Friday, 25 September 2015

The Refugee Crisis and the Holocaust - How not to learn the lessons of History.

I am a big fan of learning the lessons of History. Without understanding the past our understanding of the present will always risk being superficial. 

Amidst the chaos and confusion that has been exploding across Europe relating to the refugee crisis it seems some people have not really got the idea quite right though.  The problem comes when people pick out entirely superficial resemblances to historic tragedies when much larger problems are raging around. 

Across central and eastern Europe hundreds of thousands of migrants are struggling across the continent, and there is massive confusion among official bodies in about what they were meant to do with the tide of people.

As the BBC reports in one Czech town migrants "had numbers written on their skin with felt-tip pen". The police thought the "priority in dealing with the 200 migrants at Breclav railway station [...] was identifying them and trying to keep family members together. This was a difficult task when many had no documents and did not speak English; hence the numbers in felt-tip pen on their arms."

But many news outlets were apparently outraged because somebody felt this vaguely visually resembled something that was done during the Holocaust: the tattooing of prisoners at Auschwitz, the largest Concentration/Death camp.

This is one of the most trivial historical comparisons I've ever seen. The Czech authorities were faced with a situation that was crowded, noisy, confused, dealing with large numbers of people with no ID papers and with whom they probably didn't share a language: whether Czech, English or Syrian Arabic, and so they resorted to felt tip pen. And no, they didn't "stamp" it, they wrote it. The difference is quite clear.

Of all the things that are a problem with the refugee crisis, the EU response (and even the Czech response) this is really not one of them. Even on a surface level the resemblance is not that close. Auschwitz prisoners were tattooed on the arm or chest and some of these tattoos are still visible on survivors 70 years later. The refugees had a number written on their hand in felt tip, which they could rub or wash off in a few minutes. It's hard to know where to start with the other important differences between the planned mass murder of millions of people and a temporary measure to organise a small group of migrants in a Czech train station.

It feels like no-one should need to say that but apparently we do. Seemingly news outlets would rather officials cared less about what they were doing to help people (or otherwise), and care more about whether their actions bore a totally superficial resemblance to tiny parts of a vast historic crime.

This summer was very hot in Poland, reaching 100F (or 38C) and so the Auschwitz memorial museum set up mist sprays to cool visitors who were cueing for long periods in the direct sun.

Apparently though, this caused complaints that they resembled the gas chambers used to kill hundreds of thousands of people there. Actually, I say complaints, but every article I've seen on this repeats exactly the same complaint from one tourist who was upset by this. Again, though, that same article has then been copied and pasted into many online news outlets until it popped up on my computer.

It's really hard to know where to start. Firstly, the museum had an entirely legitimate health and safety reason for putting the mist showers up. Secondly, again, the resemblance is entirely superficial and frankly vague. I can do no better than quote the Auschwitz museum trust's own words from their Facebook page, in which they sound frankly bemused by the whole thing.

"And one more thing. It is really hard for us to comment on some suggested historical references since the mist sprinkles do not look like showers and the fake showers installed by Germans inside some of the gas chambers were not used to deliver gas into them."

That means that some of the gas chambers were disguised as shower blocks to avoid panic and resistance among the victims and to encourage them to strip before being murdered. The shower-heads in the blocks were never used though. Anyway, how anyone could confuse an old fashioned concrete building with fake shower-heads inside with an outdoor mist sprinkler is beyond me.
Also, I can't help but feel the complaint is bizarre because surely you're meant to feel uncomfortable when visiting Auschwitz? You're meant to be reminded of the gas chambers? It is unclear whether the person thought the idea of people not being too hot was insulting to victims, or was too light-hearted or what.

"Officials in the German town of Schwerte have made plans to place some 20 refugees in barracks which were once part of the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. The 'pragmatic solution' to provide shelter has sparked criticism, German media reported."

The wave of refugees entering Germany this summer has strained local resources and available accommodation. So one town has decided to use vacant buildings that were once barracks for guards of a sub-camp of Buchenwald, one of the Nazi concentration work camps. This genuine attempt to help in a time of major demand and limited resources is apparently not good enough for some people who have complained:

"the decision has sparked criticism among the country's activist groups, with many calling the plan "questionable" and "insensitive."

It's not clear who it is insensitive to: not the migrants who will have somewhere decent to stay, not the victims of the camp who almost certainly couldn't care less even if they knew. And as for 'questionable', that has to be the weakest criticism known to man, to be reached for by politicians and activists when they have nothing to actually say. I would hope that almost everything is 'questionable', except perhaps the fact the sky is  blue (and even then one may ask, why).

The activists do not seem to be making any alternative suggestion as to where the refugees should be housed.  And I shudder to think what they would have said when for years after 1945 many of the camps were used to house the millions of refugees and displaced persons who flooded Europe at that time, in some places for years afterwards. In times of great need you do what you can with limited resources to help people.

And finally my last Holocaust related example of people missing a major issue and clinging on to the completely superficial and irrelevant. 

Migrants and asylum seekers are commonly kept in camps for periods of time while they are being processed, especially when large numbers appear at once. And particularly in this current crisis large numbers have been travelling by train across Europe.

Which will be sad news for anyone who has ever taken the train to Butlins, or Centre Parcs, or a festival of any kind.

Now, it shouldn't need to be said, but to avoid confusion, I am not saying that the European response to the refugee crisis has been perfect. But I am saying of all the things wrong with it this is not one.  It's like people's minds are just trying to cling onto something, so they latch onto the surface level visual resemblance to something terrible that once happened.

Maybe I'm over-reacting to a few daft comments on twitter and news articles by well-meaning people. But a few weeks ago I saw all these examples within literally a couple of days, and I wasn't going looking for them. For a brief period it seemed like we were entirely losing our critical faculties. Hopefully it was just a one-off fluke of social media.

Most people spend understandably little time in their day thinking about complex global problems. This kind of total trivia just chews up that valuable time and distracts people from actually considering what is really important about these crises, and makes them think these are the kind of issues that they should be concentrating on.

I think the whole model of 24 hour online news media is partly to blame. We have actually reached a point where there is too much 'commentary' . There are now so many news sites that have to be constantly filled with a stream of 'articles' that it just encourages sites to put up any old rubbish with a title that might get a few clicks. It's staggeringly lazy as well. Each of these 'stories' could be found pretty much word for word identical on many, dozens, scores, perhaps hundreds even of different online news 'platforms', presumably just copied and pasted from Reuters or Associated Press or whoever actually originally wrote the piece. There's no creativity or intelligence or effort involved whatsoever, and once you become aware it's incredible how much of even respectable newspapers and media channel's content is just lazily copied and pasted in this way without any thought of the quality of the 'story'. And even when it's not just copied and pasted from somewhere else the need to constantly update with new content leads to attempts to generate stories left, right and centre where frankly none exist.

More generally, some in our society seem to think you show what a good person you are by finding things that nobody else has thought to be outraged by and getting really angry and pissed off about them.  And the more obscure the thing is you've found to get outraged about the better. That just shows you care more than the other people who haven't noticed that offence or 'insensitivity' enough to be screaming into their computer screens. Any idea that taking a pompous position of personal moral superiority is itself bad, or that people might make innocent mistakes that deserve some benefit of the doubt, or might just be doing the best they can in difficult circumstances, seems to be get lost. 

I imagine the format of many online media, whether short blogs, twitter, facebook, tumblr or whatever, adds to this: difficult to present a nuanced view that understands both sides, easy to scream outrage and bile. Neither do I think this often helps get more good done. Often it just makes the world an angrier, shoutier place and distracts people from doing any good, rather than attempting to appear good. As well as quite possibly making us all more miserable and stressed, apart from that small number who seem to actively enjoy having someone to yell at.

I understand the irony of criticising people for criticising people over trivial issues instead of focussing on what's important when this itself is not exactly vastly important. And I am sorry for that, we are all trapped in the same hell. In fact, I don't want to criticise any individuals in particular because there's no point. I just want to encourage a greater degree of consideration about what really are the serious issues, common sense, and giving people some benefit of the doubt occasionally. I think that would make the world a less angry place while actually seeing more genuine understanding of complicated historical, social and structural issues, and more good done in the long-term. 

When there is genuine, serious injustice and suffering, people need to raise a voice, even an angry voice. But we would be better able to hear that voice if it wasn't drowned out by a constant screeching tidal wave of trivialities. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Labour Hame - Could Jeremy Corbyn repeat the SNP’s success in England?

The lovely folks at 'Labour Hame', a Scottish Labour website, have published my article on whether Jeremy Corbyn could repeat the SNP's success across Britain.

Jeremy Corbyn fans repeatedly claim that SNP success was due to their anti-austerity stance, and if anti-austerity could produce a landslide in Scotland it could in England and Wales. I look at exactly why the SNP annihilated Labour in the General Election. Basically I emphasise that May 2015 this was the end of a decade of the SNP steadily kicking in Scottish Labour and that 2015 was just the final stage of this process. A process that was given an almighty push by the referendum but also included better leadership, tighter organisation, and lucky circumstances. 

The very fact it was a complex process makes it unlikely Corbyn will be able to repeat the job in England.  Anyway, here's the full article:

Friday, 14 August 2015

I wrote to my MP about fighting ISIL

This morning I finally got round to doing something I had meant to do for a while: I wrote to my MP to encourage him to lobby the government to do whatever it could to oppose ISIL (/ISIS/Daesh/Islamic State) militarily or peacefully. Please write to you own MP or other representative and donate to a charity supporting innocent civilians in Iraq and Syria. If you want to feel free to borrow my words as the basis for your own letter or email.

"Dear Mr Pawsey,

I am writing to you as my MP because I have just read an article detailing how ISIL are formally organising slavery as part of their so-called 'state', and particularly the sex slavery of Yazidi women and girls, including the rape of children. Nobody doubts these facts. These Nazis-in-robes are without doubt carrying out the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Syrian and Iraqi Christians and Yazidis with the utmost imaginable brutality and horror, as well as the deadly persecution of homosexuals and other minorities. The comparisons to the Holocaust are unavoidable, only the relative disorganisation and poverty of ISIL stop them being a threat to tens of millions rather than tens of thousands.

It seems utterly clear that there can be no diplomatic or political solution to ISIL, as they are a fanatical death-cult with no aims beyond the total subjugation and murder of anyone who is not an extremist Wahhabi Sunni. I know that Britain is weary after Labour's appalling failed intervention in Iraq, and the sense that every-time we intervene in these areas it merely produces some worse horror.  But I do not think there can be any worse horror that ISIL: we already have genocide, mass organised sex slavery including the rape of children, and ethnic cleansing. It cannot get any worse. And I feel that when we invaded and occupied Iraq we became, to some degree, continuingly responsible for what happens to the people there. We cannot stand by while another Srebrenica, another Rwanda, occurs not so far away, if there is anything more we can to stop it. What is the point of sending plane-loads of our school-children all the way to Auschwitz in Poland to learn the lessons of that dark time if we do not do everything in our power to stop it happening on this very day on the borders of Europe? Northern Iraq in 2015 is not so much farther away than Poland must have seemed in 1942. I think of the Yazidi women raped and held as slaves, and I think of my mother and my wife and the young women who are my friends and family . . .

I am not an expert in the military or in international aid, so I do not know exactly what can be done.  But I beg you to do whatever you can as an MP to support and encourage the Government do to whatever it can in Iraq or Syria. Whether that is militarily or or in terms of peaceful aid and support, whether to destroy ISIL directly or to help those groups there who are already fighting it, and to give what material help we can to all those threatened by death, slavery, or being forced to flee their ancient homeland. 

Kind Regards,
Stephen Wigmore"

Friday, 7 August 2015

The Population of Lothlorien

A kind correspondent (Glen Klugkist of South Africa) pointed out that in my articles on the populations of Middle Earth at the time of Lord of the Rings I had missed out the magical realm of Lothlorien: home of Galadriel and Celeborn, and "the heart of Elvendom on Earth".

I reproduce our thoughts on this below: basically we agreed that the population of Lothlorien would be similar to that of the northern Elven kingdom of Mirkwood.

"Hi Stephen

I do not know if I missed an article of yours on Lothlorien, but would like to ask your view on its population:

In one of your articles you estimate the population of Thranduil's kingdom in Northern Mirkwood at the time of the War of the Ring, at roughly 30 000 Elves, if I understand correctly. 

Do you think Lorien fell into the same population category, seeing that it was also a woodland realm? 

My own first estimate for Lothlorien was in the region of 17 000 to 20 000 Elves, but looking at the surface area of Lothlorien and the fact that Galadriel's forces seemed to have total control of the entire forest from its borders inward, I revisited my estimate and came to new but still very rough estimate for Lothlorien's population of 36 000 - 40 000 Elves. Do you think thats way off?"

Kind Regards, 
Glen Kuglist"

"Dear Glen, 

I'm ashamed to say that I seem to have missed Lothlorien out of my estimates. I covered Eriador and The southern lands, and then the lands of the Hobbit, but Lothlorien is the one sizeable population that doesn't fall into any of these categories. 

I would concur that the best guess for Lothlorien's population would be around the 30,000 that I estimated for Thrandruil's realm. It has a very similar history and role in Lord of the Rings. Both are recorded as having sent out 'Armies', in both the 2nd Age to the War of the Last Alliance and right up to and including the War of the Ring.  

We can tell Lothlorien's size quite easily, it is about 30 miles by 50 miles (thanks as always to the Atlas of Middle Earth by Karen Fonstad). We can't make any comparison in that regard to Thrandruil's kingdom because it was never clear what area the Elves controlled or inhabited in northern Mirkwood.  We know of one significant town or 'city' for both (Caras Galadhon and the Elven King's Halls) and a reasonable degree of organisation. 

It seems Rhovanion 'kingdoms' were very low population compared to Gondor or Rohan. But still given Lothlorien's ability to maintain their borders against threats from both Mirkwood and Moria (even given the power of Galadriel's ring), and even to send out armies to invade Dol Guldor, I don't think a population of much less than 30,000 is credible. To give a range I would estimate 20,000-30,000 Elves.

We can't be more precise than that I fear.  

Kind Regards, 
Stephen Wigmore"

Monday, 29 June 2015

There were alternatives to the Greek Crisis - Grexit or No Grexit

The incompetence of the EU's approach to the Greek debt crisis has been staggering. 5 years of failure have gone by and we are closer to Greek default and exit from the euro than ever.  At every stage EU policy has failed to meet its stated objectives while inflicting penury and unemployment on Greece (and other periphery countries) on a scale usually associated with a major war, and which, in this case, was largely avoidable.

It is worth briefly cataloguing just how badly EU policy has failed on its own objectives.  Back in 2010 EU leaders were loudly trumpeting the need for a bailout to avoid 'contagion' of the debt crisis. This was loudly and repeatedly stated until Greece, then Ireland, then Portugal had all fallen like heavily indebted dominoes and Italy and Spain were staring into the brink. It was an odd policy even from the start. If you are really trying to avoid 'contagion' you generally separate yourself from the contaminated object or person: the analogy here would presumably be ejecting Greece from the eurozone. Instead the bailout policy resembled hugging Greece close and giving it a direct person-to-person blood transfusion. Unsurprisingly, when you plug the financial systems of various countries into each other through massive country-to-country loans, the bad blood spreads.

Then the shout was that it was vital for Greece to avoid any default at all. Then in summer Greek 2012 default occurred.  We were told that the ECB couldn't possibly buy government bonds from distressed countries, or engage in general QE, right up until the moment both of those things occurred. We were told capital controls were unthinkable, but now, you guessed, they have been happened in both Greece and Cyprus. The list goes on. Perhaps the biggest and saddest lie of all was the idea that the Euro was the great triumph of European solidarity. But in the very first major Euro crisis the rich countries have adopted a policy of taking the poor countries by the throat and squeezing the life out of them.  Where has European solidarity been for the last 5 years, as Greek and Spanish unemployment topped 25% and youth unemployment went over 50%?

At every step the EU has adopted policies that kicked the can down the road for a few weeks or months in the short term but that transparently had no hope of resolving the crisis in the long-term. And all this was predicted as far back as 2010.  There were always alternatives to the ludicrous policy the EU has chosen, and critics and sceptics have been pleading for them ever since this awful mess started.  They have been ignored and the inevitable, predictable results of economic gravity have ensued as sure as someone dropping a rock over their foot.    

There were two quite clear alternatives to the Greek crisis that could have been taken. One that kept Greece within the euro and one that saw it leave back in 2010.


If EU countries weren't willing to give Greece the money it needed to realistically sustain its economy while reducing its deficit then they should have let it leave the eurozone.

Grexit could have been managed in secret over a very short period of time to ensure a minimum of chaos. This would have required some outright lying to the press in advance, as the necessary official preparations were made in secret, but not much more than governments usually engage in. With preparation and support it could all have be done over a long weekend, with the banks able to open the next week in the new currency. Greek euro note and coins would have continued in use for a few weeks while new ones were prepared but now acting in the new currency. Greek banks would have to be shut and capital controls introduced while the change was made, but these could have been raised again relatively quickly once the transition was made.

The new Greek drachma would have immediately devalued massively, this would have sparked significant inflation but this would have been over relatively fast. It would massively increase Greek competitiveness overnight, giving huge boosts to Greek industries such as tourism and shipping and would only have effected international imports. Greece should have defaulted by 30% on all private debt in order to get out from under its debt mountain at that point, and reduce interest payments as a one-off measure.  From that point onwards all debt would be honoured in full.

Some eurosceptics have implied that this could all have occurred totally harmlessly, with a hop and a skip and a jump. This is foolish and ridiculous. The process would not be pain-free. The Greek people would still suffer a big fall in real income due to the inflation but with the advantage that it would be over quickly and Greece would rapidly recommence a real recovery rather than the permanent grinding recession that has seen GDP fall by 25% since 2010.  European governments would still face significant costs.  They would need to bailout their own banks where they had taken big losses in Greece. But from that point on all danger of 'contagion' would be severed as the link to Greek banks would be severed.

The EU would also be wise to sink significant sums into Greece in EU managed structural fund investments to help get the Greek economy back on track. This whole program would be with the aim of a recovered Greece being able to rejoin the Euro on proper terms in 15-20 years. Certain quantities of loans would also be sensible, but massively less than under the two bailouts we have seen thus far. Greek banks would need to be recapitalised but without Greece shifting into hyperinflation due to mass money printing to recapitalise Greek Banks. Hence the wisdom of providing some outside cash to allow Greek banks to rebuild their balance sheets with solid euros rather than just printing drachma.

The ECB should at the same time cut interest rates to 0.5% and launch a large bank support program for Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, but with the safety of knowing they no-longer had responsibility for Greece, by far the worst case. Ireland would still need a bailout, which should have been conducted on more generous terms, and maybe Portugal.  But with proper ECB assistance Italy and Spain should have been able to avoid the stress they came under in mid 2011, and hence so would the rest of the Eurozone. This should mean the entire 2012 double-dip recession could have been avoided, saving European countries billions more in gained output than they may have cost helping Greece out with structural funds.

Immediate exit from the the euro and default would probably have produced a significant negative shock to GDP.  I have no idea how big, but even if it had been 10% of GDP, if it meant growth had returned within a year or so, then by now Greece would almost certainly be in a vastly better position, as would the rest of the Eurozone. Greece would probably have almost returned to 2010 levels by now instead of still being down by almost a quarter of its economy compared to 2010.

If such a program had been launched in full in 2010 then Greece should have rapidly returned to significant growth by 2012-ish and by now we could be discussing the Greek and Eurozone recovery, falling Greek debt burdens and the prospect of Greek readmission to the Euro (under more stringent regulation and monitoring) in perhaps another 10 years max.

No Grexit.

If Greek exit from the Euro was truly unacceptable to Eurozone countries then there was an alternative that kept Greece within the EU and alive. A lot of the stages would actually be remarkably similar. Rather than actually raising interest rates in 2010 the ECB should have immediately cut interest rates to 0.5% in summer 2010. What inflation there was in the Eurozone was down to commodity price rises and would soon be quenched by the economic downturn. Slashing interest rates immediately would have helped give some small support to periphery country debt costs.

The ECB should furthermore have launched an immediate and substantial program of QE or bank support, as it eventually did.  €1 trillion euros of support whether aimed at states or banks would have been a good start aimed at the distressed countries on a formula that mixed need and size. Crucially this should have been done before markets began attacking weak states, not some time afterwards when damage had already been done to investment and trade.

Greece would need to bailed out, but on considerably more generous terms. A 30% default should again have been enacted immediately to reduce debt payments and levels. The bailout should have been considerably more generous, with Greece charged for support strictly at the rate of cost to the lending countries of raising the money. This should have been combined with an expanded program of infrastructure support projects, effectively grants, run through Brussels directly though so as to avoid any perception of the Greeks wasting the money.

Support to Greece should have concentrated on a more gradual reduction of the Greek deficit towards a current surplus, with deliberate efforts to maintain Greek economic activity. There would still need to be significant, cuts, tax rises and privatisations but with an eye on headline GDP and employment. Direct cash transfers and low taxes on poorer consumers, as well as infrastructure spending, should have been protected, while at the same time tax rises should be concentrated on wealthier Greeks and land and property, while spending cuts were concentrated on relatively economically unproductive public services.  The overall purpose of this would have been to conserve economic demand as far as possible while making significant but not suicidal progress in reducing the deficit.

Support should have come in large quantities not just in the form of loans, but also technical support in improving public sector productivity, privatisations, and improving the Greek tax take.  Tax avoiders and evaders of all classes should have been gone after like police hunting down terrorists, as a matter of national security.

While such a program would have probably taken more money than was included in the first round of Greek bailout in 2010, some €110 billion, it would almost certainly have not taken more money than was included in both rounds of bailout put together, a total of €240 billion euros. When combined with the fact that it would have hopefully seen a much smaller fall in Greek GDP, Greek debt levels should have actually been LOWER under this plan than what has actually happened.


The counter-productive effect of current policy has been massive.  Greece has suffered a 25% recession to cut their deficit by 12%. That is €1 cut from headline GDP has only reduced the deficit by 50c while inflicting utter devastation on the Greek people. This in turn contributed to a double-dip recession across the Eurozone as a whole. If Greeks had borrowed just as many euros as they currently have, but their economy was the same size now as in 2010, then their debt burden would be only 120% of GDP instead of the 180% it is at the moment, just due to the effect of dividing the debt in euros by a larger GDP figure.

Leading politicians such as Merkel should have clearly said that you don't make yourselves rich by beggaring your customers; nor by producing a rolling 5-year crisis without any hint of resolution, which has just shook confidence across the entire EU and particularly within the other weakened countries: Spain, Italy, Ireland, Portugal. Merkel's policies (Merkelism if you will) could be fairly characterised as Thatcherism without all the upsides. Being a Leader involves, you know, leadership, and that means taking people where they need to go, not pandering to their daftest instincts.

Which brings us to our present moment. On Friday Greece will vote in a referendum on its future. Greece has never been so close to an messy euro-exit. Vote No and such an exit might give the country a chance of a better economic future, but in a severely more messy manner than could have been possible with a structured Grexit back in 2010. Vote Yes and there is nothing to look forward to other than years more grinding poverty and mass unemployment. Either way it is an utter shambles.

Thursday, 26 February 2015


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

This poem was chosen by my friend Catherine Richardson, whose own blog is She explains why: 

"I don't know if this is my favourite poem, but it makes me think about how something so powerful and fearsome can, in the end, fade to nothing but ruins. How so much time had passed that the narrator hadn't even heard of Ozymandias the 'King of Kings', that he must learn of him from a distant traveller.

In a way it's reassuring to think that even the largest problems in life will one day be long-forgotten, but on the other hand the same can be said for our achievements (both personal and those of humanity). Recently I was talking with my flatmate whose parents lived under the dictatorship in Spain.  We talked about how those memories and the impact it had on their lives are currently fresh in their minds and passed down to the next generations, but one day the impact of Franco will be long-forgotten.

In a way when the topic first came up not long after I arrived here, I felt like the narrator: someone from a 'different land' who didn't know much about what had happened. Even in the present day there is still so much going on in the world now, that has a great impact on many people's lives, like Ozymandias during his reign, but we're unaware of so much of it."

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Journey Of The Magi

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

By T.S.Eliot

I was introduced to this poem about a year ago by a friend up a ski-lift in France (of all the places). It struck me at once.  Maybe it's easier to feel the force when you're freezing amidst unending snow in the dead of winter. Maybe the grumbling but heartfelt tone makes it chime more with my own sense. Even if you're an optimist sitting by a warm beach though the clarity and strength of the images is enough to put anyone right there hearing the old Wise Man, feeling the chill in your bones, and also, in the end, the unconquerable unease that follows the Nativity.

After the birth of Christ the whole world was changed forever, as History records, although it would take many years for it to know it. In a staggeringly individual sense for both me and T.S.Eliot the world changed forever in our own age. My life will be (and his was) forever haunted by the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Christ. Like for the Magus, after a long and hard journey, I can never be complacently at ease again in a world of everyday pleasure that does not have Him at its centre. However strange the world may find that.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

The Dwarves' Song from 'The Hobbit' - Extended Edition

A very talented family (under the name Calamvi de Profundis) have produced a long version of  'The Misty Mountains Cold', the Dwarf Song from The Hobbit movies, but using all Tolkien's original verses from the book.  It's beautiful to listen to and the video is excellent as well. I wish my family were this musical.

The singing scene in the 1st Hobbit Movie was one of the highlights of the whole trilogy, a powerful, evocative moment that pushes Bilbo towards going on the whole quest.  But it was sadly short, with only two verses of Tolkien's original song. This video restores the whole thing in the same style.

Tolkien wrote innumerable poems and songs for the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and it's always great to actually hear any of them sung as songs, rather than just read them on the written page.

In Tolkien's younger days he dreamed about creating a mythology for his beloved England, but one that he would begin and like all true mythologies, would be developed by many hands and minds to follow him, and in turn inspire art of all kinds: songs, stories, paintings, theatre that he had never dreamed of. I hope Tolkien would have been very pleased with this small part of his vision coming to life.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To claim our long-forgotten gold.

Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold; where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by men or elves.

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

The bells were ringing in the dale
And men they looked up with faces pale;
The dragon's ire more fierce than fire
Laid low their towers and houses frail.

The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old...

Thursday, 5 February 2015


A Poem. To be read fast. 
(to the tune of Modern Major-General if you prefer)

There was a merry passenger
a messenger, an errander;
he took a tiny porringer
and oranges for provender;
he took a little grasshopper
and harnessed her to carry him;
he chased a little butterfly
that fluttered by, to marry him.
He made him wings of taffeta
to laugh at her and catch her with;
he made her shoes of beetle-skin
with needles in to latch them with.
They fell to bitter quarrelling,
and sorrowing he fled away;
and long he studied sorcery
in Ossory a many day.
He made a shield and morion
of coral and of ivory;
he made a spear of emerald
and glimmered all in bravery;
a sword he made of malachite
and stalachite, and brandished it,
he went and fought the dragon-fly
called wag-on-high and vanquished it.
He battled with the Dumbledores,
and bumbles all, and honeybees,
and won the golden honeycomb,
and running home on sunny seas,
in ships of leaves and gossamer,
with blossom for a canopy,
he polished up and burnished up
and furbished up his panoply.
He tarried for a little why
in little isles, and plundered them;
and webs of all the attercops
he shattered, cut, and sundered them.
And coming home with honey-comb
and money none - remembered it,
his message and his errand too!
His derring-do had hindered it.

Errantry by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is a wonderful poem that Tolkien wrote in 1930, as described in HoME Vol.6 'The Treason of Isengard'. It was read at a literature club called by its undergraduate members 'The Inklings', the name that in later years C.S.Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien would give to their own private group of friends. It was amended through many versions, and in the end turned into the Poem 'Earendil' that in LOTR Bilbo wrote in Rivendell. 

The poem was written in a unique meter of trisyllabic assonances, three in each four lines, with the end of the 1st line rhyming with the start of the 2nd line, and the end of the 2nd and 4th line rhyming with each other.  Even Tolkien found this so hard he never wrote another poem using it again..

Monday, 2 February 2015

Babi Yar

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be an Israelite
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified, on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be Dreyfus
The Philistine is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars. Beset on every side.
Hounded, spat on, slandered.
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The bar-room rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
"Beat the Yids. Save Russia!"
My mother's being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart,
I know you are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these anti-Semites-without a qualm
have pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!
I seem to be Anne Frank
transparent as a branch in April.
And I'm in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little we can see or smell!
We are denied the leaves, we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much -- tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
"They're coming!"
"No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Come then to me. Quick, give me your lips."
"Are they smashing down the door?"
"No, it's the ice breaking ...
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous, like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning grey.
And I myself am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am each old man here shot dead.
I am every child here shot dead.
Nothing in me shall ever forget!
May the "Internationale," thunder and ring
when the last anti-Semite on earth
is buried forever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
But in their callous rage, all anti-Semites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason I am a true Russian!

By Yevgeny Yevtushenko

For Holocaust Memorial Day 2014

This is a beautiful poem from the Soviet Union and one of my favourite growing up.  In September 29–30, 1941 Nazi Einsatzgruppen and local police murdered over 30,000 Ukrainian Jews in the pit called Babi Yar on the edge of Kiev. 

In August 1961 Yevgeny Yevtushenko was went out to Babi Yar and was shocked that not only was there no monument on the site, but that there were trucks emptying rubbish onto the land tens of thousands of massacre victims were buried beneath. Overcome by emotion he wrote Babi Yar in four or five hours that day.  It was a protest against both the loss of the massacre, the Soviet denial that the Jews had been especial victims of the Nazi horror, and the continuing anti-semitism in the USSR.