Posts Tagged ‘Voices: 1870 -1914’

As Children Starve, Rees-Mogg Finds Growth in Food Banks ‘Uplifting’

September 16, 2017

I’ve had to write this response to Rees-Mogg’s fatuous, complacent and quite frankly, evil comments about the massive increase in food banks, because it made me so furious. On Thursday, Mike over at Vox Political reported that the Camborne Pool and Redruth food bank reported that some children in Cornwall are literally starving. This food bank hands out 10,000 meals a month, but states that they know there are many more children that they aren’t reaching.

At the same time, Rees-Mogg, whom Mike describes as the darling of the Tory party, was on LBC radio saying that he found this ‘uplifting’. Mike responded by describing Rees-Mogg as an ignorant, homicidal fool.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/09/14/food-bank-says-children-are-starving-rees-mogg-finds-that-uplifting/

Yesterday, Mike also put up the news that a food bank in Bath has challenged Mogg to volunteer to work for them, so he can see for himself the hardship that the people coming to these banks are experiencing, and hear their stories. Mike commented that there was fat chance of that, as Mogg hasn’t done a day’s work in his life. But he would be improved by having to work in one, or, better still, having to go to one himself.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/09/15/after-rees-mogg-said-food-banks-that-couldnt-help-the-starving-were-uplifting-hes-challenged-to-work-in-one/

The I yesterday printed Mogg’s comments in full. Basically, the aristo Tory MP for north-east Somerset said that the amount of generosity shown by people in the expansion of food banks was ‘uplifting’, and then went to claim that state aid could not solve the problem of poverty or provide for all the poor.

There’s nothing new in what he said. Bill Clinton made pretty much the same speech when he was president of the US. Clinton stated that there wasn’t a government programme that could solve every eventuality, and so praised private charity and initiatives in doing so. His speech, and admiration for private charity, was part of his ideological commitment to reducing still further whatever was left of the vestigial American welfare state that Reagan and the Republicans hadn’t already destroyed.

Thatcher, and it seems Young Master Mogg, believed that reducing state aid would result in more people giving to charity. And it’s true that studies in the US have shown that Conservative religious people give more to charity than secular liberals. But this misses an important point:

Private charity on its own is insufficient to tackle poverty. State aid is far better at doing so.

I also found a piece in Lobster’s ‘View from the Bridge’ a little while ago, that quoted a biography of Thatcher. Before she died, Thatcher herself supposedly realized that destroying the welfare state hadn’t made people more generous.

Which completely contradicts what Mogg has said above.

As for Mogg’s own attitude, this is the arrogant complacency of a wealthy aristocrat, who has little understanding of the lives of working people, and who fears them and the state will undermine the position of himself and his similarly entitled monied chums at the apex of British society. Young Master Mogg has voted consistently against increasing welfare benefits for them, and voted for increasing the tax burden on working people. But he’s been dead opposed to increasing the tax burden on people earning over £150,000 a year.

It’s the attitude the complacent British upper and middle classes, that looked with bland equanimity on the grinding poverty and squalor of industrial Britain and saw nothing wrong with it. It’s the same attitude that produced this appalling piece of poetry on the benefits of work to children.

‘Tis proper, Sophy, to be sure,
To pity and relieve the poor.
But do not waste your pity here,
Work is not hard to her, my dear,
It makes her healthy, strong and gay,
And is as pleasant as your play.

from Peter Vansittart, Voices 1870-1914, p. 76.

And it’s also contemporary in that we’ve had for the past decade or so Tories and Blairites telling us how wonderful work is for the mental wellbeing of the disabled, even when the empirical evidence says the exact opposite.

Mogg’s a complacent, ignorant pratt, who looks on the growth of child poverty due to the free trade policies of his poverty with complete indifference. Get him out. He has no place in politics, and his views will lead to more starvation and suffering.

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Rembrance Day 2014: Remembering the Dead of Other Nations

November 11, 2014

German War Corpse

Skeleton of a German solider outside his dugout. In History of the World,II ed. Esmond Wright (Feltham: Hamlyn Publishing Ltd 1985) 582.

God heard the embattled nations shout
Gott strafe England and God save the King.
Good God, said God,
I’ve got my work cut out.

J.C. Squire, in Peter Vansittart, Voices: 1870-1914 (New York: Franklin Watts 1985) 255.

As if anyone needed reminding, it’s the 11th November, Armistice Day, 2014, the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War. Last Sunday was Remembrance Day. The media has been carrying stories about the First World War and its outbreak, including the inevitable ceremonies and services for the dead. It’s important to remember in all this that the War killed 14 million people from nations across the world. The official international ceremony at the memorials in Flanders did mark this, it’s true, and the Germans were properly included and their dead remembered. Yet the dead and suffering of other nations can all too easily be forgotten as Britain concentrates on its dead.

Earlier this year I posted pieces on collections of poetry about the War, including a forthcoming graphic novel of stories and accounts from the conflict by some of Britain’s great comics artists and writers, edited by Pat Mills. A number of commenters pointed out that the voices of the other nations that fought in the conflict were absent, and recommended a number of books, that contained works by them. In my article yesterday criticising Gove’s attack on Blackadder Goes Forth, I put up Christian Morgenstern’s poem, The Knee. Morgenstern was a soldier in the German army during the War, who started writing extremely dark, comic poems based on his experiences. These included seeing the head and entrails of a friend hanging from a tree after a shell had exploded near them. Morgenstern was struck by how funny and absurd the sight was, rather than its horror. The Knee is about a disembodied knee roaming alone across the Earth after the man it belonged to was killed in the War. And so

Since then, it roams the whole world, lonely,
It is a knee, now, only;
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
Only a knee, no more.

Here’s another poem about the War, this time by the Austrian poet, Georg Trakl, who committed suicide during the War.

Grodek

At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons and the golden plains,
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the willow dell
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to blackest carrion.
Under golden twigs of the night and stars
The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
A prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit,
The grandsons yet unborn.

From Vansittart, op. cit., 263.

The Austrian painter, Oskar Kokoschka, gave this description of his decision to enlist:

In 1914 I was twenty-eight years old, and thus liable for military service. It seemed to me better to volunteer before I was conscripted. I had no wife or child to await my happy return. I had nothing to lose or to defend. I felt melancholy at the sight of the young bank clerks, the little office workers, whom I saw hurrying with their suitcases to enlist, and yet I did not share the doom-laden mood that prevailed on the streets. The air was thick with rumours that part of the army had gone into the field wearing peacetime uniforms, with inadequate weapons and obsolete equipment. There had been no proper rearmament, and sloppiness was the rule in Austria-Hungary. Men took up arms only to die.

Vansittart, op. cit., 257-8.

So there it is. Across Europe, men and women were sent to their deaths en masse by a political and military establishment that had no notion of what the War would entail, nor any real idea how to fight it.

Dulce et decorum est, indeed!

I can remember reading one poem, I think it was by Siegfried Sassoon, which remarked how strange it was in war to be killing men you’d like and have a drink with, if you met them in the street in peacetime. Let’s remember that, rather than the vainglory of military ambition and pointless bloodshed, and strive to build a better world, where nation can truly speak peace unto nation.

Grove, Blackadder and Comedy and Satire in the Great War

November 10, 2014

The idea that we were brought up on, that Europe is the home of civilization in general – nonsense! It’s a periodical slaughter-pen, with all the vices this implies. I’d as lief live in the Chicago stockyards.

Walter Hines Page, American Ambassador to Great Britain, quoted in Peter Vansittart, Voices: 1870-1914 (New York: Franklin Watts 1985) 258.

The Knee

A knee is roaming, through the world,
No more; it’s just a knee.
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
It is a knee; no more.

There was a man once in a war
Got killed and killed and killed.
Alone, unhurt, remained the knee
Like a saint’s relics, pure.

Since then, it roams the whole world, lonely;
It is a knee, now, only;
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
Only a knee, no more.

Christian Morgenstern, op. cit, 218.

Last week I posted a piece on the article on Mike’s site, Vox Political, reporting that Ben Elton was writing a satire based on Michael Gove’s denunciation of the last series of Blackadder. Way back at the beginning of this year, Gove had attacked Blackadder Goes Forth for what he considered to be its unpatriotic portrayal of the soldiers, who fought in World War 1. He criticised the series’ left-wing bias, and declared that it insulted the memory of those who fought and died in the mud and horror of Flanders by portraying them as cowards. To support his view, he then cited a number of history books presenting the alternative view of the War, which had his approval. Gove’s opinions aren’t simply those of a Tory politician, impatient and intolerant with any view that dares to contradict their own. His views were also based on by a number of historical studies of the Great War, that have attempted to overturn the traditional view that it was a bloody, brutal debacle, in which millions of men were sent to their deaths by out-of-touch and incompetent generals. These historians have argued instead that officers and the men, who served under them, got on well and that accounts of the class friction between them have been exaggerated. They concede that there were severe mistakes made during the first part of the War, but that the conduct of the War improved greatly from 1917 onwards, so that phase of the War was actually well fought with a high standard of leadership. A friend of mine a few years ago attended a military history symposium to mark the War. One of the speakers there presented a paper arguing that General Haig was actually a good general, or at least, not as incompetent as previously believed. My friend remained unconvinced.

Gove Missing Point of Blackadder Comedy

Along with Mike and many other bloggers, I also put up a few pieces on this blog arguing that Gove was wrong. At one level, Gove simply missed the point. Blackadder Goes Forth was a comedy, not a work of serious drama or historical investigation. Comedies entertain by poking fun. Their subjects and targets are the vain, the stupid, the pompous, the greedy, and the inept. The character of Blackadder throughout his four series and incarnations is that of a picaresque anti-hero. He is cynical, devious, and callous and manipulative towards his friends, particularly Baldric, but saved because of his cynical comments on the folly, greed or savagery of his social superiors. The audience likes him, without actually approving of his corruption and lack of morals.

And whatever the reality of the War, it left many across Europe feeling betrayed by a political and economic system that given rise to such colossal, horrific carnage. This bitterness and horror was portrayed in verse by poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It also inspired satirists and comic writers and artists across Europe to add their comments to the horror and absurdity of the situation.

Grimmelshausen’s Comedies of 17th Century German War

Writers have written comedies and comic novels about wars and their combatants since Hans Jakob Christoph von Grimmelshausen wrote his Simplicissimus Deutsch in the 17th century. This narrated the strange adventures of a group of naïve innocents, who managed somehow to blunder their way through the Thirty Years’ War. This was the continent-wide war between Roman Catholics and Protestants during which a fifth of the population of the German Empire died from starvation. Apart from being a classic in its own right, Grimmelshausen’s work has also been important in 20th century literature. It was on Grimmelshausen’s Description of the Life of the Archdeceiver and Vagrant Courasche that Bertolt Brecht based his play, Mother Courage. The cartoons and satires on the War could range from the gentle and mild, to the bitter and savage. Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (1888-1959) cartoon ‘It’s the Little Things that Worry’, with its caption from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner “It is an ancient campaigner and he stoppeth one of three’, below, shows a serviceman, ‘Old Bill’, trying to hunt down the fleas that pester them in the dugouts.

First War Cartoon

Black Comedy of Christian Morgenstern

Others were far more vicious. The German poet, Christian Morgenstern, was also inspired to write poetry by his experiences in the First World War. His poems are black comedies, which express his sense of how absurdly humorous the killing and death around him was. Morgenstern himself described how he and a friend were on patrol through no-man’s land when a shell exploded nearby. His friend was killed instantly, literally torn apart from the blast, and his head and entrails thrown into a nearby tree. Morgenstern said that far from being terrified, or repulsed by the grotesque sight, he actually found it funny. This is truly black humour, far darker than anything Elton showed in Blackadder.

The Wipers Times

Although Blackadder Goes Forth was fiction, written nearly seven decades after the events it describes, it does accurately reflect the type of humour and the views of the servicemen themselves, who did fight in the War. A few years ago Private Eye’s Ian Hislop presented a programme, with an accompanying book, on the Wipers Times. This was a newspaper written by and for the troops. Hislop commented on how savagely funny and dark the Times’s humour was, stating that it was exactly like Blackadder. I’ve got a feeling it was also viewed suspiciously by the authorities, like Ben Elton’s comic creation and his view of the War.

The Good Soldier Svejk

One of the greatest satirical works of the Great War was Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Hasek was a Czech, and the book satirises the absurdity and incompetence of the War and the multinational army of the Habsburg Empire, of which the Czech republic, then Bohemia, was a part. Hasek portrays the German-speaking generals in charge of the Austro-Hungarian forces as brutal and callous. Svejk’s own motives and character are also ambiguous. He’s incompetent, but staunchly loyal to the empire. It’s unclear whether Svejk is feigning stupidity in order to divert attention from his attempts to get out of the War, or whether he is actually that stupid. The Good Soldier Svejk has become a classic of Czech literature, and been translated into a number of languages, including English. It has been filmed several times, including in German, and a few decades ago Radio 4 broadcast a play based on the book.

Post-WW II Satires on War

Satirical treatment of wars and their brutal, terrifying absurdity, did not stop with the First World War, of course. Joseph Heller famously based Catch-22 on the Korean War. The Second World War and its horrors were the subject of a number of satires in its turn. Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett satirised the war films of the period in their show, Beyond the Fringe, which launched their careers as satirists and performers. The War also inspired and influenced the SF writers Kurt Vonnegut and Harry Harrison. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was partly based on his experiences as a POW during the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut and the other captured American soldiers with him only managed to survive the bombing as they had been imprisoned in an abattoir called Slaughterhouse 5. If nothing else, it shows that the Fates have a very dark sense of humour. Harry Harrison has also served in the Second World War. He began his career as a writer through the education courses the American army laid on in order to prepare their squaddies for civilian life. His experiences of the army and war clearly influence his book, Bill the Galactic Hero. This tells the story of a recruit to the human forces waging a galaxy-wide war against a race of alien lizards. Far from being the murderous savages of propaganda, the aliens are actually highly cultured and civilised. It is the humans, who are the aggressors. His view of the absurdity of war is shown in incidents, such as one in which Bill has an arm blown off during a space battle. He receives a replacement, which to his horror is that of his Black best friend. Furthermore, it’s another left arm, like his remaining limb, as there’s a shortage of right arms. The book also contains Harrison’s comment on the violence and belligerence in human nature. When asked by an alien opponent why humans are always fighting war, Bill replies ‘I think we just enjoy it’. Bill is also given advice on surviving as a soldier by Cain, the first murderer, here presented as the first soldier.

George Grosz

Some of the most viciously satirical cartoons depicting post-War life were those of George Grosz in Germany. Grosz had enlisted in the infantry when war broke out, but became bitterly disillusioned with the conflict and its carnage. He was hospitalised, and managed to hang on to his sanity by pouring out his rage and hatred into his drawings. He was determined to hit back at the ruling order responsible for the horror, travelling to the USSR after the War. He returned to Germany even more cynical and disgusted in 1922. His cartoons, which appeared in the brief satirical magazines, Die Pleite and Der Blutige Ernst (The Bloody Earnest) depicted a corrupt and decadent society, in which rich profiteers enjoyed vast luxury on the backs of an underclass, eking out a living in slums and flophouses. The cartoon below, ‘Des Volkes Dank ist Euch gewiss’ (The People’s Gratitude is certainly yours’ shows the rich passing a beggar and a maimed ex-serviceman, forced onto the streets.

Grosz Cartoon

War Comics Spoof and Maggie’s Cuts to the Armed Forces

In the cuts that followed the Falklands and Gulf Wars, thousands of soldiers were laid off. Many of these ex-servicemen, particularly those traumatised by their experiences of conflict, ended up homeless and on the streets. Spitting Image satirised this callous discarding of courageous soldiers, who had risked their lives for their country in a spoof comic strip in their send-up of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography, Thatcha: The Real Maggie Memoirs. Drawn in the style of the British war comics of the 1970s, like Battle, the strip told the story of a British soldier coming back from the Falklands. Made redundant from the army, the former squaddie takes out his rage and frustration by gunning a crowd of innocent people waiting on a bus stop.

How Long till Scenes from Grosz in Cameron’s Britain?

The Tories have introduced a series of cuts in military expenditure, laying off thousands of professional soldiers while attempting fill the ranks with recruits from the Territorials. Despite the high profile and work of charities caring for ex-servicemen, such as Help for Heroes and the Invictus games this summer, I wonder how long it will be before we see scenes like the above drawing by Grosz in Britain, as the vicious and decadent British upper class profit from the misery and horror caused by the war in Iraq.