Friday, 16 October 2020

SETTLED STATUS: WINDRUSH ON STEROIDS





Having read, and now listened, to your dreadful stories of cruelty and incompetence in trying to achieve 'settled status' I cannot but be aware that my situation is not like that of settled citizens of the EU such as yourselves. I was a refugee from Hungary in 1956 and have been a UK citizen since 1964. Becoming a British citizen however did not mean becoming English. I have long recognised the fact that it was easier to be officially British than to be unofficially English.  Having worked as an English language writer and translator from Hungarian for about forty years I now think it is even possible to become part of English literature without ever being quite English. Could I become Hungarian and start again after 64 years? I really don’t think so. That’s two close communities dispensed with.


But there is a third community of which I am historically, culturally, and psychologically part, and that is Europe. We are all part of that community, however we understand it. Europe is a continent with a history of conflict between nations that were, at more or less the same time, out in the world dividing it up among themselves.  That history has divided us in the past but has, since the Second World War, driven us together, till now, in political and economic terms. Those terms have been and continue to be under strain. And the world around us keeps changing. Nothing is stable.

The EU has offered us peace for the most part if only because we have a common interest in keeping the peace. It has also tried very hard to operate as a power in the world where other major powers are growing ever more powerful.

One of the reasons I voted against Brexit was because I felt Europe was stronger and less vulnerable as a single body rather than as a set of disparate nations. Now, even more,I fear the various schisms that are developing. I suspect the UK itself is falling apart partly, at least, because of terrible nostalgias about its imperial and military past. There are people here who are so much in love with a vanished past that they will do anything to preserve its attitudes at the cost of present unities. They depend on making enemies out of friends.

I am not entirely out of sympathy with them. There are many values bound up in language and nationhood and I fully understand that it is very painful to lose them. But modern Britain increasingly depends on those who are not intrinsically part of it. People like you and I in fact. More you than I at my age. I am a minor cultural figure with various prizes for writing and translation but I am of negligible economic or social use. You are not.  You – and all those moving round Europe – are literally the moving parts of the engine.

Since I have lived here for sixty-four years I want to think a little about what the word 'here' has meant in that time and what it means now. It is a mere sketch and very simplified but it may suggest some kind of context as I see it.

I don’t know how long you have felt unwelcome in this country but I suspect Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ campaign of 2012 will have aroused and spread and intensified that hostility. Officially, that hostility was directed at illegal immigrants, but how do you tell who is or is not illegal in the street, in the shop or at work? By their skin colour? By their accent? The way they move?

And if the nation is served with a long diet of anti-EU suspicion and hatred, how is it likely to react to those who are here because of the EU? Don’t they take British jobs and British housing? Don’t they disturb our British way of doing things?

Once you get to that point, of course, the difference between legal and illegal presence in the country has significantly narrowed. People are no longer people, many of them people doing valuable jobs. They become an alien statistic.

Personally, I have never felt the latent hostility of my host country, a country that has been generous in the past, as many individuals still are, but, as the son of a mother who survived two concentration camps, I am aware that hostility is latent in people everywhere in the world and can be roused for any political purpose. 

That is especially the case in a country that was once proud of its identity and status but is uncertain about it now.  Modern Britain is a complex country with many strands it does not itself understand. A modern country is not a family affair. It is a state that is inextricably part of the world. But it is comprised of families, yours and mine and everybody else’s. My son has just married a French citizen resident for several years in the UK and they now have a bilingual son. What is to be their fate? What is to be ours?

The Brexit process has been a short-sighted mess and the confusion and cruelty of the special status process is further proof of that.. I suspect the UK is slowly falling apart. The country – England particularly - is on edge and its nervousness has made it cruel. Cruel to you. It has a government whose fortunes have depended entirely on pushing Brexit and whose leader does not mind reneging on freshly written contracts.

I have not said anything about those whose families originally came from outside Europe, whose problems are various and a direct product of British imperial history. Their positions are part of the same complex problem as yours and mine, but this occasion is not about them

Hungary, the country of my birth is in an even worse condition. It is for me a source of despair. That does not help. Very little does at the moment. Covid least of all.

Europe is an idea based on centuries of experience. Europe too is in trouble. Now is the time to hold together. My warm best wishes and hopes to you all.


Friday, 17 July 2020

Femme Fatale by Tali Cohen Shabtai



I enjoy being this kind
Of Femme Fatale

To be pleased over a poem
And not over a man

On my way
I do not leave
Any traces
Of my virginal womb
Behind

They wonder
If I behave
The way I live
My poetry
Much more
"Maiko"

I show them things that
You'd only show to
Enuchs

They want
To learn Hebrew
And taste
My poetry
First

I decided to impose
Their words upon
My symbols

They're always
Gone
When I do so.

*


Tali Cohen Shabtai is an Israeli poet. Born in Jerusalem, she began writing poetry at the age of six. At the age of fifteen her poems appeared in Moznayim, a prestigious Israeli magazine. She has written three books of of poetry since then, the most recent of them being Nine Years Away From You (2018). She spent some years in Oslo and the USA and her poems are noted for expressing spiritual and physical exile. Her work has been translated into many languages.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

FIVE BAROQUE PLAGUE SONNETS




     


FIVE  BAROQUE  
PLAGUE  SONNETS

1 Smallpox

Science for the curious, is what it says
on the slick caption. The curious are pressed
tightly into a book, still hoping to be blessed.
Each bears a coffin at which someone prays.

Crosses, coffins and cowls determine them
according to the medieval scheme
of superstition, death and troubling dream.
It’s half cosmology, half stratagem.

Do smell them, Highness, as they struggle on.
The plague exhausts them. Science moves off stage,
just one pale rider left and one bare field

to conjure with. And soon they are all gone.
There are no options here except to yield
or else keep hoping someone turns the page.



2 Black Death

The man with broad-brimmed hat and bird-mask waits
a moment before entering. His scent
wafts by you, Highness, as presentiment
of what must follow. Watch how he operates

in his full gown. Observe how he inspects
the body, turning it here and there at distance
with his cane, meeting no resistance.
Note how he prods it. He’s the bird that pecks

at corruption. He sees the patient’s hands
are black with the usual buboes. This is all
by the script. It’s the very reason for his call.
The plague is spreading. It makes strict demands.

We watch familiar birds hovering in the air.
They will not ring the bell. Nor are we there.



3 Cholera

Everything begins somewhere. Everything is ‘here’.
Here is where the enemy starts his long
arduous campaign, launching the first spear.
He has no home, has no desire to belong

to just one place and so he moves about.
Two skeletons clench by a fetid pool,
and soon a table with a glass of stout
and cloudy water carry one to stool

another to feast. You watch a man collapse
at one point on the map, one street, and soon
everyone’s falling. Death runs from open taps

and drops from the singer’s mouth. There are few
remaining, Highness. We watch the sun at noon
rise ever higher, burning off late dew.



4 Spanish Flu

The khaki flu. The extra years of war
that is no war. From country seats to huts,
from shacks to palaces. You can’t keep score
of numbers. State by state the country shuts

its eyes and mouth and soon begins to drown.
Its skin turns blue and within hours it’s dead.
The rest wear masks and camphor. The whole town
is dream terrain, a dull street-plan of dread.

The cull is on, Your Highness.. World is thinning.
Let’s call it nature or divine constraint.
It is the way we’ve lived since the beginning.
Cover the doors in blood or chalk or paint.

That is the age-old troubled human scene.
It’s time for better drugs and quarantine.



5 Covid-19

Now here we are in quarantine, our ears
sharpened to the footsteps stalking us.
We watch the passing of the empty bus
as one more phantom carrier appears

and swerves around us grinning as he goes.
Elsewhere the poor are jammed into their rooms
to gaze from blocks that reek too much of tombs
intended for them, while the virus throws

its net across the whole estate like smoke.
Observe, Highness, how some of them remain
still poorer, and while you and I should live,

survival will be harder to forgive,
though later it might serve for a black joke,
that you, Highness, might very well explain.







Saturday, 8 February 2020

NEW BORNS














New Borns
‘Who would bring a child into this world?’

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Alan,
For apples and arbutus, for apemen and alphabets,
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Barbara,
For boats, bats, bells, barnacles.
Beermugs and beauty.
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would said, Catherine,
For camels and cobras, cold and curmudgeons
I would enter the world

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said David,
For doughnuts and dreadlocks, damsons and dogs,
Desks and deliciousness
I would enter the world

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said, Ellen,
For ears and elephants, eggs, earth and envelopes
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Fingal.
For fruit, for featherbeds, fossils and frankincense,
Freedom and formaldehyde
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Geraldine,
For gooseberries, geckos, goldfinches, gorgonzola
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Helen,
For hoarfrost and hazelnut, hairdos and hedgehogs,
Hotdogs and honeycombs
I would enter the world.


What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Ian
For inkblots and India, ice-cream and igloos
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Jennifer
For jellybeans, January, jumbucks and jeopardy,
Joysticks and Jericho
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Kieran
For Kettering, kilowatts, kecks and Kilimanjaro
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Lukas,
For leopards, lollipops. limericks, linseed,
Letters and longing
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Marlie
For mysteries, margarine, mothers and mistletoe
I would enter the world

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Natalie,
For nuggets and nougat, for night and for necklaces,
Nostrils and nostrums
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Ossie
For oranges, oblongs, offside and orang-utans
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Pamela
For pepper-pots, popinjays, pickle and palaces,
Penguins and porridge
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Quinn,
For quadrilaterals, quails and quaint quackery
I would enter the worlds.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Richard
For rodents and rattlesnakes, roses and robots,
Reindeer and relevance
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Stephanie
For Saturdays, sausages, seagulls, serendipity,
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Tom,
For tenterhooks, tambourines, tablespoons, tangerines,
Toast and topography
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Ursula,
For umbrellas and undergrounds, urns and Uruguay
I would enter the world

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Vivienne,
For verdicts, variety, velvet and viscousness
violets and vortices
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said William
For woods, winds, waves, woodchucks
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would said, Xavier
For xylophones, xylographs, xiphoids and Ximenes
x-rays and xenocrysts
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Yolanda
For yearlings and yesterday, yarrow and you
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Zoe,
For zeniths and zithers, zeal and zoology,
Zebras and zips
I would enter the world

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Al,
Bonnie, Cal, Dot, Ed, Fee, Gareth, Hattie, Imogen
Joe, Kit, Lol, Mo, Ned, Orville, Pip, Queenie
Rosemarie, Sid, Tess, Uli, Vi, Wendy,
Xi, Yann and Zero.