew up in, and it struggled to adapt to the new criteria of nationality. Like everywhere else at this time, the primary cultural influence was American: Dallas, Dynasty and Miami Vice could tell you more about the mores and imagination of the city of Swansea than the Mabinogion. Even as this self-image and those aspirations — dreams of Marbella or Miami played out on the set of the Maritime Quarter — dissipated in the ruin of recession, the imagination of everybody in my school still happened to be shaped by Beverly Hills 90210 and Baywatch rather than the medieval bards.  This was the reality of the time and the location: there was no longing, or need, for a fabricated rural tradition. Swansea remained a modern city: open to outside influence, looking forward. As I wanted to show when I started to write this essay, if the city actually, fully, embraced this tradition it would find plenty to be proud of and even to feel confident about. It would, in fact, find something deeper and wider than the Dylan trail or constricting contours of Welsh identity: it would find the history of a town that let in and went out to the whole world. 

  1. See Andrew Green’s blog post ‘Edward Thomas in Swansea’ for details of this meeting, with quotes taken from the Cambrian Post: https://gwallter.com/books/edward-thomas-in-swansea.htm
  2. Quoted in James A. Davies, ‘‘Under a Rainbow’: Literary History’ in Swansea – An Illustrated History, ed. Glanmore Williams (Christopher Davies, 1990) p. 221
  3. Nigel Arthur, Swansea at War – A Pictorial Account 1939-45, (Archive Publications, 1988), p.27 and pp. 34-5. This book has extensive details on all bombing raids on Swansea.
  4. Quoted in ‘Before the Industrial Revolution’ by Glanmore Williams, in Swansea – An Illustrated History, p.16
  5. David Boorman, ‘The Port and its Worldwide Trade’ in Swansea – An Illustrated History, p.77
  6. Dylan Thomas, ‘Reminiscences of Childhood (Second Version)’ in Selected Writings (Heinemann, 1970), p.3
  7. William Wootten, ‘In the Graveyard of Verse’, London Review of Books, August 9th 2001
  8. Vernon Watkins, ‘The Broken Sea’, The Collected Poems of Vernon Watkins (Golgonooza Press, 1986), pp.80-1
  9. Watkins, p.86
  10. James A. Davies, ‘‘Under a Rainbow’: Literary History’, p. 237
  11. Watkins, ‘Ode to Swansea’, p.285
  12. Quoted in Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (Penguin, 1978), p.223
  13. Ferris, p.184
  14. Dylan Thomas, ‘Return Journey’ in Dylan Thomas – The Broadcasts, ed. Ralph Maud (J.M.Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1991), p.183
  15. Thomas, ‘Return Journey’, p.185
  16. Ferris, pp.223-4
  17. Quoted in editorial note to ‘Return Journey’ by Ralph Maud, p.178
  18. Thomas, ‘Return Journey’, p.186
  19. Ibid., p.183
  20. John Davies, A History of Wales (Penguin, 2007), pps. 592-602
  21. Ferris, p.115
  22. Kingsley Amis, Memoirs (Penguin, 1992), pps.132-3
  23. Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils (Penguin, 1987), p.28
  24. Kenneth O. Morgan, Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980 (Oxford University Press, 1982), p.256
  25. J.R. Alban, ‘Local Government, Administration and Politics, 1700 to the 1830s’ in Swansea – An Illustrated History, p.110
Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Letwin Amendment


His political ideas are already as antiquated as Noah’s ark. I do not know a single one of the younger men in England who is influenced by them in the slightest degree, though one hears of one occasionally, just as one hears of a freak in a dime museum. (1)

I: The Letwin Amendments

During the May and Johnson administrations of 2019 an unlikely Tory rebel emerged. As MP for West Dorset, Sir Oliver Letwin had been a central figure in the modernisation of the Conservative Party after the election of David Cameron as party leader, but over the course of the year he confounded many Tory colleagues by joining opposition MPs in a determined effort to thwart the passage of Brexit. A series of specific parliamentary interventions confirmed his new role as an enemy of the European Research Group and the Tory Whips:

  • On 25th March, the First Letwin Amendment passed, securing a series of indicative votes on Parliament’s preferred Brexit options, although none achieved a majority;
  • On 3rd April, the Cooper-Letwin Bill obliged the government to seek parliamentary consent for any extension to the date of withdrawal from the EU (the final approval of this played a major part in May’s downfall);
  • On 3rd September, Letwin submitted a motion that secured an emergency debate on the Benn Bill which sought to rule out a No Deal Brexit (all the Tory MPs who voted for this motion lost the Conservative whip);
  • Finally, on 19th October, the Second Letwin Amendment forced Johnson to request a further Brexit delay, effectively cancelling the vote on his deal.

This rebellion against former colleagues was not really a rebellion at all but a series of tactical moves designed to represent and defend parliament against an aggressive executive. His break from the party was visceral — a government source, widely believed to be Dominic Cummings, leaked a story to the Mail on Sunday accusing Letwin of collaboration with “foreign agents” — and had a dynamic wrecking effect on the strategy of Boris Johnson. 

This outcome had not been obvious at the start of the Brexit process, or inevitable: in his 2017 memoir, Hearts and Minds: the Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present, Letwin described his inability to secure the support of Johnson and Michael Gove for the Remain camp as “one of the biggest failures of my political life” (2). Gove, in particular, had been a close ally during the ‘modernisation’ project of the Cameron years. Before the psychodrama of Brexit, they were all on the same political wing of the party, although there had been personal rivalries and fall outs (these became important). More pertinently, Letwin was an early Eurosceptic: he recounts his Alpine summer holiday in 1987, spent digesting an exhaustive pile of books on European law and EC institutions, from which emerged his pamphlet Drift to Union. This study presaged Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech, but neither of these nascent Eurosceptic texts actually argued for full withdrawal. Letwin had concluded that the interests of Britain lay in a pluralist system within the EU: “a Europe of concentric circles with an emerging federal state at the centre and a free trade single market around it” (3). This was an early argument for an alternative to the full federalist project associated with Jacques Delor. Letwin never actually advocated leaving altogether, but then neither did any of his Conservative colleagues at the time, including the boss (“Mrs T.” as he calls her). Indeed, Charles Moore argues that Thatcher’s own speech was 

careful to accept everything the EC had done to date, and genuine in calling for Europe to make a more active contribution to the advance of political and economic liberty. Mrs Thatcher never believed, while in office, that Britain would be ‘better off out’, as the saying went. The Bruges speech was delivered, in good faith, as her suggestions for a better Europe. (4)

The revolution that Letwin documents occurred later, outflanking his position on the Right while he stayed in roughly the same place: “[v]iews that once caused me to be classified as a dangerous Eurosceptic now cause me to be classified as an establishmentarian” (5). His account of the political evolution of Bill Cash, for years the most dedicated foe of European federalism, is illuminating. As Letwin points out, Cash remained an advocate of the Single Market until Maastricht and continued to support membership until Lisbon, only then calling for associate membership and, by the time of the Referendum, a clean break. Others took an even more extreme route, including “the arch-Machiavelli of our generation of Conservative politicians” (6) David Davis, who traveled from the whips office that ushered Maastricht through parliament to the post of Brexit Secretary under May. From A8 and Lisbon to the Referendum, the political landscape changed completely. Letwin argues that he stayed still, but as his memoir otherwise reveals there were more subtle shifts at work here, both in his own career and globally. 

II: Shirley and Bill

You don’t understand. Keynes is dead. Dead.
Alfred Sherman

There is a sense in which Europe snuck up on the Conservatives while they were engaged in a different battle. This is borne out in Hearts and Minds, which briskly recounts this battle from inception to conclusion. In the third chapter of the book (‘The Intellectual Origins of Thatcherism’) Letwin describes the practical application of Thatcher’s ideology as a fight over the size of the state: 

[t]he question was not how far the state could intervene to rescue the least advantaged from the conditions that destroyed their life chances. The question was, instead, how far the state should intervene to support (or, those on our side of the argument insisted, to fail to support and to succeed only in constraining) the majority of the population.” (7)

If this reduction of the economic and political debates of the 1970s and 1980s seems glib in isolation, it rests on an elegant foundation of economists and philosophers that included among its number Letwin’s own parents. As his old school friend Charles Moore described it, the Letwin household in Regents Park was a salon for a generation of conservative intellectuals and writers:

Kingsley Amis, A.J. Ayer, Keith Joseph, Friedrich von Hayek, Sybille Bedford, Peregrine Worsthone, Elie Kedourie, John Gross, V.S Pritchett, Frank Johnson, Irving Kristol, Maurice Cowling, Ferdinand Mount, Michael Oakeshott, Colin Welch and Daniel Bell were all people I met for the first time at 3, Kent Terrace…[w]ith little money, excellent cooking (Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the Bible), Shirley and Bill, two American academics in London, created something tremendous. (8) 

The Letwins met at the University of Chicago in the late 1930s while studying under Milton Friedman, before migrating to London after the war to continue their doctoral studies at the London School of Economics (LSE) alongside Hayek, Karl Popper and Oakeshott, who would all become personal friends. Bill was eventually appointed Professor of Political Science at LSE, while Shirley taught political philosophy at LSE and Cambridge. This was the milieu in which Oliver grew up and took part, as he recalls: “[f]rom a ridiculously early age, I was allowed (perhaps even encouraged) to participate in the lively discussions that characterised their dinner table. It was a sort of university of free market thought, right there on your plate” (9). His parents held a central position in an intellectual and social circle drawn from Chicago, LSE and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA, “[f]ounded in 1952…to promulgate the kind of free market economics being propounded by Hayek and Friedman…[i]t had the great good luck to be led in this by three friends of my parents…”, 10). These three institutions formed the intellectual pillars of Thatcherism, market leaders in a ferment of political thought and academic activity with only one real precedent in modern British politics: the Fabian Society and its offspring, the Labour think tanks of the 1930s.

By the middle of the 1970s, all of the political energy and innovation was on the Right, as David Collard had foreseen in Fabian tract 387, The New Right: A Critique. Writing in 1968, Collard argued that the ideas coming out of the IEA provided a coherent and powerful critique of the postwar consensus and a programme for radical change, and prophetically warned that the Left would be “successfully outflanked” (11) if it did not take this challenge seriously. The Fabian Society was not only the historic enemy of the IEA and its politically operational progeny the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), it was also their model. The intellectual enterprise at IEA and CPS and their orbit reflected the industry and influence of the Fabians, although their real precedent was more precisely the Left think tanks of the 1930s, in particular the XYZ Group and the New Fabian Research Group. Under the coordinating influence of Hugh Dalton (as chairman of the Labour Party Finance and Trade Committee) their impact during the first Attlee administration reset political and economic reality. As Kenneth O. Morgan put it, “they set the parameters of postwar Britain…[t]he experience of war made theirs the conventional orthodoxy after 1945 and for two generations to come” (12). Founder Antony Fisher explicitly modeled the IEA on the Fabians and took careful note of the method and impact of Harold Laski and Hugh Dalton at LSE. His original intention, as he told Hayek during their first conversation in 1947, was to found an “anti-Fabian society” (13). Fisher would use the Fabian blueprint to reverse the political and economic reality they had created: “Socialism was spread in this way and it is time we started to reverse the process,” he declared (14). When Hayek had convened the first Mont Pelerin Society conferences in the 1930s, economic liberalism was relegated to the political margins, effectively sidelined by Keynes and the socialists as he noted in a 1933 LSE lecture:

the people who call for a further extension of government controls of economic life have certainly ceased to be in any way intellectual path-breakers – they are most definitely the spirit of the age, the ultimate product of the revolutionary thinking of an earlier generation – the Fabian Generation. (15)

The battle that ensued between the economic liberals at LSE and the Keynesians at Cambridge led, ultimately, to the victories of Thatcher and the destruction of the Soviet system. As Richard Cockett described it: 

the academic debate between the ‘Keynesians’ and the economic liberals during the 1930s…was, it could be said, the crucial intellectual debate of the century in the Democratic West. It clearly divided economists – and ultimately politicians – into two distinct camps; the borders set down between these two camps were to run through British politics, across Party boundaries, and out into the wider democratic world, as the century unravelled…(16)

By the 1970s, the political stagnation of the Labour party and the moral bankruptcy of the trade unions, in combination with the intellectual activity at LSE, IEA and CPS, inspired a steady stream of conversions and defections from the Left, among them former New Statesman editor Paul Johnson, historian Hugh Thomas and the Labour MPs Reg Prentice and Brian Walden. For this expanding circle of conservative intellectuals, politicians and journalists, the Letwins’ Kent Terrace dinners provided an informal space to link economic liberals with social conservatives and socialist converts. This connection could not be taken for granted, as many of the key thinkers at IEA identified their ideas with the Liberal Party rather than a Conservative Party still largely associated with paternalistic One Nation Toryism and the Butskellite consensus. There had been early Tory champions of Monetarism, but these were isolated figures, and, in the case of Enoch Powell, politically toxic. In this context, therefore, the adoption of IEA texts and personnel by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher represented the beginning of a fundamental change of course for the Tories: a turn towards ideology that led, in Letwin’s recollection, to a “mood of revolutionary zeal (the fear of not appearing to be ‘one of us’)” (17).

Labour was left without any effective defence to this determined assault on its historic assumptions and scelortic structures. From the very beginning, the economic liberals had taken their opponents seriously: Ludwig von Mises, for example, attacked Marx on his own terms by attempting to undermine the logic of Marxist economics. The tragedy of the Labour movement is that it did not respond in kind, or in time: the definitions and dismissals of ‘neoliberalism’ it chose to adopt were distorted and conspiratorial and largely remain so (recent examples of this include David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine). In 1932, von Mises described a dominant rhetorical tendency inherited from Marx: “instead of refuting he tends to abuse…[H]is disciples…have faithfully imitated the master’s example, reviling their opponents but never attempting to refute their arguments” (18). This legacy was not only theoretical, but tactical and stylistic; in this vein, the Left counterattack on Thatcher was purely tactical and stylistic. As Collard warned in 1968, any response that did not address the economic critique of socialism and the ideas of the IEA would not be credible, and would therefore fail. It did, and the Left was exposed intellectually, morally and strategically, which allowed Thatcher to dismantle the collectivist state and legally impair the trade unions almost unopposed. There was no conspiracy: this was a credible and ambitious use of power that proved popular, as the 1945 Labour programme had been.

It was a victory the Left could not credit because it did not understand it, or even try to. Even Thatcher’s supporters struggled to fully grasp the scope of her success. Economic theory was only one, important but limited, aspect of it. Perhaps the most interesting and effective attempt to define the appeal of Thatcherism was made by Letwin’s mother Shirley, in her 1991 study The Anatomy of Thatcherism. In her analysis, the key to Thatcherism was its emphasis on a particular set of attributes that she called “the vigorous virtues”: “self-sufficiency, independence, energy and adventurousness in individuals” (19).  Linked to this was a defence of the family as the centre of social cohesion, rather than the state: a self-organising, independent unit transmitting moral qualities and individual virtues from generation to generation. This, in turn, established the basis for the Thatcherite ideal of the nation, which Letwin described as a vision of post-imperial modernity: “a country in which the interplay of vigorous individuality is supposed to form the basis of a self-sufficient and respected island power” (20). In order to realise this vision, Thatcherism created, even necessitated, a “paradigm shift”, both in “the relationship between government and economy” (21) and in the relationship between government and the different pillars of the establishment, from the old City networks to the trade unions. In this analysis, then, Thatcherism was “not a political theory, but a historically specific and ruthlessly practical project” (22) that still had, at its core, a philosophical conception of the individual, the family and the nation. 

Oliver contributed to this project at a junior level working for Keith Joseph at the Department of Education, and at the Number 10 Policy Unit under the directorship of John Redwood. At the Policy Unit he took on the brief of local government, an issue defined at this time by the budgetary abuses of Liverpool and the GLC. Following his time at the Policy Unit, and at the height of the Thatcher revolution, Letwin was employed at NM Rothschild, where he advised governments of every type, from every continent, on the methods and benefits of privatization. From this perch he wrote a book called Privatising the World which, as Charles Moore remarked, “sounds absurdly hyperbolic, but it is notable that Letwin’s expectations in his book of the spread of the creed were considerably more modest than what actually happened” (23). This journey would have an ambiguous end: his work in local government fed into the Poll Tax debacle that undermined Thatcher’s political position; “the creed” would be damaged by the global financial crash of 2008, a direct consequence of deregulated financial institutions operating unchecked. This stoked the illiberal, populist politics that would find its British expression in UKIP, Brexit and the Johnson administration, all of which Letwin would try, in his own way, to contain and curtail. 

III. The Anguish of Keith Joseph 

He told the anecdote at the age of seventy: about the beggar who was in the street every day; how the small boy decided to feed the beggar; how, day after day, he surreptitiously purloined food from the breakfast-table to do so. “End of anecdote,” he concluded. (24)

In Ken Loach’s panegyric Spirit of ‘45 the real hero of his narrative is not Clement Attlee, but Nye Bevan; as the film progresses, it becomes clear that it is not simply a tribute to the 1945 Labour administration, but a sectarian statement on behalf of the Bennite Labour Left. In Letwin’s memoir, Keith Joseph occupies a similar position. The book is not about Joseph, nor does he dominate the narrative or even take up much space, but he is Letwin’s occluded hero. His core argument rests on the sensibility and insights of Joseph, belatedly incorporated into his own amended political persuasion.

Letwin’s first government job after Cambridge and Princeton was at the Department of Education under Joseph, hired to help design a school voucher scheme proposed by Milton Friedman in his television series Free to Choose, which was subsequently added to the Thatcher wish list. Although “intellectually attracted” to the idea, in practice Joseph found every reason to avoid actually implementing it, encouraged by skeptical and ingenious civil servants. From this position Letwin watched Joseph struggle temperamentally to implement ideas he espoused. This is often portrayed as an internal conflict — an inability to face the real world implications of his own prescriptions. But Joseph was also a victim of his emotional and intellectual disposition: a tendency to concede both sides of the argument and defer to expertise. As his first biographer Morris Halcrow noted, “a word constantly applied to Joseph was anguish; and, indeed, he devoted immense quantities of nervous energy to decision-making and squaring his conscience” (25). In 1974, after Joseph wrecked his own campaign to be Tory leader, Barbara Castle observed: “He certainly seems a tortured personality…I believe he is consumed with ambition as well as self-doubt” (26). This was also Letwin’s impression at Education, but in Hearts and Minds he amends this with retrospective appreciation of Joseph’s nuanced position:

I came progressively to understand the profundity of Keith’s point and to see that the free market economy is not sufficient, sustainable or defensible unless it also becomes a social market economy in which the prosperity engendered by free enterprise is harnessed in the service of promoting the life chances of the least advantaged. (27)

Although Joseph understood this connection in theory, in the arena of practical politics he was being pulled in different directions, which contributed to his tortured and contradictory ministerial style. In a 1971 speech to the Playgroups Association he introduced the concept of the “cycle of deprivation” which would become one of his principal themes in subsequent years. Joseph had taken the idea from Frank Field’s Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), a major influence on his own thinking; as an acknowledgment of this, he “was to become the first and probably the last social security minister to win a standing ovation from a CPAG conference” (28). Joseph saw their work “as a challenge to the Welfare State, a challenge not only to break the cycle but also to arouse the public conscience” (29) and brought this into his own texts and speeches on the subject. His attitude to welfare had two primary roots: early social work in the East End of London and later conversion to economic liberalism. His actual record as Secretary of State for Social Services under Ted Heath was mixed: the Family Income Scheme was abortive and he considered his own reform of the NHS bureaucracy to be disastrous, but he was also responsible for introducing a series of new benefits to support the disabled, long term sick and elderly (Attendance Allowance, for example, dates from his tenure). The full implications of Joseph’s subtle proposition would find more serious application under New Labour with Frank Field at DSS, but at the time he occupied an anomalous position which would become even sharper in opposition after 1974.

Joseph considered his interests in economic liberalism and social policy to be complementary, but others saw them as conflicting and dismissed his preoccupation with welfare as a charming eccentricity. It was certainly not what Sherman had in mind when he had mentored Joseph as the primary vessel for the IEA in government. As Halcrow put it, “what he did was not to destroy the Attlee welfare provisions but to try to bring them up to date,” (30) but as far as Sherman was concerned Joseph had been eaten alive by his civil servants, writing him off as “a lion in opposition, a lamb in government” (31). However, it was not over: Joseph’s conversion to economic liberalism was faltering, but eventually decisive. It was Joseph, more than anybody else, who connected the academic economists of the IEA to the Conservative Party and was instrumental in setting up the CPS with Sherman at the helm. The speeches that Sherman wrote for Joseph, in particular the 1974 Preston speech with its ruthless critique of the economic policy of Heath and the case for Monetarism, effectively prepared the ground for Thatcherism. For Joseph, his liberal social policy was strengthened by his economic views: enterprise, wealth and job creation an essential prerequisite to the provision of effective social services, housing and health care. In a speech delivered at LSE in 1975, echoing Hayek’s own concept of “competitive order” (32), he dismissed the accusation of laissez faire:

I am not defending a free-for-all. The State must act to make and enforce rules to ensure the security of human life, protection against force and fraud and protection of those values and standards – social, economic, ecological – which represent the accumulated and current aspirations of our community. (33) 

The two phrases that became closely associated with Joseph were ‘wealth creation’ and the ‘cycle of deprivation’. The link that he made between the two was not then considered obvious, and remains contested. It was, in fact, seen as a contradiction in Joseph himself, and the inability to balance or connect them a personal failure. Concluding his biography in 1989, Morris Halcrow picked up on this theme: “It might be fair to say that Lord Joseph, given his prestige, could have been doing more to turn the eyes of the new Conservative Party to the challenge of how some of the wealth created by the Thatcherite enterprise culture ought to find its way to the underprivileged” (34). Letwin, one target of the sting in this statement, is retrospectively more generous to his old boss:

Keith…was making the arguments that needed to be made, back then in the 1980s – and by doing so, he was helping to shape the future course of British politics, not only in the Conservative Party itself but also in what emerged out of the Labour Party in the 1990s. (35)

IV: Drift to the Centre

Letwin finally became an MP in 1997. By now, the new reality created by Thatcher had been accepted by Labour under Blair and Brown, who hollowed out the Conservatives at the election, leaving them largely without motivation or purpose. Looking back on his roles during the Thatcher administrations, having spent the Major years at Rothschilds, Letwin strikes a rueful note:

We were locked not only in a battle for freedom and free markets in Britain but in a global battle of ideas. And this, too, I feel sure on reflection, was part of what made us so keen to keep focused on that battle, in a way that had the destructive side effect of making us far less interested in life chances and social justice than we should have been, or than Keith Joseph would have liked us to be. (36)

At its core, Letwin’s book is a subtle critique of Thatcherism, which sets a platform to defend the record of the Conservative Party programme of David Cameron. For Letwin, the mix of social and economic liberalism developed by the Cameroons was the logical response to the “Blair-induced existential crisis” (37) the Tories suffered in 1997 (he describes sitting listlessly in front of his computer screen after the election, staring at an empty word document titled: ‘What is the present purpose of the Conservative Party?’). This is given an added dimension by the recognition that this answer had been close at hand all along. It had been provided by Keith Joseph, who had been disregarded on this very point throughout the Thatcher decade:

Blair had spotted the defect in the purist version of Thatcherism that the Conservative Party had mistakenly believed itself to have inherited. Like Keith Joseph and the ‘wets,’ he had sensed that, to make free market economics attractive and acceptable, they had to be balanced by a real focus on social justice. In Blair’s hands, the free market of 1997 was to be a social market of the kind envisaged by Keith. (38)

There are many strands of historical truth and irony in this observation. For example: Joseph’s early social policy speeches had been influenced by Frank Field and CPAG; Field, during his own run at the DSS under Blair, heavily influenced the ideas of Iain Duncan Smith, whose directorship of the Centre for Social Justice laid the intellectual groundwork for the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, itself built on the foundational concept of the cycle of deprivation. IDS was, like Joseph, a more nuanced proposition: “a thorough-going Eurosceptic and unabashed free marketeer,” as Letwin observes:

He felt he had the moral authority to lead the party into social reform and the capacity to take the right of the party with him. In addition, he was able to carry social liberals like David Willetts and me – because he saw that his programme would at last enable the party to slay the dragon of social justice that we had so clearly failed to slay since the days when David and I had been in Mrs. Thatcher’s Policy Unit. (39)

Letwin’s argument in Hearts and Minds is that the political contract offered by New Labour, the Orange Book Liberal Democrats and his faction of the Tories provided an electorally attractive and politically effective synthesis that had the potential to resolve the needs of modern British society. However, as his account of the Tory civil war of the 1990s suggests and the subsequent history of both Labour and the Conservatives proves, this contract was less secure and final than it seemed at the time. 

The struggle between the social liberals (led by Michael Portillo and Francis Maude) and social conservatives (led by Ann Widdecombe) squandered the leaderships of Hague, IDS and Howard. The rise of Cameron was therefore, for Letwin, the Conservative version of the End of History, and he still cannot countenance the failure of this project as anything other than a temporary aberration. In Letwin’s account, liberal Conservatism, like ‘Blairism’ or the Third Way and like the Coalition compact with the Orange Book Liberals, had a dialectical solidity and conviction. It amended the historical errors of Thatcherism and made peace with the mores of contemporary Britain: the answer to everything turned out to be “the free market and the focus on social justice that was its necessary counterpart” (40). Keith Joseph was right all along, Blair was right too, and once they realised it, he was right and so were his allies, Cameron, Gove and Osborne. Letwin candidly admits that “I certainly had more in common with some of my closest Liberal Democrat coalition colleagues than I did with some of my most ideologically distant fellow Conservatives” (41) and pays admiring tribute to Blair throughout the book (but not to tribal Brown). 

In fact, in all of these political coalitions, the unresolved tensions remained dangerously close to the surface. The new creed was surprisingly shallow and stubbornly cosmetic: this was revealed over and over again, in the exposure of the Third Way as an empty slogan or the abject failure of the Big Society to win the Tories an election. As Edmund Dell pointedly observed towards the end of the first Blair administration, big political ideas are very rare and impossible to manufacture. During the early 1990s, as Labour policy thinking began to move and open up, a new generation of centre-left think tanks appeared, explicitly modelled on IEA and CPS. Taking a lead from the New Democrats and the election of Clinton, the Institute for Public Policy Research, Demos and the Social Market Foundation were all in the market for new and iconoclastic ideas to reset the democratic Left proposition in Britain. They all failed to offer anything other than a synthesis built on smooth words and chimerical concepts, as Dell predicted:

The probability must be that when the third-way travellers set out on their journey they did not know where they would arrive and that it has been a surprise to them as well as to others that, having circled the world of political thought, they have arrived back at social democracy…the Third Way may turn out to be what a New Labour government is prepared to do, anything that it is prepared to do. (42)

New Labour consummated the marketing of policy and ritual abuse of the word ‘radical’ to foster an impression of dynamism, a tendency fully absorbed by the Cameron and Orange Book teams. But this was also self-defeating, because once the structures of the liberal order began to fall apart, the rhetorical techniques and media strategies became more transparent, and therefore ineffective. As Letwin admits towards the end of his book, “the happy continuity of social market liberalism in Britain is now under threat from many quarters” — principly, the new strains of “illiberal demagoguery” and “state socialism tinged with expansive theories of human rights” (43). Letwin’s analysis of this onslaught is both precise and complacent, ascribing it to “latent feelings…given real force” by the 2008 Crash, demographics and globalisation. Therefore, he suggests, the current “illiberal politics of right and left” is “historically contingent – a temporary reaction to a set of economic events” (44). 

This assumption is an optimistic one, and is maybe a result of Letwin’s own political evolution: he is not a convert from the free market economics of his youth, but through painful experience has amended his ideas, finding answers and solace in the wisdom of his old boss, Keith Joseph. A careful and compassionate thinker, raised in a world of sophisticated ideas and civilized debate, the atmosphere of the political salon and an Anglo-American and Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition, he eventually learnt the political art of compromise rather than purism and zealotry. It is as if he found peace in dialectical resolution and is therefore unable to countenance the scale of the damage done to the postwar economic and political settlement. Hearts and Minds was written before his showdown with the Johnson administration, but it is useful to place Letwin’s 2019 amendments in the context of his broader political story. He was fighting to safeguard not only the position of Parliament and the national interest, but also the bipartisan, socially liberal, free market political order that he helped to establish but failed to protect. 

  1. Fabian activist William Clarke on the libertarian political philosopher Herbet Spencer in 1894, quoted in Richard Cockett, Thinking the Unthinkable – Think-Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931-1983 (Fontana Press, 1995), p.15
  2. Oliver Letwin, Hearts and Minds – The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present (Biteback Publishing, 2017), p.24
  3. Ibid., p.7
  4. Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher – The Authorized Biography, Volume Three: Herself Alone (Allen Lane, 2019), p.149
  5. Oliver Letwin, p.27
  6. Ibid., p.13
  7. Ibid., p.84
  8. Charles Moore, ‘At home with the Letwins’ salon’, Standpoint, May 2013, p.55
  9. Oliver Letwin, p.72
  10. Ibid., p.72
  11. Collard quoted in Cockett, p. 157
  12. Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People – Hardie to Kinnock (Oxford University Press, 1992), ‘The Planners’, p.113-7. After those generations came Thatcherism. 
  13. Fisher quoted in Cockett, p.134
  14. Ibid., p.131
  15. Hayek quoted in Cockett, p.32
  16. Cockett, p.34
  17. Oliver Letwin, p.90. Interestingly, this was not the opinion of his mother, who considered Thatcherism to be a non-ideological phenomenon.
  18. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism – An Economic and Sociological Analysis (Liberty Fund, 1981), p.416 
  19. Shirley Letwin, The Anatomy of Thatcherism (Fontana, 1992), p.112
  20. Ibid., p.37
  21. Ibid., p.126
  22. Ibid., pp.44-5
  23. Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher – The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants (Allen Lane, 2015), p.219
  24. Morrison Halcrow, Keith Joseph – A Single Mind (Macmillan, 1989), p.3
  25. Ibid., p.37
  26. Castle quoted in Halcrow, p.94
  27. Oliver Letwin, pp.41-2
  28. Nicholas Timmins, The Five Giants – A Biography of the Welfare State (Harpercollins, 2001), p.289
  29. Halcrow, p.51
  30. Ibid., p.47
  31. Sherman quoted in Halcrow, p.157
  32. Hayek quoted in Cockett, p.113
  33. Joseph quoted in Halcrow, p.105
  34. Halcrow, p.193
  35. Oliver Letwin, p.40 
  36. Ibid., p.89
  37. Ibid., p.101
  38. Ibid., p.95
  39. Ibid., p.122
  40. Ibid., p.96
  41. Ibid., p.213
  42. Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History – Democratic Socialism in Britain (Harpercollins, 1999), pp. 568-9
  43. Oliver Letwin, pp. 273-74
  44. Ibid., p.279

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Art of the Italian Peplum

In the forward to his revised edition of The Greek Myths, written in Deya, Majorca, in 1960, Robert Graves sketched a theory:

 I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanor, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshiped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called ‘the Ambrosia’. I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of travelling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale. The evidence […] suggests that Satyrs, Centaurs, and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom, amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength. (1)

Graves experimented with magic mushrooms throughout the 1950s, inspiring him to formulate esoteric theories about the hallucinogenic origins of Greek mythology, later published in Food for Centaurs (2). Derided as spurious by classical scholars at the time, these theories did at least try to account for the primeval strangeness and tribal traces of the original stories. Hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, remarkable muscular strength: such behavioral extremes had been, to a very large degree, purged from modern representations of the ancient world and when Hollywood finally got hold of the Classics they had a fairly safe set of tales to ransack. It was left to the Italians, picking up leftover American sets and costumes at Cinecittà studios, to put some of the strangeness and savagery back into the stories. 

Graves would have probably disdained the Italian peplum movies if he ever watched one, an event that seems unlikely in his Majorca retreat. Even among Italian film enthusiasts they tend to be considered camp crap: 1960s kitsch dumped on YouTube channels for the nostalgic or those looking for a laugh. But when Tim Lucas described Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al centro della terra, 1961) as the first psychedelic movie he wasn’t being lazy or flippant at all. Bava’s peplum followed his 1960 Gothic chiller Black Sunday which defined his visual style in pure form for the first time, manipulating stark black and white to evoke extreme states of fear and eroticism. In Hercules in the Haunted World he did a similar thing, but in deep, bold Technicolor. Presented as a mythical yarn, Bava’s Hercules was a visionary spectacle: a fever-dream in which action was secondary to visual concepts and the exploration of hypnotic states, spells and hallucinations. By this point the lines between his pepla and horror films had blurred, so that Christopher Lee could play villainous King Lico as if he was Count Dracula. The closing World of the Dead sequence effectively laid the groundwork for the visual assaults of the early 80s Italian zombie cycle: Bava’s Living Dead rising from their crumbling crypts foreshadowed Lucio Fulci’s own underground uprising at the end of City of the Living Dead. (This kind of slippage also happened in his science fiction nightmare, Planet of the Vampires.) Bava’s film showed that the Italians, at this time, had the ability and licence to do things that Hollywood could barely imagine, let alone execute. 

In his overview of the cycle Jon Solomon usefully summarised the basic template of the Italian peplum: “at its nucleus was always the heroic male bodybuilder protagonist performing feats of strength while righting wrongs, originally and predominantly within the mythological and historical parameters of the Greco-Roman world” (3). This provides a neat starting point that is basically accurate for most pepla churned out between 1958-65, but also shows how far the Italians took the formula, not just in terms of geography and history, but thematically and aesthetically. Solomon details plot excursions to Ancient Egypt, Carthage, Atlantis and Mongol Central Asia, but there was no fidelity to period detail, literary integrity or historical accuracy in these films: each setting simply provided a stage for the most extreme spectacle possible. As Solomon notes, for many producers and directors the innate exoticism of the genre provided an opportunity to accentuate “villainy in the tyrants and sensuality in the femmes fatales” (4): in other words, to maximise the sex and the violence. Italian directors were encouraged to mine story and history books for salacious material which was then spliced together and given lavish visual attention by local film crews, triggering an explosion of energy and creativity that fueled Italian genre cycles until the late 1970s. In his foundational Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole, 1958) and its sequel Hercules Unchained (Ercole e la regina di Lidia, 1959) director Pietro Francisci promiscuously adapted elements from Apollonius of Rhodes, Sophocles, Aeschylus and the legends of Hercules and Omphale to present an anarchic remix of mythology and history even more frantic and audacious than opera: stories and characters conflated, condensed and recombined in pursuit of rapid, non-stop sensation. The effect was surprising, often thrilling, sometimes hilarious. There was liberty in this lurid mess. 

As the cycle developed, the need to generate novelty produced a kind of aesthetic delirium: constant escalations spawned increasingly strange hybrids. This was a fast and experimental creative environment with no scruples and no respect for the auteur theory of film or conventional notions of good taste. In this atmosphere, limits could be exceeded quickly, for sometimes large profits. The films, after all, were cheap, and the talented crews fully up to the task of producing ingenious and dazzling spectacle from practically nothing. Everything was thrown into the mix, and genres blurred: at times, even now, it can be hard to know what you are watching: a mythological epic, a science fiction fantasy, or a Gothic nightmare. The process was chaotic, even random. The resulting products were impure, contaminated; sometimes a magical spell, a lavish confection, at other times barely holding together at all. As Howard Hughes put it in his compendium Cinema Italiano, “the central theme of pepla is man’s freedom” (5), but the means of expression were unhinged. Mario Bava, in particular, excelled at pushing the limits of physical spectacle and moral license with limited resources. In Hercules in the Haunted World and the Viking saga Erik the Conqueror (Gil invasori, 1961) he decorated his tales with lavish, over-saturated images of sadism and sexuality, creating minor period epics that fitted into the visual and thematic world he was conjuring up in Baroque horrors like Black Sabbath and The Whip and the Body

This impurity was perhaps the defining feature of Italian products. It could be glimpsed in the haunting vision of Queen Lydia’s crypt in which former lovers become petrified statues in Hercules Unchained or the gruesome fate of the sacrificial victims to Proteus in Vittorio Cottafavi’s Hercules Conquers Atlantis (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide, 1961), visually rich and uncanny set pieces that defy categorization. In Sergio Corbucci’s Goliath and the Vampires (Maciste contra il vampiro, 1961) the Oriental Kingdom of Salmanac is terrorised by a shape-shifting, blood-sucking apparition that materialises in wrathes of red mist, floating in mid air, fangs and talons poised to feast on the blood of virgins. Kobrak (‘the vampire’) is capable of changing his form at will: during the film’s climax he morphs into Goliath himself so that at the final moment, courtesy of some crafty special effects, Goliath appears to grapple with Goliath. The film is suffused with an atmosphere of spooky sadism and exotic sensuality, decorated with a bone-strewn desert, a depraved Oriental court and a frozen underground lair that conceals an army of blue humanoids. Goliath and the Vampires is a period adventure that exceeds every other production of the time by gleefully raiding adjacent genres (horror, science fiction). Corbucci, like Bava, had the talent and temperament as a director to take these things to their logical conclusion: his Roman epic Son of Spartacus (Il figlio di Spartacus, 1962) and Spaghetti Westerns Django and The Great Silence stand out for their handsome scale and pitiless brutality. Goliath and the Vampires made the peplum frightening and cosmic, within its own frivolous boundaries: in the process it shredded conventions and invented something stupid, new and unrepeatable. 

This wildness, this lack of decorum and taste, a refusal to acknowledge any aesthetic boundaries and push at both moral and legal limits, became a basic driving force of Italian genre cinema, taken to extreme horizons by directors like Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato. It pushed the peplum cycle through to its bitter end and ushered in the amorality, violence and eroticism of the Spaghetti Westerns, horror movies and gialli of the later 1960s. The brutality of the pepla set a precedent for the aesthetics of Italian film by depicting violence with more felicity and imagination than the American models. Movies like Goliath and the Vampires or Carlo Compagalliano’s ruthless romp Goliath and the Barbarians (Il terrore dei barbari, 1959) and his voluptuous, savage Son of Samson (Maciste nella valle dei re, 1960) opened with whole villages and towns being massacred in surprising, gory detail: the innocent burnt or  buried alive, stabbed or impaled, with no mercy for women or children. In later pepla like Son of Spartacus or Ferdinando Baldi’s Son of Cleopatra (Il figlio di Cleopatra, 1964) the brutal, parched landscape, visual motifs and pessimism of the Spaghetti Western had started to be sketched out: pitiless bursts of violence perpetrated by desperate, amoral men on horseback in barren desert wastelands. 

The violence was balanced by an extravagant sensuality that was often, and deliberately, decadent and provocative, a central trait of Italian cinema. There is a retrospective tendency to focus on the supposedly homoerotic presentation of the lead actors in the pepla: bodybuilders like Steve Reeves and Reg Parks romping around in skimpy loincloths, flexing oily torsos and wrestling wild beasts. But this is misleading, ahistorical and misses a key point: the pepla often revolve around the motivations, machinations and sexual allure of their women. The female characters were not just sex objects in these films: their erotic charisma often suffused the entire narrative and propelled it. If the central protagonist was invariably the muscular and moral hero, a Hercules or a Maciste, then his real nemesis was more often than not a dynamic and seductive queen or courtesan. Occasionally controlled by a larger, more malevolent force (Kobrak in Goliath and the Vampires; a race of rock-headed, be-caped aliens in Giacomo Gentilomo’s legitimately camp and demented Hercules Against the Moon Men), they almost always stole the show from everybody else. 

Hercules Unchained, for example, belonged to Sylvia Lopez, the tragic starlet who died of leukemia one year after the film was released. Her Queen Omphale is an outstandingly lurid and febrile creation: decked in gossamer suits and diaphanous gowns with eyes like steel daggers and lips like lava, she is eventually driven mad by desire and immolates herself in her own cave of horrors like a Technicolor Barbara Steele. In Son of Samson and Goliath and the Barbarians, Chelo Alonso (“the Cuban H-Bomb”) provided a lethal sexual charge by deploying seductive dance routines learnt at the Folies Bergere in Paris (6), vamping and murdering her way through the Mongols of Central Asia and the dangerous schemers of Pharaonic Egypt in luxurious and only vaguely period-appropriate couture mini dresses. As Queen of the Amazons in Hercules, a wily courtesan in Goliath and the Vampires or a corrupt and lusty aristocrat in Son of Spartacus, Gianna Maria Canale exuded a graceful and intelligent menace that finely balanced the outré sexuality of Alonso and Lopez. Lydia Alfonsi excelled at the role of Prophetess often key to the mythological mini-epics, adding mystery and dignity to such roles as the Sybil in Hercules and Cassandra in Giorgio Ferroni’s The Trojan Horse (La guerra di troia, 1961). In their original context these films pushed the boundaries of female agency and sexual aesthetics to produce some of the most memorable yet forgotten lead performances by any Italian actresses.  

The peplum provided a perfect vehicle for the visual sensibility of the Italians, and an important opportunity to develop their talent and expertise in special effects, set and costume design. If there is one thing that distinguished the best Italian productions from their American models, it is their rich visual texture. The Italians presented their stories in dynamic, saturated Technicolor. Caves, grottoes and crypts were drenched in shimmering colour palettes: jarring blues and livid reds, piercing golden shafts and aquamarine washes. Pioneered and inspired by Bava, the lighting did a lot of work: cheap tricks devised to conjure vivid and unnatural dream states and hallucinatory nightmares. In fact, the visual signature of Mario Bava is all over the most effective and beautiful-looking pepla, even those without his direct involvement like Hercules Conquers Atlantis (a visual and thematic wonder), or Goliath and the Dragon (Le vendetta di Ercole, 1960) in which Cotaffavi painted a broiling volcanic landscape that was only let down by the ridiculous fire-breathing rubber puppet that Mark Forest wrestled at the climax of the film. Most productions required a dance sequence, both an obligation and a chance to show off: in the hands of Bava these became extreme candy-coloured confections, inserts of exotica that enhanced the dreamy delirium, like budget versions of the Powell and Pressburger ballet extravaganzas in The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. The nature of Italian productions, the studio combination of outrageous talent and motivated hacks, led to this uneven balance of virtuosity and abject failure, often in the same film, even the same scene. But this is precisely why the Italians excelled at the low-brow: apart from an upper crust of Marxist or moralising neorealists, the Italian film industry was refreshingly mercenary and anarchic, and within that precarious, venal infrastructure the likes of Bava and Corbucci could refine their own style and deliver it, in a commercial package, to hungry regional cinemas. 

The tendency towards extreme stylistic mannerism established during the peplum period would be fully developed in the Gothic horrors and gialli that followed: the thread can be traced all the way through to the visual assaults of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. The escalations and deviations of the pepla also established the pattern for subsequent film cycles. This was the first filone, and set a commercial and stylistic template for the Spaghetti Westerns, spy capers, Gothic horrors, gialli and poliziotteschi. Some of Italian cinema’s great genre exponents started here, notably Freda, Bava, Leone and Corbucci. Furthermore, with their big, bold themes (freedom, tyranny, the nature of good and evil, love, sex, power) and however ludicrous the approach, the pepla wore the scars of Italian society in the heat of industrial and cultural revolution. Like the Gothic horrors and Spaghetti Westerns, they did not, in general, try to preach or convert. Like the best Hollywood genre products, the ideas they explored were not delivered as programmes or slogans, but as symptoms of fear and desire, aspiration and dislocation (7). Their achievements were accidental, but not insignificant. Ignored now, they are worth revisiting (and where possible, fully remastering, 8) for their visual and stylistic achievements but also as central and living documents of a country with unmatched cultural resources and abilities being transformed at every level, from every direction. They are waiting, still, to be rescued and rediscovered. 

  1. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Penguin, 1992), p.9
  2. See ‘Centaur’s Food’ in Robert Graves, Food for Centaurs (Doubleday & Co., 1960). William Graves would partly blame use of psychedelics for his father’s late mental decline, see Joshua Hammer, ‘Robert Graves Found ‘Perfect Tranquility’ in Majorca’, New York Times, July 3, 2015
  3. Jon Solomon, ‘The Muscleman Peplum: From Le fatiche di Ercole (1958) to Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)’ in The Italian Cinema Book (ed. Peter Bondanella, BFI, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.163
  4. Solomon, p.167
  5. Howard Hughes, Cinema Italiano – The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult (I.B. Taurus, 2011), p. 1
  6. Howard Hughes, p.13
  7. The best example of this is perhaps Hercules Conquers Atlantis, in some ways the most ridiculous of all the pepla but also the most interesting. In the film, Queen Antinea’s Atlantis is a technocratic tyranny with eugenic ambitions to “change men…create a new race.” The mythological setting tilts into science fiction and even exploitation, with its Futurist cityscapes and charged erotic apparel: the fetishistic black leather uniforms and weapons of Queen Antinea’s guards, as well as her own prowling, vicious performance, an Atlantean dominatrix. The thematic echoes of Mussolini’s own mad dreams of a fully aestheticised and pure totalitarian state are obvious and it is worth remembering that these films were being produced only fifteen years after the destruction of the Fascist regime.
  8. The model would be Arrow Films’ exquisite release of Erik the Conqueror: their 2K  restoration (with the original Italian vocal track) is a revelation. The reputation of films like Hercules, Hercules Unchained, Hercules in the Haunted World, Hercules Conquers Atlantis and Goliath and the Vampires would be transformed by similar treatment and presentation. Whether this will ever be possible, either technically or commercially, is another matter. 
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Jews in Fascist Italy

A 36244

And he would shake his head, with the expression of someone who, should they wish to, could even understand such subtleties and complications, but who is just not minded to. Such tiny fine discriminations, intriguing and engaging as they might be, at a certain point became irrelevant: they too would be swept away. (1)

In November 1938, the Italian Council of Ministers introduced Racial Laws that directly targeted Jews, barring them from public office, banning mixed marriages, stripping their assets, and restricting their right to travel. Looking back after the destruction of the Jewish communities of Europe by the Nazis, the experience of the Italians before and during the Second World War is full of tragic contradictions and historical ironies. In his 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani portrays some of these complexities as experienced by the Jews of Ferrara, seen retrospectively through the eyes of his semi-biographical narrator recounting his youthful infatuation with Micol Finzi-Contini and her reclusive, wealthy family. 

Two months after the introduction of the Racial Laws, Giorgio has a heated exchange with his father that captures the defiance and denial still being expressed at this late stage by many Italians, including Italian Jews:

“I hope you won’t want to start on the usual story,” I interrupted him, shaking my head.

“What story?”

“That Mussolini is more good than Hitler.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But you have to admit it’s true. Hitler’s a bloodthirsty maniac, whereas Mussolini is what he is, as much of a Machiavellian and turncoat as you want, but…” (2)

Even at this point there was reason for uncertainty and indecision, if not complacency. Until the Racial Laws, Italy had no antisemitic tradition to compare to other European nations. The introduction of racist legislation triggered shock and open revulsion throughout the country and caused a “crisis of conscience” in the Fascist movement itself (3). The cynics and antisemites of the party elite — men like Roberto Farinacci and Giovanni Preziosi — understood the need to “prepare” Italians for this new policy, which many considered “the ‘barbaric’ and ‘Celtic’ doctrines from beyond the Alps” (4). The Laws were preceded by a change in the tone and reporting of Jewish stories in the national press, followed by the publication of ‘The Manifesto of the Racial Scientists’ which was generally met with disgust and derision (according to Giorgio’s Communist friend Malnate, “it was hard to know whether it was more shameful or more ridiculous,” 5). Renzo De Felice described the Manifesto — the first clear shot in the antisemitic campaign in Italy — as “a text that, from every point of view, scientific, political and moral, remains one of the worst and shabbiest episodes of the Fascist period” (6). However, these measures singularly failed in their aim to convert Italian public opinion to antisemitism for the simple reason that most Italians could see no reason to discriminate against those citizens they had worked with, lived with and married without prejudice since the Emancipation.

The Jewish population of Italy is highly assimilated, successful, and ancient. The first Roman Jews settled in the Second Century B.C. and the Jewish community of  the Portico d’Ottavia neighborhood — the ghetto liquidated by the Nazis in October 1943 — dated back to Emperor Vespasian. The word ‘Ghetto’ partly derives from the original segregation of the Venetian Jews in 1516 on the site of a foundry (‘getto’). The Emancipation and the Revolution of 1848, the Risorgimento and the liberal regime that followed unification, successively secured their status. They prospered and integrated. Many distinguished themselves in the Great War and subsequently participated in the early squadristi and local Fascist parties. In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio’s pen portrait of his father is intended to symbolise an Italian (not only Ferrarese) type from the subsequent period: “medical graduate and free-thinker, army volunteer, since 1919 card-holder of the Fascist Party, and sports enthusiast, in short the Modern Jew” (7). In the novel, his father never fully recants his allegiance to the Fascists; in Vittorio de Sica’s 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi Contini, however, this aspect is muted and his final rejection of the regime is shown in the closing scenes. This was a serious point of contention between the novelist and film-maker, erasing the record of local participation in Fascism by the Ferrarese Jews, effectively covering it with a general (if moving) portrait of persecution. But the power of Bassani’s novel is precisely this exploration and exposure of the accommodations made with the regime and its subtle entwinement in everyday life and communal self-awareness even at a moment of grave and growing danger.  

The reasons that Jews could accommodate and participate in Fascism before and even after the introduction of the Racial Laws were numerous and as contingent as the regime itself. As Michael Ledeen wrote in his book on the short-lived Fascist International, Universal Fascism:

Like all other Italians, the Jews saw a variety of tendencies at work in the Fascist Regime. What they saw most clearly, however, was that the situation of the Jews got better and better over the first decade of fascist rule. They consequently behaved pragmatically when they supported a government which not only improved their legal status but […] also became for a time one of the foremost advocates of the Zionist cause in Europe. (8)

Giorgio’s father accuses the Finzi-Contini of avoiding the local community by joining the “scornful isolation of the Spanish synagogue” without even being “good Zionists” to warrant it:

Given that here in Italy, and in Ferrara, they always found themselves so ill at ease, so out of place, they could at least have benefited from this situation and taken themselves off, once and for all, to Eretz! But not at all. Apart from fumbling every now and then for a wee bit of cash to send to Eretz (which was nothing to boast of, anyway) the thought of going had never even crossed their minds. (9)

Mussolini’s shifting attitude towards Zionism illustrated those particular traits recognised by Giorgio’s father at a different moment: cynical, “Machiavellian” and “turncoat”. In the attempt to consolidate Italian influence over the Mediterranean, Zionism had proved to be a useful if temporary tool. Mussolini conducted cordial meetings with Chaim Weizmann and Nachum Sokolov and from 1932 his regime collaborated with Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Zionist movement. By 1937, different considerations and tendencies abruptly ended this accord, as Renzo De Felice detailed in The Jews in Fascist Italy:

The Zionist card had lost its value in the eyes of the Fascists: alliance with Germany, a pro-Arab policy, and a Mediterranean agreement with England had modified the view the Palazzo Chigi had of Palestine. The efforts of those Jews who, feeling the storm rising above their heads, tried to ward it off by attempting to convince important Fascist leaders that Italy could at last replace Great Britain within the mandate over Palestine, came to nothing. (10)

The Jewish community of Ferrara was one of the most successfully assimilated in Italy and this is why the the fate of the city’s bourgeois milieu so effectively illustrated the overall tragedy of the Italian Jews, in both Bassani’s fiction and the historical archives. Alexander Stille described how, in Ferrara,

an ancient bond of tolerance and affection tied the Jews to their city. From as early as the thirteenth century, it had distinguished itself among Italian city-states for its religious openness…while most other cities prevented Jews from doing any business other than banking, to avoid competition with local merchants, Ferrara granted them full rights. (11)

This was interrupted by the city’s absorption into the Papal States in 1597 which saw the creation of the ghetto and the abolition of civil rights for Jews. Following liberation, the story of the Jewish community was one of energetic integration and significant contributions to the development of the Italian state. During the Fascist era many middle class Ferrarese Jews were members of the Fascist Party (like Giorgio’s father) and Bassani himself claimed that when he was growing up he did not recall a single Jew in Ferrara who was not a Fascist. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis portrays the moment this concord fell apart.  For Giorgio’s father the full import of the Racial Laws does not immediately register and is deflected by rage and suspicion at the aloof attitude of the Finzi-Continis: “Of course […] they were pleased with what was happening! Because to them, halti as they’d always been (anti-Fascist, sure, but above all halti) deep down the Racial Laws gratified them!”(12)

In his group portrait of five Italian Jewish families during Fascist era, Stille documents the fate of the Ferrarese Schönheits who were sent to Fossili before their final deportation to Buchenwald, like the fictional Finzi-Contini. He quotes Franco Schönheit who recalled the reaction of the Ferrarese Jews to the Nazi assault on the Roman Jews in an interview with the author:

We heard about the October roundup in Rome the day after. Trains carrying prisoners from Rome had passed through Northern cities, and the people inside had thrown postcards and letters from the cars. But we were very incredulous. Italian Jews in general were very incredulous. German refugees who had escaped into Italy would take every opportunity to warn Italian Jews about what was happening to Jews in Germany, but we always said, ‘What happened in Germany can never happen in Italy.’ You heard that phrase constantly, up until the end. (13)

It became difficult, if not actually impossible, for Italian Jews to remain loyal to the Fascist Regime after the promulgation of the Racial Laws. This was also true for Italians in general and marked the beginning of Fascism’s decline in Italy. Renzo De Felice writes:

Those who had shunned politics up to that moment and had, so to speak, “delegated” it to Fascism, began, during the second half of 1938, to think for themselves once again […t]he corruption, the immorality of Fascism, quickly became obvious to everyone, causing disgust, solidarity with the Jews, and loss of confidence in the state. (14)

For the majority of Jews who felt loyal to Italy and who believed that they owed their emancipation and equality to the birth of Italian State, the conflict was profound:

The realization that Fascism did not represent Italy, and had not made a mistake or misunderstood them, was slow and painful. Fascism had consciously and cynically prepared and undertaken their persecution and it was now useless, naive, and shameful to attempt to convince it of their “good faith” through demonstrations of loyalty, which it obviously did not deserve and in which Jews no longer believed. (15)

But there were even some Jewish exceptions to this. Stille recounts the tragic story of Ernesto Ovazza, a leader of the Fascist ‘bandieristi’ group and the Jewish Community in Turin who felt certain that his well-documented loyalty to Mussolini would save his family from persecution. He held onto this conviction until they were literally dragged out of their hotel in the Italian Alps to be executed and incinerated by drunk SS guards. Before leaving Milan himself, Ovazza told fleeing relatives, “they’ll never touch me, I’ve done too much for Fascism.” Stille quotes another fugitive who encountered Ovazzo at a later date, in hiding: “During several walks we took together he always seemed rather calm because he claimed to have in his possession a signed photograph of Mussolini dedicated to him” (16).

The arc of Ovazza’s story provides some insight into the way that Jews were able to find a place within Fascist Italy that was not possible in Hitler’s Germany. Fascist elitism diverged from Nazi racial genealogy in its conception of the New Man as well as its “spiritual” racism.  The Italian Fascist ideologues — and Mussolini early on — conceived of Fascism as a revolution of the spirit: dynamic and open-ended where Nazism was fixed and reactionary. As De Felice noted in his famous 1975 Intervisto sul fascismo,

[w]hile Nazism has a revolutionary appearance through its mobilization of the masses, insofar as the transformation of society is concerned it moves on a double path different from the Italian case. It seems to create a new society, but the most profound values on which this society must be created are traditional, antique, and unchangeable…Nazism sought a restoration of values and not the creation of new values. The idea of the creation of a new kind of man is not a Nazi idea. (17)

De Felice viewed Italian Fascism as a movement with roots in the French Revolution (18), an analysis that provoked hostility in post-war Italy where the Communist Party laid claim to the revolutionary tradition and the legacy of the Resistance was appropriated by the First Republic. But even the Fascist cult of violence had roots on the revolutionary Left (influenced by Georges Sorel and the Syndicalists) and there was a persistent tension in the movement between traditional nationalism and revolutionary avant-garde tendencies. George L. Mosse, in his essay ‘Fascism and the Avant Garde,’ wrote:

Italian Fascism was certainly more open to the future than German National Socialism; the new man of the south had avant-garde features lacking in the north, where the ideal German was the ancient Aryan whom Hitler had roused from centuries of slumber. Mussolini was much more ambivalent…[he] did leave the door ajar to the future, while in Germany nationalism and racism blocked all exits. Neither Mussolini nor many of his followers gave up the idea that fascism, while rooted in the past, was not destined to cling stubbornly to these roots. Nevertheless, however uncharted the new spaces, they were to be controlled and dominated by a national stereotype, rooted as a matter of fact in the imagery and the ideals of the attempted revolution of bourgeois youth at the fin de siecle. (19)

Even after the adoption of antisemitism and racist policies it remained important for the Italians to distinguish themselves from the Nazis. Due to the very composition and history of Italy, their racial ideal could not be the pure Aryan of the Northern imaginary and could not completely break from the mystical and Idealist ideas espoused by Arnaldo Mussolini, Giuseppe Bottai and Giovanni Gentile. On a practical level, Mussolini had been drawn towards racism during the military campaigns in Libya and Ethiopia, when he decided to emphasise the superiority of Italians over Africans for the purpose of war propaganda and to condemn reports of the sexual activities of Italian troops. Antisemitism was a harder sell and Mussolini’s own rhetoric even more wild and contradictory than on other topics: he could often be candid about the tactical cynicism of antisemitism, stating as late as 1938 that Italy had no ‘Jewish Problem’ and describing Mein Kampf as “that incoherent tirade I have never managed to read” (20).

Once racism and antisemitism had been incorporated into the Fascist programme attempts began to theorise this turn in line with the doctrines of “revolutionary fascism”. Again, this led to a key distinction with Nazi racial doctrine and its pseudo-biological Weltanschauung, fixed and immutable, with non-Aryans marked for slavery or extermination. For Mussolini and the Fascists the difference between Italians and Jews became a spiritual contrast, as described by Ledeen:

For Mussolini there were various spiritual types in the world, and he believed that at certain dramatic moments in history it was possible to speak of “races” becoming coextensive with “nations.” Such was the case with fascist Italy, where the genius of the Italian race (a spiritual “type”) had made it possible to begin the construction of the Fascist State. Yet within that State were some recalcitrant elements, which did not share in the qualities of the “race,” which did not adapt to the new spiritual climate of the period, and which insisted on clinging to the values and goals of an earlier, corrupt epoch. The purpose of the antisemitic policies, as viewed by the Duce, was to retrain these elements, to Italianize and “fascisticize” them, and finally to reintegrate them back into fascist society. When this reintegration was achieved, the Italian “race” and the Fascist State would be coextensive, both geographically and spiritually. (21)

That is: “The Fascists insisted upon their ability to change the human spirit”. Even their most discriminatory policies, in theory if not practice, left enough ambiguity for those inclined to find some psychological space in the Fascist state. After the Racial Laws, Ettore Ovazza did not protest against the Fascist policy, but severed all connections with organized Judaism, “protesting what he believed as the Jewish community’s insufficient fascist rigor” (22). This chaos of tensions, ambiguities and contradictions within Fascist doctrine is key to the attitudes and fate of Italian Jews during the Fascist epoch but also the final destruction of the Fascist state. It was crushed by a more ruthless and murderously deterministic regime than itself.

The clues to this outcome were evident in the early 1930s. In 1934, the Italians organised a pan-fascist congress at Montreux under the leadership of the Comitati d’azione per l’Universalità di Roma (CAUR). Representatives of fascist movements arrived from across Europe, apart from the Nazis who refused to attend. The trigger that undid this enterprise was the Jewish Question, tabled by the pro-Hitler Romanian Iron Guard contingent. The conference split along national lines and in common with their hostility or sympathy to the Nazis. At this point Italy retained a position of prestige within the prospective Fascist International and was far from adopting its own antisemitic policies. In fact, at this stage, antisemitism served to highlight the division between the Italians and Germans. The resolution of this split sealed the fate of Italy’s Jews.

Nazism was a terminal ideology for European Jews which could count on mass antisemitic sentiment existing in, say, Romania, Poland and Ukraine. Italy and its Fascist movement was a more complex proposition. It had antisemites and racists among its elite hierarchy and followers, but these ideas were marginal until 1937. Ultimately it was Italian Fascism’s protean and opportunistic nature, aligned with the cynicism of its leadership, that proved deadly for the Italian Jews, rather than any large-scale antisemitic currents within Italian society. This endpoint was as inevitable, maybe, as the Italian Fascist regime’s squalid and violent collapse; the seeds for catastrophe sown at the start.

  1. Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Penguin, 2007, trans. Jamie McKendrick), p. 223
  2. Bassani, p. 58
  3. Michael Ledeen, Universal Fascism – The Theory and Practice of the Fascist International, 1928-1936 (Howard Fertig, 1972),  p.134
  4. Ledeen, p.132
  5. Bassani, p.136
  6. Renzo De Felice, The Jews in Fascist Italy: A History (Enigma, 2004, trans. Robert Miller), p.265
  7. Bassani, p.34
  8. Ledeen, p.137
  9. Bassani, p.61
  10. De Felice, p.173
  11. Alexander Stille, Benevolence and Betrayal – Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism (Vintage, 1993), p.284
  12. Bassani, p.61
  13. Stille, p.283
  14. De Felice, p.297
  15. Ibid., p.317
  16. Stille, p.86
  17. Renzo De Felice, Fascism: An Informal Introduction to its Theory and Practice (Transaction, 1977), p.56
  18. This analysis is influenced by J. L. Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. See De Felice, Fascism, p.106: “Insofar as Italian fascism is concerned, I am in complete agreement with Talmon’s analysis; but I do not agree if it were extended to nazism. I, too, see in fascism a manifestation of that left-wing totalitarianism of which Talmon speaks. Nazism, however, is tied to a right-wing totalitarianism and should be discussed in terms of a different analysis…”
  19. George L. Mosse, The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism (Howard Fertig, 1999), p.150
  20. Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini (Paladin, 1983), p.256-7; Ledeen, p.101
  21. Ledeen, p.150
  22. Stille, p.78
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ezra Pound & Salò


I want to go on fighting.
Canto 72

In 1948, the year James Laughlin published The Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound remained incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a Federal Government asylum in Washington, having been found mentally unfit to stand trial for treason. During the war, Pound was a vocal antisemite whose sympathies lay with the more extreme sections of the Italian Fascist regime in Salò and with the Nazis, as he openly declared in pro-Axis propaganda broadcasts on Rome Radio. This endpoint was evident, and expressed, in his poetry, including The Pisan Cantos which won the Bollingen Prize in 1949, awarded by the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress, among them T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden. These highly accomplished men were perceptive and conceited enough to pen a pre-emptive defence of their controversial choice, made only four years after the discovery of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It stated: “To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.” Or, in other words, l’art pour l’art.

Partisan Review, among other organs, invited comment. Karl Shapiro, a Fellow, disagreed with the selection on the grounds that “the poet’s political and moral philosophy ultimately vitiates his poetry and lowers its standards as a literary work” (1); Dwight Macdonald, by contrast, viewed the award as a  supremely civilised act and a rare example of national magnanimity. George Orwell composed a more subtle position, making two points with direct relevance to contemporary Pound studies, that obtuse critical subgenre. Firstly, he objected to the artificial separation of Pound’s political activities from his poetry, a division never made by Pound himself who considered his adopted economic theories (for one thing) to be central to The Cantos’ purpose, aesthetics and meaning. The tendency to ignore or rationalise the poetry’s politics — the thematic content of The Cantos, in other words — grew among and with Pound’s influential friends, acolytes and protégées after the war, notably Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Hugh Kenner and James Laughlin. These entwined artistic and critical circles preferred to emphasise Pound’s aesthetics at the expense of his economic and racial politics, as if The Cantos could exist without Social Credit, history and Jews, and live through their lyrical technique alone.

Pound learned to accept this in his very late years — in the Sixties, when it was most convenient to do so. By this time he could tell Allen Ginsberg that antisemitism had been his “worst mistake” and write to Robert Lowell: “that nonsense about the Jews…Olga knew it was shit, yet she still loved me.” (2) This was also the time, non-coincidentally, when he admitted that, by his owns standards and expectations, The Cantos had been a failure. He would tell Daniel Cory: “I botched it. I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make a work of art.” (3) Nevertheless, as late as 1959, Pound was sending poetry and Social Credit pamphlets to Oswald Mosely’s post-fascist European journal; and in the middle of the Fifties, Pound acolyte John Kasper achieved some notoriety as a segregation activist in the American South, spreading antisemitic and racist screeds encouraged by the unrepentant poet. His late disavowal of antisemitism made it more convenient for a Jewish Communist like Zukofsky and a Catholic conservative like Kenner to approach their idol with easier conscience and less prickly questions, but the racial instincts and devotion to Social Credit theories (with their distinct flavour of conspiracy theory) remained. Some put this down to mental health problems; others simply accepted Pound’s recantations and overlooked his unseemly actions and associates, dismissing these as anecdotal and historical. Orwell spotted all of this early and immediately skewered it: “He may be a good writer […] but the opinions he has tried to disseminate by means of his works are evil ones…” (4)

Secondly, Orwell noted a more brazen attempt to fully expunge Pound’s politics: “there has been,” he wrote, “a tendency to claim that Pound was “not really” a fascist and antisemite, that he opposed the war on pacifist grounds and that in any case his political activities only belonged to the war years.” (5) This was nonsense, of course. As Orwell had no difficulty illustrating in 1949, Pound’s own activities, pre-war and after, exposed this fallacy; more importantly, the poems vividly demonstrated Pound’s commitment to Social Credit ideas and to Italian Fascism. For Pound’s non-fascist supporters this made rationalisation more important and urgent. It could get desperate. For example, William Cookson, in his commentary A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, made an unintentionally acute attempt to redeem Pound’s wartime radio propaganda: “at their core the speeches are a document of anti-war literature. Incidentally, much that he said against “U.S. economic aggression” made good sense and has an affinity with the more recent polemic of Noam Chomsky”(6); he also described the subject of Canto 73 (see below) as being “like a suicide bomber.” Cookson was sharper than he realised, perhaps: there is the distinct shade of anti-capitalist and anti-American politics that unites far-left and right in the subject matter of The Cantos and Pound’s politics; an attachment to crank economics and conspiracy theory that leads, eventually and inexorably, from left or right, into the gutter of antisemitism. (If Pound had been writing today, would there be a Bilderberg canto?)

Cantos 72 and 73 are the low point of Pound’s own descent into Inferno in the tragi-comic form of Mussolini’s fall. The poems were both composed in 1943 in Italian, as the fascist dream collapsed in Italy with the Allied invasion and German occupation of the peninsula. Pound fled North, on foot and by train, sleeping in the open and eating with peasants, to link up with the remaining regime loyalists at Lake Garda. After returning to Rapallo he committed himself fully to the Axis cause, writing newspaper articles and manifestos in defence of the new republic. Salò appealed to him, as it did to other early Italian Fascists who had become disillusioned with the ‘Mussolinism’ of the Thirties; there was purity and potential in this new experiment, an uncompromised, activist esprit de corps that revived memories of the old movement. Mussolini was returning to socialism and syndicalism, while squadristi and regime protection rackets tortured and killed with impunity on the streets of Rome and Milan. The intellectuals and thugs were in charge, extremists like Roberto Farinacci and Alessandro Pavolini: a lethal combination. Pound wrote his two cantos for this regime to use against the Allies: they were propaganda pieces, advanced cases of fascist martyrology and idealism. Pound had apparently been further enthused by the violent, quasi-mystical defiance of Mussolini’s final public speech in Milan, 1944.

72 and 73 are evidence for the prosecution of Pound. In preceding poems he had prepared the ground for this full ideological and aesthetic embrace of the Axis cause. Canto 35, for example, presented a nasty satirical portrait of pre-war Viennese Jewish society. Canto 38 introduced Pound’s new and tragic obsessions: the arms trade and the Social Credit theory of Major C. H. Douglas. In Canto 41, the poet explicitly hailed il Duce (or “The Boss”). In Cantos 45, 46 and 51 the mortal enemy was identified: “usury,” the destroyer of civilisations. By 72 and 73 the contemporary forces of usury had been specified: “Geryon, prototype of Churchill’s backers”; “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eden,/the Jews, the bastards,/swindlers, the whole lot liars…” All of this was in the air, of course, but the Jews were an obsession for Pound at a time when Mussolini’s regime still employed them, a situation altered by the 1938 racial laws. While not an overt Nazi sympathiser (though he shared their paganism and susceptibility to the occult) Pound’s antisemitism was more pronounced than many of the original Italian Fascists, and was there to be exploited when necessary, as Orwell recalled: “I remember at least one [broadcast] in which he approved of the massacre of the East European Jews and “warned” the American Jews that their turn was coming presently.” (7)

Pound’s full identification with the cause and methods of Italian Fascism is revealed in 72 and 73, exposing his doctrinaire extremism. Pound’s family and backers were aware of their damaging potential, and the Ezra Pound Estate has never been willing to authorise English translations of the poems; they were excised from the New Directions and Faber Cantos until the 1987 edition, when they were finally included as an appendix, in Italian and without notes. Even now, 72 and 73 are considered aberrations, rather than (as they are) exemplars of The Cantos’ dark energy and ideological propulsion. These poems are a logical outcome of the ideas and loyalties laid out in Pound’s epic; they are also a key moment in the poet’s own personal and aesthetic journey, a basic underlying pattern and narrative of his work. They express the despair and defiance of the loyalists of Salò: the men who stuck with Mussolini and imposed fascism in Northern Italy in pure, totalitarian form, without the compromise of private business, monarchy or the Vatican. These two cantos are Salò poems: the driving forces of the Italian Social Republic — defiance and loss, sacrifice and redemption — are played out, embodied in them.

So 72 and 73 not only reveal but explicitly confirm Pound’s intimacy with and loyalty to the actual actors and characters who theorised, built and ran the fascist state. Canto 72 exhumes the spirit of Marinetti, killed by cardiac arrest in 1944 but eager to return to the fight in Pound’s body: “I want to go on fighting/& I want your body to go on with the struggle.” Who, in this poem, is the fight against? “[T]he great usurer Geryon,” Dante’s symbol of Fraud and “prototype of Churchill’s backers.” Pound is the poem’s centre, its vessel, visited by four spirits (or “voices”): Marinetti; the librarian and translator Manilio Dazzi; the Venetian tyrant Ezalino da Romano; and (briefly) the Empress Galla Placidia. The tone is elegiac, as well as defiant: Pound is an interlocutor, weary and at one remove, but these voices also appear to transmit his owns instincts and obsessions. Romano lauds Farinacci — the former Fascist ras and party secretary described by Denis Mack Smith as “vindictive, ambitious…a dedicated believer in political violence” (8) — in terms that match Pound’s own obsessions: as one who has “seen thru the swindle” of the “followers of fattened usury.” He is “honoured by the heroes,” among them the fallen Italian Fascist generals intoned by Romano and listed by Pound, but singled out with approval because of his fanaticism and antisemitism. It doesn’t seem to me that Pound is distancing this selection by making it Romano’s; rather Farinacci is elevated, in this poem of loyalty, violence and despair, to a fascist hero, a figure close to Pound’s own ideal: man of action and enemy of usury. The poet is not simply channelling his apparitions, but engaging in ventriloquism: Pound uses them to convey personal obsessions and ideals.

Canto 73 is more explicit. The poet is at the service of the regime. This time Pound invokes Guido Cavalcanti, the medieval Florentine scribe and associate of Dante, to recall a contemporary story of an Italian peasant girl who, raped by Canadian troops, takes revenge by leading them into a minefield. The tone is rapturous: an ecstatic martyrdom in the genre of fascist and Nazi iconography: kitsch, quasi-mystical. She is pictured singing with joy, “so brave a spirit”, holding two Germans by the arm, “singing of love.” This is camaraderie within the Pact of Steel, but the girl has “no desire for heaven”: she becomes “defiant of death” only after her violation by Allied soldiers, that “filthy pack.” These are the shock troops of “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eden,” the pawns of Jewish bankers and arms dealers, rampaging through Italy, desecrating ancient temples and raping small girls. Her death is an instance of the fascist ideal, and her spirit the expression of its soul: “the child’s spirit/courageously/sang/sang…Glory of the fatherland!/Glorious, it is glorious/to die for one’s country/in Romangna.” This is propaganda, and Pound sells his lyric gift to do it: the poem is ugly, crude, tedious. It remains interesting as fascist and Nazi art, tapping into neo-pagan, neo-Romantic volk iconography of German National Socialism and the neo-classical, militaristic kitsch of Italian Fascism. By the middle of the war years, the divisions, separations and tensions within and between the fascist states and movements had become less distinct or important, and Pound’s poems convey this pan-fascist aesthetic, an ideal clarified by Romanian Iron Guard leader Horia Sima: “We must cease to separate the spiritual from the political man. All history is a commentary upon the life of the spirit” (9). These words could summarise Pound’s ultimate intention for The Cantos.

Pound’s supporters creep from defence of the poetry to absolution of the poet; they appear to take his recantations at face value and over-estimate personal relations. (For example, Zukofsky: “I never felt the least trace of antisemitism in his presence. Nothing he ever said to me made me feel the embarrassment I always have for the ‘Goy’ in whom a residue of antagonism to ‘Jew’ remains.”) I think Orwell was correct to hold the poet to account for his rhetoric and his opinions; he was also right to dismiss the plea of insanity that Pound would adopt to save his own skin. Pound’s broadcasts, wrote Orwell, “did not give me the impression of being the work of a lunatic”; the poet was a clever propagandist who knew exactly how to play to an isolationist and anti-Allied audience. At Pound’s trial, the Superintendent of St Elizabeths hospital, Dr. Winfrid Overholser, was asked to present his confirmation of Pound’s insanity; however, he did not reveal to the court that his own doctors disagreed with his conclusions and considered Pound to be “merely eccentric and wanted to see him tried and convicted” (10). To accept that Pound was simply “insane” when he composed his polemics, be they Rome Radio scripts or Cantos 72 and 73, is to some extent to accept that all of The Cantos are deranged doodles, a repository of crank conspiracy theories and junk verse, psychological case studies rather than art. Orwell, for one, considered Pound’s work to be “spurious” as poetry, although not because the poet was mad; Robert Conquest did his own forensic demolition job on Pound’s classical pretensions in an attempt to undermine the poet’s carefully cultivated authority.

For modern poetry, or what is left of it (if anything), The Cantos remain, as Delmore Schwartz described them, a touchstone. Or as Basil Bunting wrote: “you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.” You don’t need to reject the poetry along with the politics, or make weak attempts to minimise or separate the politics to redeem the poems. It is a fragmented, incomplete, incoherent epic that veers between intense evil and luminous insight, and because of this retains a unique tension and a tautness despite the diffuse elements and ranging references. Fascism and antisemitism are unavoidable forces in The Cantos that must be faced and understood. In the end they do not reduce or invalidate the poem, but complicate and deepen its power.

1) Quoted in Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound (Penguin,1974), p.546
2) Quoted in William Cookson, A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (Anvil Press, 2001), p.144
3) Quoted in Stock, p.586-7
4) George Orwell, ‘A Prize for Ezra Pound’, Essays (Everyman Library, 2002), p.1363
5) Orwell, p.1362
6) Cookson, p.115
7) Orwell, p.1362
8) Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini (Paladin,1983), p.81
9) Quoted in George L. Mosse, The Fascist Revolution — Toward a General Theory of Fascism (Howard Fertig, Inc., 1999), p.12
10) Stock, p.538

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

On Ben Jonson’s ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’


During an extended walking (and boozing) tour of his ancestral lands in 1618-9, Ben Jonson stayed at Hawthornden Castle as a guest of William Drummond. His host, a pompous, second-tier Scottish peddler of Petrarchan sonnets, scribbled down notes throughout this visit, later published with the title Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (what else?). These contain a rather biting pen-portrait of Jonson, who did not overly impress Drummond:

He is a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the elements on which he liveth), a dissembler of ill parts which reign in him, a bragger of some good that he wanteth, thinketh nothing well but what either he himself, or some of his friends and countrymen hath said or done. He is passionately kind and angry, careless either to gaine or keep, vindicative, but, if he be well answered, at himself.

This is meant to be a demolition job, it seems, but is undermined by its own ambivalence, as Drummond betrays an undertone of admiration in this litany of bad traits. All these flaws are (at the very least) half-attractive, double-edged. Drummond’s description adds nothing to our esteem of him, but we are not repelled or appalled by his subject, as he possibly thinks we should be. On the contrary: it is Jonson you’d want at the dinner table, not the self-important, saccharine Scot.

Jonson’s poems are smooth and urbane, choppy and charged; he draws on the Roman models of Catullus, Horace and Martial (“I know nothing can conduce more to letters than to examine the writings of the ancients,” he wrote in his Discoveries). They are more disciplined and conventional than Shakespeare’s sonnets and lack the ornate obscurity and startling naturalism of Donne’s early work. This is not always the case, of course, but holds true for the bulk of his Epigrams, the opening collection of poems in his first printed Folio. Jonson mastered “merry Martial”, solidifying the epigrammatic form for the English language, but he also learnt to stretch the convention thematically and structurally by studying the The Greek Anthology. His formidable and famous Classical learning gave him the edge on contemporary court hacks, who he dismissed: “thou hast seen/Davies and Weever/…mine come nothing like…” (Epigram 18).

And yet Jonson’s Epigrams are not all Roman grit and Greek grace: there is some of the bile and bite of his great stage comedies and satires in these pithy, perfectly formed poem-epistles. Throughout the edited collection you can trace Volpone’s abrupt and broken rhythms and feel the energy and irreverence of those dangerous theatre collaborations, The Isle of Dogs and Eastward Ho! (Jonson would be imprisoned for both of these plays, and face torture and possible execution; he was only rescued, each time, by good fortune and influential friends.) The poems savagely lampoon a gallery of Jacobean Court and Inns of Court characters, barely disguised by a series of sobriquets: Sir Cod the Perfumed, My Lord Ignorant, Court-Worm, Sir Voluptuous Beast and Prowl the Plagiary, to name a few. They also glorify Jonson’s Court allies and Country House patrons in extravagant terms. The poems serve a personal purpose here, and Jonson displays dual “modes” (in the Restoration sense): slanderer and scholar; satirist and sycophant. This was, simply, the way a successful poet lived through, or survived, the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

So there is a general and generous contradiction of character here that we can enjoy and that animate the poems; a “tough reasonableness” underlying lyric grace noted by T. S. Eliot in his 1921 essay on Andrew Marvell. Jonson, as described by Drummond, is abusive, vain, bad-tempered, badly behaved. He was in many ways the wrong sort: son of a brick-layer, convicted murderer (upon plunging a rapier into stage actor Gabriel Spencer), and Catholic convert; an unpredictable theatre-land trouble-maker with connections to the Earl of Essex and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. This was to run just a few of the gravest risks in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. But he was, in the end, too canny, intelligent and talented to die; and, maybe more to the point, too well-connected. The scourge of Society aspirants, phoneys and double-dealers, Jonson was also one of the great buddies and raconteurs of English poetry, a loyal and bold-hearted bugger who could devise a mean masque and drink the King’s favourite under any table.

This stands out in his poem ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’ (Epigram 101), the epicenter and great survivor of the Epigrams. Superficially (and formally) it is one of the least epigrammatic works in the collection, although it consciously draws on the “invitation poems” of Martial, Horace and Catullus (as well as the Greeks). It is within the tradition, relocating Rome and Athens in the gardens, houses and taverns of Jacobean England. Jonson invites a highly-esteemed acquaintance (“my grave friend”) to feast at his table, which over-flows with local produce; the appearance of this great guest will, alone, make the evening “perfect” rather than the delicious treats (“the cates”).

Jonson’s party promises colour and variety in its culinary and intellectual entertainment. The poem, in its rich variety and ease of cadence, is a celebration of conversation, friendship, liberty and learning. The correct company is, of course, crucial; “no Pooly, or Parrot” (spies, traitors, bad eggs) will be admitted into the home. Jonson lures his gang with extravagant enticements in the manner of Martial’s mock invitations: I will “lie” (he teases) “so you will come.” To the “olive, capers…some better salad,” the “mutton” and a “short-legged hen…full of eggs,” he adds an unlikely (yet feasible, and edible) menu of local fowl: “partridge, pheasant, woodcock,” “godwit, if we can:/knat, rail and ruff too.” This will be followed by “digestive cheese” and fruit, and (most importantly) “rich canary wine” from the famous Mermaid Tavern. Across this splendid spread they will share and recite a literary selection in line with the poet’s cherished Renaissance humanist ideal: “Virgil, Tacitus, Livy.”

Jonson presents an abstract ideal and an actual occasion, uniting public theme and private experience, the very art of the epigram. It has a social and personal function. It works and it has purpose. Jonson mastered this form better than the lesser Court Epigrammists because 1) his Classical learning far exceeded theirs, and 2) his “character” was already so dominant and to some extent artificial that private and public conflated in his very being, a psycho-social condition we now call celebrity. If he displayed distaste for publication and booksellers (circulation of elaborate manuscripts in private was the correct way to do things in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Courts and country houses) he was also one of the first of his contemporaries to arrange formal publication of his own work. He chose to display a lot of himself (on stage, on page, at Court and Oxford) and he mostly displayed big, glaring, attractive, forgivable contractions. His work may not have been loved in the same way or to the extent of Shakespeare’s, but there was, after all, ‘The Tribe of Ben’ whose influence was felt in living verse for decades.

T.S Eliot, in the Marvell essay, described an “alliance of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified)” which characterised the poetic “wit” established and refined (in different ways) by Donne and Jonson. This tendency, or method, or skill, threaded through Marvell and the Caroline and Cavalier poets, to Dryden and Pope. (After this, according to Eliot, it was lost, fully eradicated by the Romantics.) In an earlier essay on Jonson, Eliot went a little further, to say: “his poetry is of the surface. Poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study; for to deal with the surface of life, as Jonson dealt with it, is to deal so deliberately that we too must be deliberate, in order to understand.” He distinguishes this, of course, from the “superficial” — a different thing altogether and associated here with Jonson’s pygmy stage rivals Beaumont and Fletcher. (Well, we could do with a Beaumont and Fletcher right now.)

The close weave of classical allusion and real life detail in ‘…Supper’ (“Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,/Are all but Luther’s beer, to this I sing”) is an elegant and easy example of Jonson’s complex surface art. The setting, the purpose, the tone and form are (now) rare and refreshing. This might explain the durability of certain Jonson epigrams, particularly this one: the rare quality and informal use of language in a now defunct formal role. There is something of it in the work of Frank O’ Hara, another singular voice whose influence was also wide but less rewarding than Jonson’s; in, for example, an elegy like ‘Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s’, a piece composed for specific people on a particular occasion that nevertheless transcends its origin with self-conscious ambition and grace. Like Jonson, O’Hara locates and achieves a fine balance between public and private space and moment, the local and elemental, temporal and eternal. They can both, in these poems, transfigure the ephemeral and make the personal details of the day (of a life) speak for all time.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Haunting of Yulia

A spectre is haunting Ukraine – the spectre of Yulia Tymoshenko.

Her presence has been largely erased from the anti-government protests that have convulsed Kiev since the 21st November, the day President Viktor Yanukovych formally abandoned Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union. Tymoshenko is not simply invisible, but conspicuous by her absence. Fatherland party loyalists are among opposition leaders and protesters and a few pro-Tymoshenko portraits and banners can be seen on the Maidan, but that is all. Her short-lived hunger strike did not inspire waves of solidarity or even much interest, to her chagrin. Most galling for her – and ironic, and interesting – is the news that former Orange Comrade Victor Yushchenko has shared a conspicuous platform with her arch-foe Leonid Kuchma in support of the protests (Kuchma once described the choice between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko as “bad and very bad”). Tymoshenko — Orange Icon, Gas Princess — is being sidelined by her constituency and her enemies. Shut away in a prison hospital, prize captive of Yanukovych, she has been cut out of the action — her words a pale echo of former stridencies, relayed by loyal daughter Eugenia and almost lost on the freezing Kiev air.

But she is there – and more potent, in some ways, because of her absence. Why? Well, for one thing, the EU controversy is partly about her. Yanukovych surrendered European ambitions to Putin for two complimentary reasons: direct Russian threats, and calls by EU leaders to release Tymoshenko. Despite his status as Russia’s man in Ukraine, Yanukovych has struck a complicated balance between total capitulation to Russian demands and serious flirtation with EU overtures. To be as pro-Russian as Putin demands would be to surrender key elements of sovereignty – over Crimea, over energy policy, over language rights. However, releasing Tymoshenko to satisfy Europe is completely out of the question. As far as he can, Yanukovych runs Ukraine as a family fiefdom (protestors and opponents call his party circle ‘The Family’) and this particular incarceration is not only political, it is also personal. In partial response to this EU demand he has re-orientated Ukraine into the Russian sphere, an alternative orbit defined by the Eastern Partnership and the Customs Union. This puts Ukraine on a political par with Belarus rather than, say, recent Vilnius Summit hosts Lithuania (where, of course, part of this drama played out). As ever, Andrew Wilson is the best English-language commentator on such events.

There is not exactly a base of mass support for Tymoshenko among the current Kiev protestors. She is considered another embezzling oligarch who subordinated the national interest to personal plunder while in power. She comes from the murky world of the Donetsk industrial and energy barons that she now attacks with such ferocity and is viewed with scepticism and suspicion for this reason. Like Victor Yushechnko, her popular support was damaged by the unedifying collapse of the Orange Coalition. She was wholly implicated in that catastrophe – from the personal antagonism and rivalries that poisoned her alliance with Yushchenko to her fatally mismanaged negotiations with Putin that finally fractured the pro-European front. This joint failure led to mass disillusionment and apathy in the civil society of West Ukraine and the restoration of Yanukovych and the Party of Regions cartel.

Actually, as I have argued before, Tymoshenko’s dubious reputation and failure in office is less important than it seems. She was essentially transformed by her violent feud with Kuchma and the grand drama of 2004; she became a transitional and transcendent figurehead despite her past record and ruthless methods. By fashioning a powerful aesthetic image for herself, she physically embodied a pro-European Ukrainian nationalism that rejected the Soviet past and authoritarian Putinism. Ejected from office, tarnished and scarred, she was the only original Orange partner to maintain fierce and vocal resistance to the Party of Regions power-brokers on an international stage. Her furious Rada interventions throughout 2010 – notably when Yanukovych extended the lease on the Black Sea Fleet’s Crimean base – were unhinged blasts of invective designed to expose the dangerous sell-out of Ukraine to Russian interests. (Meanwhile Yushchenko – the man Putin and Yanukovych were willing to disfigure and probably kill in 2004 – was compliant and compromised, more interested in undermining former allies than the new regime.) There was no option but to jail her – and for as long as possible. For the opposition, with all its disappointments and alterations since 2005, she remained a significant liability. But who else fought their corner with such intensity?

The most charismatic and effective leaders of the Colour Revolutions that rocked Putin’s world in 2003-5 have since been brought low, their administrations sunk and reputations shredded. Nevertheless, they have formed bonds in a pro-European front against the territorial ambitions of Putin and the venality of his external allies and stooges. This was dramatized by the miraculous appearance of Mikheil Saakashvili on Independence Square on Saturday 7th – flanked by former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, a key-link in the anti-Putin chain, Saakashvili used language provocatively redolent of the days of Orange and Rose. “I am Ukrainian, I am Georgian, I am European,” he blustered proudly, impressively, “I knew that one day Ukraine would become an example of success, an example of an Eastern European nation integrated into the European family of free, democratic, prospering countries. Today I see that I was right. Ukraine will be able to do this – we will do this together.”

Unfortunately for this winged rhetoric, the former Georgian president has just been ejected from office by an administration slightly more amenable to Putin – another victim of the Russian Restoration (or “political has-been” as Kremlin TV station RT kindly put it). Nevertheless, this intervention made the key point: what happens in Kiev still reverberates in Tbilisi, Minsk, Chişinău, Tashkent, Baku, Bishkek and Moscow itself. As Wilson notes, the Russian opposition defeated in the streets during 2011-12 have been transfixed by the Ukraine protests. Belarusians travelling to Kiev in solidarity were denied entry at border crossings, with traffic officers puncturing their tires for good measure. Euromaidan, like the Orange Revolution before it, is a regional – an international – event.

But the risks are huge and the prognosis bleak. In 2003-5, from Freedom Square in Tbilisi to the massacre at Andijon, the revolts became more violent and chaotic as a result of their success – a logic followed by the Arab Spring. After 2005, dictators and their terror proxies took control of the situation as the West capitulated and receded. Since then, revolution and chaos has spread across the Middle East and South America. Western capitalism has been damaged – functionally and symbolically. The global and theoretical status of democracy itself has been diminished to a frightening degree. The U.S. has retreated from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In this context, in 2013, the pro-Western Ukrainians are left with no champion but a chastened and retracting EU — Washington still largely silent. The politicians who led the Orange Revolution in 2004 have failed and been thrown out of office, leaving a motley crew of chancers and sinister ultra-nationalists to capitalize on anti-Yanukovych unrest – and these people are not necessarily pro-European because they are anti-Russian, even if they are anti-Russian.

Euromaidan is leaderless – its objectives improvised and potentially unlimited, both a strength and a weakness. In domestic terms, its enemies are the Party of Regions and Yanukovych’s governing gang, the Communist Party and the Russian Bloc, and a silent majority in the Russian-speaking Eastern oblasts. This uprising, in cities across Ukraine and not only Kiev, is the result of failure, corruption and misrule – of a country handed back to the worst gangsters they have, the very people deposed in 2004 for their criminality. A new administration is needed to bring Ukraine back to Europe, to both follow and strengthen Georgia and Moldova – an administration that echoes the original Orange compact, with the West out-balancing the recidivist East and the democrats keeping grass-roots pressure on authoritarians and nationalists alike. Ukraine has unique ties with Russia that can’t be dissolved or ignored – complex trade agreements and energy considerations that EU officials failed to understand or fully consider in their botched negotiations. Russia outplayed Europe in this round, but Ukraine has a different fate and a different future articulated by the Euromaidan Ukrainians who do not who want their country to remain captive to oligarchs, energy mafias, security thugs and antisemitic fascists.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Carnival of Death

There are two kinds of wars in the desert: war of religion and political war. In political war, we make compromises, but in wars of religion, we exterminate everybody.
Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah al-Saud [1]

It’s been a few weeks since David Cameron promised to keep unnamed Syrian generals safe from indictment should Bashar al-Assad “fall” from power and in that time the idea has vanished from all diplomatic and media discourse. The war grinds on regardless and the Prime Minister continues unabashed, as if the words never even passed through his thin lips. Unfortunately – or fortunately, if you think about it at all – the action has been elsewhere: Brussels, for example, or Doha, Ankara, or along the Jordanian border. Meanwhile, the pro-intervention arguments circulating in Washington, Paris and London – arm the Free Syrian Army to topple Assad, strengthen the moderates in the Syrian National Coalition, or at least level both sides and bring them to the negotiating table – look increasingly irrelevant. The battles are overlapping and fracturing and collectively elude any clear International Relations framework or Conflict Resolution prescription. As John Bew wrote in his July 10th New Statesman essay [2]:

The notion that we are faced therefore with a choice between idealism and realism, or intervention and non-intervention, is the first of many false starting points. That debate is a luxury of simpler times. More than two years after the Syrian rebellion began, the only question that still matters for makers of western foreign policy is what species of interference we choose to adopt.

There is no simple choice left to make, and all arguments about ideology and strategy have run their course: the three leading Western military powers are left with tactics and damage-limitation inadequate to the task at hand or the situation on the ground. The regime has consolidated its urban strongholds, regrouped and gone on the offensive with the aid of Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ite militias and the Iranian Quds Force. It has retained and incorporated roving paramilitaries from pre-war Shabiha to the Iranian-backed al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi and multiethnic Lijan militias. Bew, quoting Syrian exile Malik al-Abdeh, describes Bashar as the “strongest warlord in the country” – strange fate for a former ophthalmology student with a retiring manner and well-groomed investment banker wife from West London. We may never know how it got to this: the exact chain of decisions made by Bashar and Maher al-Assad, Hafez Makhlouf, Assef Shawkat (before being blown up by al-Qaeda) or General Kheirbek. But their war has metastasised and burst borders. It has incorporated a theological war – or series of wars – raging in the region and has expanded and intensified them. What we are left with looks like chaos but can be summarised or categorised as follows:

1) “The Axis of Resistance”

The presence of Hezbollah this deep in the fighting and so visible on the ground indicates higher stakes at play than simply the jurisdiction and levers of state. Having said this, it is not surprising that the self-proclaimed “Axis of Resistance” will protect its own on ideological as well as strategic grounds and some have been pointing out IRGC and Hezbollah mischief in Syria for well over a year. Historically, the battles waged by Hezbollah in Lebanon always had a sectarian edge and agenda, from the destruction of Amal and the Shi’ite Left in the 1980s to the campaign against the Sunni Gulf monarchs that culminated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005. The announcement of Hezbollah’s entrance into the war in May was the precursor to the Assad regime’s crucial strategic victory in Quasir that momentarily jolted Saudi Arabia and Qatar out of their own rivalry (see 3, ‘Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar’). The most important subsequent Quds Force contribution may well be training of the undisciplined government militias that have run rampant in rebel towns [3] and the co-ordination of pro-Iranian Shi’ite brigades being transported in and out of Iraq (see 5, ‘Iraqi Exports’). Syria is an overt and acknowledged Iranian outpost to add to more exotic locales and interests in Latin America, Africa and Central Asia where smuggling and narcotic routes operate under IRGC and Hezbollah auspices. Nevertheless, the war has also exposed the limits of the Revolutionary Republic’s ultimate territorial reach which cannot realistically extend beyond the Levant and Iraq – except under the approaching “nuclear umbrella”.

2) Al-Qaeda in Syria

The proliferation of Salafist groups in Syria is a challenge for journalists and analysts who struggle to disentangle Islamist tendencies, alliances and schisms. Even al-Qaeda affiliates can be problematic. By the end of 2012, press dispatches and wires nominated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) as the primary al-Qaeda representative in Syria. In fact, the group was a franchise of a franchise: a Syrian offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), home to the post-al-Zarqawi al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In recent months al-Nusra has been sidelined by the unwelcome arrival of Baghdadi in northern Syria and his unilateral declaration of a merger between the ISI and JN into the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This had the almost instantaneous effect of dissolving al-Nusra, many of its disciplined brigades disintegrating as their leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani resisted Baghdadi’s micro-coup. There followed some inadvertent comic relief when Ayman al-Zawahiri – himself! – tried and failed to reconcile his fractious generals via a conspicuosly ignored communiqué.

Following the fall-out, a recent Reuters article distinguished between a trans-national jihadi ISIS and a Syrian nationalist JN, but this was contested by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi who was able to show that this division is not exact and that the ISIS brigades pose a real threat as they expand into the cities, towns and villages of northern Syria [4]. What remains may be a division of tactics: despite the fearsome reputation of JN, it largely eschewed scorched earth sectarian and sharia policies pursued by AQI in the Sunni tribal areas of Iraq: the last thing they wanted was a repeat of the Iraqi Sunni Awakening on Syrian soil. Baghdadi, on the other hand, is a more brutal character than this and the Syrian tribes are apprehensive about his presence, to say the least.

Outside of this disputatious al-Qaeda merger the remaining Salafist groups have formed two broad coalitions in the People’s Front of Judea tradition: the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) and the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), the latter being led by Ahrar al-Sham, the strongest jihadi group in Syria. Both coalitions contain regional brigades from major rebel cities including Homs and Aleppo as well as trans-national militias employing fighters from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Chechnya, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Despite an occasional overlap and alliance with the FSA/SMC these groups have been responsible for some of the more high-profile atrocities of the war – for example, the famous heart-eating “cannibal” Abu Sakkur belonged to Farouq Brigades (SILF). They have access to generous funding streams and weapons from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, in contrast to ISIS reliance on Palestinian and Gulf backers and self-generated income from smuggling and extortion.

Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS have not joined the Syrian National Coalition but the influence of Salafist groups in the opposition movement as a whole has grown in line with their impact on military gains. In short, they are the most organised, committed and ruthless fighters, often coming to the aid of fractious and uncoordinated FSA/SMC units. Public criticism of Salafists from opposition parties is not welcome as Randa Kassis quickly discovered after she highlighted the jihadi turn [5] and was frozen out of the Coalition. The tactical and political folly of this course is clear and some FSA/SMC leaders are already talking about the next war after Assad: a fight to the death between the FSA and the Islamists.

3) Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar

The Saudis are locked in an intra-Sunni struggle with Qatar for control of the Syrian opposition. The Saudis have won the most recent round with the selection of their candidates Ahmad al-Jarba and Michel Kilo to lead the Syrian National Coalition at the expense of Qatari proxy Ghassan Hitto. The Saudi campaign – overseen by intelligence director Bandar bin Sultan and with the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman in tow – has effectively sidelined the Muslim Brotherhood from the Syrian opposition [6]. While the Saudis hate and fear the Brotherhood, Qatar has been their biggest recent backer with large-scale funding for Morsi in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza. Consequently, the Saudi-Qatar tug-of-war has found arenas in Syria and Egypt, and with massive loans slated for the new military-backed regime in Cairo, Bandar is beating the Emirs old and new. (As a related issue, the sectarian war is simmering away in Egypt: for example, the Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Hassan Shehata was recently killed by a Sunni mob in Giza, while Copts now face regular attack.)

For the moment, the Saudis and Qataris appear reconciled in an attempt to detach and sideline JN/ISIS and other Salafist groups (some they previously funded) from the opposition military campaign, fearful of handing further victories to their future gravediggers. The GCC is now funding and arming the SMC, the FSA and the Sunni tribes of northern Syria, in line with the declared policies of the West and Turkey. The Saudis have paid for French and Libyan missiles as well as Yugoslav weapons supplied by Croatia and shuttled in Jordanian planes to and from Jordanian territory. Given the Saudi-Qatari public policy, it ought to be pointed out that these weapons have already been spotted in the hands of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham [7].

It should also be noted, I suppose, that marginalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood deviates from recent U.S. policy in the region as shaped by CIA director John Brennan. Since the President’s overt outreach to the Brotherhood in the 2009 Cairo speech, his administrations and diplomats have supported the organisation’s elevation to power in Egypt and Tunisia. U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson is considered a shameless Brotherhood lackey by many in Egypt, even within the Islamist-inflected military elites [8].

4) Lebanese Overspill

The export of Sunni extremists from Tripoli to Syria and the placement of Hezbollah units on border towns has underscored and aggravated the existing sectarian and factional split in Lebanese politics between pro- and anti-Syrian blocs. Tripoli is the most fractious and dangerous city of all and has been inflamed by the Syrian fighting: anti-Assad Salafist groups, armed and funded by Gulf benefactors, have fought pitched battles against Alawite, Hezbollah and Tawheed militias and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The situation across the country is laced with other distractions including FSA/SMC attacks on Hezbollah border posts, Syrian air strikes and shelling, kidnappings and car bombs, and Lebanese Army incursions into Palestinian refugee camps.

Lebanese and Syrian politics are tied to each other. The timeline of discord runs side by side: Lebanon has been destabilised by the war next door from the moment protests started in Daraa. Only the scale of the carnage and the direction of intervention separate them. Had this trail of subversion and sporadic conflict occurred in isolation we would be discussing the start of a Lebanese civil war. Headlines and reports out of the country are relentlessly negative and foreboding, but one exception is worth mentioning. Michael Totten recently interviewed a group of Lebanese politicians who see a way out of sectarian politics precisely through the Syrian war. For example, Mosbah Ahdab, a Sunni politician from Tripoli [9]:

The post-Assad transition is going to be tough because we have Hezbollah still around. But Hezbollah will be cut down to a more realistic size. They will still have their weapons, but they can’t continue provoking the tens of millions of people who live around here that they’ve been aggressive to all these years […] There will be the real possibility of development. We could have train service all the way down to Cairo.

There is a lot going on here – a concession to sectarian realities as well as implied accommodation with Israel – but what is most striking is the sense of possibility and optimism that a defeat for Iranian proxies would bring to Lebanon. This is a clear strategic aim for the Western powers that would deliver a net benefit for moderates and allies in the region. Lebanon is not a side issue or even a separate war.

5) Iraqi Exports

The Sunni and Shia of Iraq have their own take on events in Syria and it isn’t good for Syria or Iraq or the West. One of the edgier developments is the renewed self-confidence among Sunnis marginalised by the Shia-dominated pro-Iranian Maliki administration which is combining dangerously with unease about recent Iranian and Shi’ite gains in Syria. The ultimate spur for a second Sunni Awakening could be the mass formation of Shi’ite militias and brigades that are being dispatched to Syria under the supervision of Quds Force and Hezbollah. The prominence of Iraqi Shi’ite groups in Syria – such as Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas and Liwa’a Zulfiqar in southern Damascus and Liwa’a Ammar Ibn Yasir in Aleppo [10] – is a hidden narrative with lethal implications for Baghdad. The Iraqi  Shi’ite militants come from various backgrounds, including al-Sadr remnants and Badr Organisation members. Having cut their teeth harassing Allied troops and fighting in the Iraqi Civil War of 2006-8, these Iranian-backed militants have been retrained and deployed as security henchmen for the Assad regime, guarding Damascus airport, securing residential complexes and quelling suburban rebellions. The groups are linked by ideology and iconography: websites and flags bear Hezbollah insignia, portraits of Ayatollah Khamenei and Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and pictures of the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Damascus.

Despite nugatory attempts at the behest of the U.S. to stop planes flying over (or from) Iraqi territory loaded with men and munitions destined for Syria, the Maliki administration has aligned itself with the pro-Assad positions of Iran and Russia. The Iraqis have allowed the roads to remain open for weapons transits and the kept borders porous for Iraqi Shi’ite militiaman entering Syria. Meanwhile, pro-FSA flags and chants have been reported in Anbar province while Sunni tribesmen in Iraq facilitate their smuggling routes along the border [11]. Adding to sectarian tensions a resurgent AQI/ISI owe their new post-occupation lease of life to the Syrian war, attacking Shi’ite convoys with gusto and adding their own gratuitous signature to events in the form of beheadings, booby-trapped corpses and the mass machine-gunning of civilians.

6) The Jordanian Bind

King Abdullah II was once a close friend of Bashar al-Assad but is now among his most implacable enemies. Both came to power at the turn of the century, taking control of strategically important and troubled Arab countries after spending their formative years in expensive schools and Western capitals. Abdullah introduced economic reforms and selective modernisation to Jordan while promising further democracy without actually delivering it; as a consequence, the dynastic grip on power is precarious but stiffened by international alliances, a loyal army and a beautiful queen. The Assad legacy was more complicated and Bashar’s room for maneuver very slight; his plans to reform the Syrian economy were gradual and careful as he navigated Ba’ath loyalists of the Hafez era and the rural Sunni interests protected by state planning. The spark that lit a civil and regional war started here: agricultural modernisation enforced by the regime – policies designed to open up the Syrian economy to world markets – caused water shortages and subsequent protests in Daraa. There is a deep irony here and I wonder if Abdullah sees it.

Assad was locked in the logic of state security and an anti-Semitic, terror-sponsoring foreign policy because of the dynamics of his father’s power network and the regional thirst for Arab resistance to Israel and the West. This was a very different course to Abdullah, who retained standing with the corrupt and duplicitous Gulf monarchs, criticised Israeli policy only when necessary (without forgetting the trouble the Palestinians once caused his father), and nurtured close diplomatic and military ties to America and the United Kingdom. Jordan’s position in the Syrian civil war is a direct result of this divergence. From the beginning, the Kingdom has kept it borders open and allowed Syrian refugees to remain on Jordanian soil with access to all social services. The influx has become a flood with the growth of two sprawling and anarchic refugee camps that no longer contain the total number of refugees, many of whom have melted into Annan and other urban populations. The strain on jobs and public resources has been immense and tensions continue to rise between Jordanian nationals and Syrian refugees [12].

There is a further fear – shared by the government, the armed forces and the monarchy – that pro-Assad Hezbollah saboteurs and terrorist cells have entered the country ready to take revenge should any aggressive move be made from Jordanian territory. This is delicate and worrying because American, British and French Special Forces have trained rebels from Daraa in Jordan [13] and the U.S. has temporarily stationed 900 service personnel in the Kingdom to man Patriot missiles, fly F-16s and prepare for chemical warfare.

7) Palestinian Ironies

The basic split apparently goes: Fatah in the West Bank are pro-Assad while Hamas in Gaza are pro-rebel. This may be true but it gets more complicated the closer in you get. The position of Hamas is particularly intriguing and it is difficult to know how successful or sensible they have been. The official line fed and led by Khaled Mashal (at least, after relocating from Damascus to Doha) has been strong condemnation of Assad with the result that Iranian funds have dropped significantly. The Hamas leadership bet on an increase in support from Qatar and the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt but with the fall of Morsi and the removal of Sheikh Hamad – the Emir who founded Al Jazeera and spent a third of Qatar’s capital reserves funding the Brotherhood – that calculation looks less secure. This has caused anger and alarm among armed Palestinian factions who have enjoyed and even depended upon the security of Persian cash and weaponry for many years. The leadership of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the paramilitary wing of Hamas, has questioned the wisdom of abandoning the ‘Axis of Resistance’ for Sunni posturing and a flakey alliance with Qatar. Meanwhile, for some in Gaza the pro-rebel position of Hamas has been too weak: unlike other Sunni militants from Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Central Asia, very few Hamas martyrs have washed up in Syria and the rulers of Gaza are being out-flanked by more radical Palestinian Salafist groups preaching anti-Shia invective to an increasingly sectarian population [14]. The alliance with Hezbollah and Assad’s lead in the Palestinian cause are now distant memories – nostalgic for some, a source of shame for others.

The intra-Palestinian ironies and agonies over the Syrian conflict are epitomised by the fate of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. This sprawling settlement was once a small Palestinian city in itself with a thriving arts scene and a record of vocal political activism; unlike its Lebanese counterparts, it closely integrated with the Syrian state and society. At the beginning of the war, camp residents stayed neutral until tensions between pro-rebel activists and the state-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command finally dragged them into the conflict. This ended with the invasion of the FSA, who entered the camp in order to destroy the PFLP-GC, while Syrian MiGs bombed them from above. By this time most of the population had fled Yarmouk and the camp infrastructure was in ruins.

Navigating such factionalism is a complicated matter. Success is hard, at this stage, to gauge. On the one hand, Hamas appear vulnerable and isolated after recent Muslim Brotherhood setbacks; on the other, they still retain financial support from Qatar and some GCC-based benefactors, and Iranian aid has not actually been terminated. In any future fight with Israel they can still count on Iranian firepower – as they did during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

8) Kurdish Fringes

Overlapping or interfacing with this already crowded and convoluted situation is the Kurdish Question. Until 2011, the Qamishli riots of 2004 had been the only significant internal test for Bashar, and his enormous and multifaceted Ba’ath security apparatus had broken the Kurds with some force. They kept quiet during the first year of conflict, wary of the Iranian-backed government and the Turkish-backed rebels.  They were finally sucked into the maelstrom last year when regime troops and FSA rebels both strayed onto Kurdish territory and quickly found themselves in combat with the militias.

The Kurds do not belong to either side. Even though some of the smaller parties have joined the National Coalition, the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) refuses to participate. This is partly because it is an offshoot of the PKK and a member of the Kurdistan People’s Congress (Kongra-Gel) and is therefore resistant to all Turkish-backed endeavors. (When the New York Times interviewed a PYD militiaman in July he was sat beside a large poster of Abdullah Ocalan [15].) The PYD is also at odds with the Kurdish National Council, a rival bloc backed by Massoud Barzani’s KDP which hints at a future conflict along Iraqi KDP vs. PUK lines. The Kurds are constantly fractious but for now agree on an overall strategy following the successful Iraq model: autonomy, one step at a time. (Iraqi Kurdistan is looking stronger than ever: as the central government and Sunni/Shia provinces slip back into chaos, the Kurdish Regional Government is signing oil extraction deals with the Turks and rival oil multinationals [16].)

For now the PYD and its armed wing of People’s Protection Units (YPG) is finishing a fight with al-Qaeda and the Salafists that began last year. The jihadis are attempting to destroy Kurdish nationalism in North Eastern Syria in order to make way for their sharia state: a recent SILF statement threatened to cleanse the provinces of “PKK and Shahiba”. On the other side, PYD-YPG leaders are in the process of clearing Kurdish areas of all foreign groups and influences. In Kurdish provinces, Kurdish is now spoken openly; Kurdish history and culture are back in school curricula; and Arabic road signs are being rewritten in Kurdish. In the chaos of war, with the state falling back and armed Islamist groups facing defeat by battle-hardened unisex PYD-YPG militia, a Kurdish enclave is being carved out that may yet form territory in independent Kurdistan.


Ten years ago I was sitting in a restaurant in South Kensington talking to a friend who was born in Yemen but had been raised in Richmond.  During our conversation, I asked her about the divide between Sunni and Shia and whether it meant anything to her. She looked at me like I was mad and said, definitively: “I never think about it.” She has since moved on – working as a lawyer in Abu Dhabi, last I heard – but so has the Arab world. It would be a very different conversation now, I suspect.

Two events – or, more accurately, moments – spring to mind. The first provided by Kanan Makiya during a despairing 2007 interview with Dexter Filkins in which he described the Shi‘ite leadership in the run-up to the Iraqi civil war [17]:

There was this attitude: “This is a war, this is it — the showdown — why don’t we just gird ourselves for it, why not recognise it as a war and fight it to win? Because we can win.

To Makiya’s dismay, the man he believed had “broken the mould of Arab politicians” – namely, Ahmed Chalabi – joined the hard-liners of SCIRI and Moqtada al-Sadr and pushed Iraq into the sectarian implosion now ripping through the region. (Chalabi could be found rallying the anti-Khalifa Shia parties in Bahrain last year.) This double descent – of a man and a country – is indicative, and tragic.

The second moment is the source of the first: al-Zarqawi’s 2004 letter to al-Zawahiri in which he explained his plan to destroy democracy in Iraq by stoking a religious war. “If we succeed in dragging [the Shi’ites] into the arena of sectarian war, it will be possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger,” he wrote, diabolically [18]. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, destabilising the entire region and not just Iraq. He had to bomb the Golden Mosque in Samarra to get his sectarian war in full flow but from that point on there was no turning back. The current Sunni war against all in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and maybe soon Saudi Arabia is a legacy of al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian street criminal turned psychopathic terrorist whose life ended beneath two 500-pound, laser-guided U.S. bombs. This carnival of death is his lethal bequest.

1) Second King of the Second Saudi state and the grandfather of Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, quoted in Lewis Pelley, Report on a Journey to Riyadh (Oleander Falcon reprint, 1978)
2) John Bew, ‘Las Vegas Rules Don’t Apply in Syria’New Statesman, July 10th 2013
3) Hala Jaber, ‘Hezbollah Trains Assad Attack Force’, Sunday Times, June 6th 2013
4)  Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, ‘Where Does Jabhat al-Nusra End, and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Begin?’, Syria Comment, July 13th 2013
5) Volkhard Windfuhr, ‘Syrian Opposition Group Leader: “The Islamists are Seizing Power for Themselves”’, Der Spiegel, July 16th 2012
6) David B. Ottaway, ‘The Saudi-Qatari Clash Over Syria’, The National Interest, July 2nd 2013
7) Brown Moses Blog‘Evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra with Croatian Arms’, March 23rd 2013
8) Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, ‘Ambassador Anne Patterson, the Controversial Face of America’s Egypt Policy’, The Daily Beast, July 10th 2013
9) Michael J. Totten, ‘Dreaming of a Lebanon at Peace with its Neighbors’The Tower, July 2013
10) See Phillip Smyth’s ongoing series ‘Hizbollah Cavalcade’ at http://jihadology.net/hizballah-cavalcade
11) Michael Knights, ‘Syrian and Iraqi Conflicts Show Signs of Merging’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 7th 2013
12) Taylor Luck, ‘In Jordan, Tensions Rise Between Syrian Refugees and Host Community’, Washington Post, April 21st 2013
13) Julian Borger and Nick Hopkins, ‘West Training Syrian Rebels in Jordan’The Guardian, March 8th 2013
14) Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, ‘HAMAS and Syria’, jihadology.net, June 21st 2013
15) Ben Hubbard, ‘Kurdish Struggle Blurs Syria’s Battlelines’, New York Times, August 1st 2013
16) Joost R. Hiltermann, ‘Revenge of the Kurds’Foreign Affairs, November/December 2012
17) Dexter Filkins, ‘Regrets Only?’, New York Times, October 7th 2007
18) Quoted in Peter Bergen, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between Al-Qaeda and America (Simon & Schuster, 2011), p. 164

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Renny Harlin and the Russo-Georgian War

Ever since the glory days of Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2, Renny Harlin has been a reliable Hollywood hack: an artiste of the brash, the brutal and the High Concept. Like Tony Scott but without the subtleties, or a budget Bruckheimer brat, his films are made to be consumed and discarded, leaving only the clearest traces of adrenaline. In this junk oeuvre there is, however, one jarring anomaly: 2011’s 5 Days of War, a film about the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. The genesis of this project is obscure and slightly murky, but there are intriguing leads to follow. For example, it is interesting to know that the executive producer was a Georgian parliamentarian and party colleague of President Mikheil Saakashvili, or that the film’s funds were channeled through a shadowy Georgian mining company that nobody had ever heard of. It is useful, I would say, to learn that it was shot on location in Georgia with parliamentary buildings and military hardware lent to the film crew for free. With such sponsors, the product could only ever be unapologetic propaganda, and the Finnish director was clearly the man for the job: like the Georgians, he knew a thing or two about Russian aggression.

5 Days of War starts like a stupid Scoop in a raucous Tbilisi bar with a gang of hard-boozing war reporters swapping jaundiced wise-cracks and hitting on waitresses. They have come from all over their battle-scarred world to watch the Russian tanks roll into South Ossetia, drawn by brand new trouble like — why not drop a cliché? — moths to a flame. The clichés, in fact, roll thick and fast: a mélange of Mahogany Ridge, Bang-Bang Club and “anybody here been raped and speak English?” These reporters and photographers are a mixed pack of high-functioning addicts and trapped adolescents: irresponsible, self-centred, and driven by personal demons. They have flak jackets, notebooks, flash cameras and cool Zippo lighters. They have a cynical disdain for humanity, yet care too much to leave it alone. They are good people at heart: flawed, but always on hand to expose evil when it happens. There is a thin layer of Human Rights Watch exploitation grafted on to the Tony Scott turbulence, a liberal indulgence possibly inspired by Harlin’s own proximity to the heart of the conflict. (He is not wrong on this, either.)

Harlin’s movie pursues American television reporter Thomas Anders (Rupert Fiend) and British cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Richard Goyle) deep into the Caucasus maelstrom, and a lot of awful things start happening very quickly. Russian Su-25s zoom out of the deep black Georgian night and fire missiles at a rural wedding party; innocent, good-looking revellers are shredded. Roadblocks manned by thick-faced Russian irregulars delay cars in which people are visibly dying in back seats. Unhinged Ossetian militiamen rampage through Georgian villages, looting homes, raping daughters and murdering local leaders. Anders and Ganz manage to capture one gratuitous Ossetian atrocity on camera and the plot builds on their quest to broadcast this footage to a world otherwise distracted by the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing. Georgia’s plight barely makes the international news agenda.  Mikheil goes berserk in the Presidential Palace as Bush and Sarkozy ignore pleas for military intervention. Sarkozy, at the time, did have his own agenda, which involved appeasement of the Putin regime, but Bush had no excuse. The film does well to note that Georgia had sent the third largest contingent of troops to Iraq, while Saakashvili made hopeful steps towards NATO and EU membership. He felt like he’d earned some protection — or even a response — from Western leaders as the Kremlin threatened to overthrow his regime and occupy his country. This was a critical moment of political drama that the film inexplicably fails to capture: the President and his aides holed up in the Palace, making desperate calls to hesitant allies, waiting for the Russian army to arrive.

This is all fine, incidentally: an open case made with digital precision, wild pyrotechnics and silly stereotypes. At a Los Angeles screening in 2011, the real Saakashvili stood up in front of an audience thick with expatriate Georgians to proclaim 5 Days a “masterpiece” — and, for him, what else could it be? There’s Andy Garcia depicting his heroics with slick Godfather III-style vim and sheen, steadfast as the Kremlin War Machine bears down on lonely, defiant Tbilisi. In fact, as Russians and other critics of the film point out, hostilities began with a Georgian assault on Tskhinvali rather than a Russian invasion. But if the film fails to mention this then it also does not explain that Georgian action was provoked by the ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia (the war’s second front) and Russia’s covert sponsorship of separatism in South Ossetia. This was secession by social engineering and annexation by stealth: an on-going aggressive territorial move by Russia designed to dismember Georgia in retribution for the offence of independence, given extra impetus by Putin’s personal animosity to Saakashvili. You will note that the Kremlin’s enthusiasm for South Ossetian “independence” did not extend to North Ossetia, larger and more populated and yet within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. It did not extend to Chechnya, to say the least. 

Therefore, even in the semi-fictional context of  Harlin’s pro-Georgian propaganda flick, Saakashvili could be outraged at Russia’s “unprovoked” aggression and get away with it, because he was right. The depiction of random Russian air strikes and marauding Ossetian militias was not without foundation or very far-fetched at all. The city of Gori, the film’s final battlefield, really was hit by Russian cluster bombs and despoiled by Ossetian gangs as Georgian troops retreated to defend Tbilisi. (In fact, to track the film’s narrative even closer, a Dutch journalist was actually killed by a Russian cluster bomb in Gori’s central square.) This was not a work of art, it was a political, partisan product. But the story Harlin told contained an essential truth: for Putin, ethnic resentment was a weapon he could use to create the conflict he wanted. The aim was imperial restitution and he cynically exploited the murderous parochial ambitions of his proxies to obtain it. This is what happened in Georgia, and Saakashvili had no real option but to react with force. He was, at this terrifying moment, both courageous and correct. His performance, you could say, was worthy of Andy Garcia.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Requiem for a Regime: Bashar al-Assad and the Arab Spring

Remember when Syria was just a rogue state? Those were the days. Things were simpler then. Now, in January 2013, Syria is no longer capable of acting rogue outside of its own borders and barely remains sovereign. Bashar al-Assad has been overwhelmed by a regional proxy war being fought between the Saudi monarchy and the Iranian regime. He is a slight and fragile strategic figurine standing at the centre of an epochal struggle and may soon be cast aside. 

Meanwhile, what started as an unsurprising rebellion in the city of Daraa and the suburbs of Damascus has gone through several cycles of revolt and armed resistance to end up here: a sectarian free-for-all that has destroyed cities, institutions of state and the fragile co-existence of ethnic and religious communities. Nobody was prepared for the barbarism. This is the scale of cynical, suicidal violence once associated with Iraqi Ba’athism rather than its comparatively measured and cunning Syrian relation. Earlier this month, Bashar delivered one of his rare declarations of defiance to a depleted Syrian parliament. It was weird, rubber-neck, slap-head stuff once more: a desperate exhortation aimed at the Syrian people, thousands of whom are either dead or irrevocably radicalised or already defiant — defiantly opposed to Assad.

It is too late for him and probably for his family, too. Apparently, he knows it. In early December the New York Times quoted Fyodor Lukyanov, the Russian Affairs editor who had been in touch with Russian diplomats, saying:

[Assad’s] mood is that he will be killed anyway. If he will try to go, to leave, to exit, he will be killed by his own people. If he stays he will be killed by his opponents. He is in a trap. It is not about Russia or anybody else. It is about his physical survival.

Well, fine. What else is there? There’s the fact that Iran reopened channels to Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense, supplying financial and tactical support to back up the Fajr-5 rockets they usefully donated in happier days. This thawed the Iranian freeze that descended upon Hamas after they declared themselves against Assad in mid-2012. Khaled Mashal, who’d vacated his Damascus apartment and skedaddled to safe rebel-backing Qatar, now thanked Iran for arming the Gaza militants with their rockets. Ismail Haniyeh was bursting with pride on the Gaza Strip: “I thank everyone who supplied us with arms and money,” he declared, adding: “especially Iran.” With Iranian help, the Palestinian Resistance made Israel “scream with pain”; Assad, ironically for a leading anti-Zionist head of state, suddenly looked isolated, abandoned.

What else? The options for retreat faded fast. For all the talk about a break-away Alawite enclave on the mountainous coastal fringe of Latakia province, this had little bearing on reality. Rebels crossed the Turkish border to attack Alawite villages before this endgame even began: on December 17th, the Telegraph reported Alawite families fleeing border settlements and making their way to Latakia and Tartous. The Syrian elite were seen despatching their families to the coast before Christmas, while most remaining (and surviving) key personnel stayed in Damascus. Bashar himself has just reiterated: “I will win, even if Damascus is destroyed.”

That’s one way to go. Another is to goad the Israelis, but they are staying out of this mess. Or to employ Hezbollah, but they are already cautiously fighting for the regime alongside Sadr City imports from Iraq, mainly to save Shia lives from Saudi and Gulf-funded Sunni death squads. So the only trick left for Assad to pull is to suck Lebanon down with his regime, which he may do. (He has been doing it all along.)

There will come a day when I will not be President.
Assad, interviewed in Al-Hayat, 14th March 2004.

Well, he got that right. One year after this complacent interview, Assad proceeded to sow the seeds of his own demise by blowing up Rafiq Hariri with a car bomb so massive that it left a crater in the centre of Beirut. This was the opening bang of a blood bath orchestrated by Syrian agents and assassins inside Lebanon designed to eliminate Assad’s most influential and determined enemies.

This was wanton and overt — and it was incautious. Hariri’s assassination rebounded on Assad, undermining Syria’s strategic position. Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon after an incensed Chirac (a close associate of Hariri) joined Bush to enforce Franco-American UN resolution 1559. As the UN probed Syrian connections to the murder and the International Criminal Court decided to hold the assassins to account, the Assad regime embarked on a killing spree across Lebanon and Syria. The liberal journalist Samir Qasir and Communist leader George Hawi were both killed by car bombs in June, 2005; they had been central leaders of the Cedar Revolution that followed Hariri’s murder in February. LBC anchorwoman and anti-Syrian journalist May Chidiac was hit by a car bomb in September; she survived, but lost an arm and a leg. Further high-profile murders followed in rapid succession: Gebran Tueni (blown up by another car bomb); Pierre Amine Gemayel (mown down by gunmen in broad daylight); Walid Eido (shredded by a bomb outside the Beirut Beach Club); Antoine Ghanem (detonated in Sin al-Fil); and Wissam Eid (incinerated for investigating the murder of Hariri with too much tenacity and success). 

By this time Bashar had lost control of his own agenda, an agenda that had once been the key to his personality, his future, the future of his country and, maybe, the entire Middle East. The assumption of power by Bashar was a watershed moment for the region that still resonates today, for two reasons. Firstly, it cemented the principle of dynastic succession in the secular Arab republics that has only now been repudiated in Egypt by the overthrow of Hosni and Gamal Mubarak and remains in flux in Libya as Saif Gaddafi fights for his inheritance. Secondly, the sensitive, Western-educated Bashar cut a different figure from the hardmen of the regime and had promised some measure of deliverance from the authoritarian nightmare created by his father. The inaugural speech that he made seven days after the death of Hafez was — like Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law of 2004 — a brave, solitary and prophetic text. Announcing a programme of sweeping reform, Bashar tacitly put the corrupt Alawite Old Guard on notice while also encouraging opposition groups to engage in “constructive criticism” of the Ba‘ath state, which was put into practice by the release of political prisoners. The effect was instantaneous and, ultimately for the regime, alarming. Civil society burst into life with the appearance of new journals, newspapers, discussion groups and petitions. The tumult transfixed and thrilled the Arab and Muslim world but appalled its dictators and kings. The ‘Damascus Spring’ ended, abruptly, two years later; unable to control events and under pressure from his family and his own security services, Assad instigated a crackdown and refilled his jails with the very dissidents he had earlier released.

But the memory remained and the networks persisted; now the process Bashar started could, ironically, overwhelm him. It is a tragedy, of sorts. The precise quality of his character remains, to Syrians and outsiders alike, uncertain, opaque. Political dissidents and activists still question the motives and reasons behind the speech but it is generally accepted that Bashar was dealt a bad hand: he had never wanted to rule Syria, they believe, and never really expected to. A twist of fate — the death of his elder brother Basil, a flash thug who crashed his Mercedes into a motorway roundabout in 1994 — ruined his cherished plan to practice ophthalmology, which he had been studying at the Western Eye Hospital in London. Fast-tracked through the Syrian military, he arrived in power as a young staff colonel encircled by Alawite Ba’athists and al-Assad clansmen not quite loyal enough to the memory of the father to rule out overthrowing the son. Alongside his clever, glamorous, reform-minded wife — the former Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan analyst, Asma Fawaz al-Akhras — Bashar conveyed an aura of loneliness and uncertainty that was reinforced by his pale skin and lanky physique. To outsiders, however — notably the Western diplomatic and business classes — this young ruling couple looked fresh and dynamic and the Damascus Spring powerfully underlined this impression (Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac were vocal enthusiasts).

But, ultimately, Bashar kept his state afloat through the continual harassment of Lebanon. His internal reforms had been careful, slow; after all, he expected to have a whole lifetime to transform his state, and did not want to risk a coup from hard-line regime rivals or Hafez loyalists. Over the decade Assad maneuvered his cronies and technocrats into key positions with caution and assurance; one of his greatest allies in this tentative project was his wife. (His opponents included his powerful mother, younger brother, elder sister, and ambitious brother-in-law.) He was able to do this partly because he stayed close to his father’s foreign policy script: hostile to the Zionist Entity and engaged with Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, while keeping Iran and America carefully balanced and at bay. In the end, economic reform would be subordinated to foreign adventures and regional power struggles, and the corrupt, bullied banking and business elites of Beirut would end up paying for Syrian “socialism” and the benefit of their own servitude. 

Bashar lacked the gravitas, experience and strategic intelligence of Hafez, and this led him to disaster. He was tactical and a bit tenacious, but he couldn’t quite play the regional game. He quickly outdid Hafez in ways the old man would not have admired or sanctioned, but had no sense of timing or scale. He had no foresight. He flirted with antisemitism in high-profile public speeches. He fawned over, and deferred to, Hassan Nasrallah. He struck an active energy and intelligence alliance with Saddam Hussein and sheltered senior Iraqi Ba’athists after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He eventually signed a lop-sided pact with Iran that left Syria dependent and almost captive to the Revolutionary Republic: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force became a de facto arm of the Syrian military. Finally, of course, he overplayed his hand in Lebanon, leading Chirac to turn on him with a vigour borne of fury (Hariri was a personal friend of the French president). The enforcement of UN Resolution 1559, pushing Syrian troops out of Lebanon, was a strategic catastrophe for Bashar. But it got worse: a UN tribunal led by the dogged Senior Public Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis accused Bashar’s vicious young brother Maher and other members of the Assad inner circle of organising Hariri’s slaughter. Bashar responded by attempting to destroy the delicate Lebanese coalition government and terminating the growing Cedar Revolution — itself a seed for Arab Spring that now bears down on him with such fury. 

Your God is Bashar.
Shabbiha graffiti on Sunni mosque walls.

As things frayed and stagnated abroad, so they did at home. There is no direct link to or smooth time-line from the Hariri assassination in 2005 to the Damascus and Daraa protests of 2011. But the thrust of the response from the regime was a result of the preceding years: the fear and brutalisation that overtook Bashar multiplied by the unbalancing influence of Iran. As Syrian revolts spread from city to city, the regime took its cues and methods from the Iranian repression of the Green Movement in 2008. They had seen Obama stand aside then. They watched Ben Ali and Mubarak concede to crowds and mobs challenging their legitimacy, and then witnessed their fall. They saw NATO tied up with Gaddafi at the point their own rebellions took hold. In this moment they calculated and took their chance and escalated, unleashing their army and their air force and mukhābarāt and shabbiha gangs on a captive population. Less loyal army units blanched and sickened at their grotesque orders and peeled away to form the Free Syrian Army. This eventually found a base in Turkey and received arms and money from the Saudis, the UAE and Qatar, while Bashar retained Hezbollah and his stalwart Quds Force allies. A revolt turned into a civil war and would descend further. The regional and religious conflagration took root. The cycle of violence became cyclonic: battles, schisms and vendettas metastasized into overlapping micro-conflicts; the war-zone a tangle of theological, ideological and tribal factions, indigenous and foreign. It outgrew the regime and broke Syria apart. You know the story.

King Abdullah of Jordan has said that his former friend is trapped inside a prison built by his father, a sympathetic but accurate assessment of Bashar’s predicament.  He wanted to be a doctor not a dictator, and the ruthless certainty and tactical nous Hafez displayed has not been evident with the midde son. He’s lashed out in the wrong directions at the wrong moments; he’s lost Lebanon and sold his state to the Persian Ayatollahs. He thought that an anti-Israeli alliance with Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah would protect his regime from the anger of his own citizens and gild the fiction of Arab Resistance. But, as in the larger region, this has proved less gripping and decisive than he thought: Syrians have been incited by their own oppression and humiliation, not the Palestinian cause. His cities and their citizens — stagnant and isolated and under constant surveillance — chose to rise up against him, rather than the Jews. The regime hardliners, including his brother, had successfully urged a course of violent suppression, blocking the pleas of Asma: a final split so deep and personal it went to the heart of Bashar’s personal tragedy, admittedly an irrelevant concern in the grand scheme of things. Bashar’s roots and clan loyalties confronted the instincts and desires he nourished in London and kept alive for as long as he dared and, in the end, they won. 

So this is how a regime dies, by its own hand. Syria is now in ruins. The Assad clan has been reduced to a Mafia with an Air Force. Aleppo, once the most loyal city of them all, looks (in parts) like Grozny. Homs is a grave-yard; Baba Amr a district of ghosts. Damascus, the City of Jasmine and jewel of the Levant, is being picked apart, ravaged, raided, vandalised. Bashar’s grandfather, Suleiman al-Assad, had been a key proponent of the slender Alawite state that existed under the French Mandate of Syria; his son and grandson, under the guise of Ba’athist ideology, became central and aggressive protectors of the unified Syrian state and their regimes promoted the Greater Syria restoration. All of that lies in ruins, now. There is no going back, and that spells out one thing: this regime is doomed, whatever will transpire.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment