Thoughts on Brexit

Shortest version

Sir Richard Mottram’s famous words during the ‘bury bad news’ scandal have been going round and round and round my head:

“We’re all fucked. I’m fucked. You’re fucked. The whole department’s fucked. It’s the biggest cock up ever and we’re all completely fucked.”

Shorter version

This for the people who say protesting against the result is people complaining about democracy and they shd stfu. I understand you don’t get it, there’s lots not to get, but please, some sympathetic understanding would be much appreciated at this time!

  • This was a referendum that never needed to happen, a result of the hubris of a Prime Minister trying to solve a historical difficulty in his Tory Party. And yes plenty of people pointed this out before the referendum.
  • The Leave campaign contained not a single statement of post-brexit policy. All the statements on which it did campaign – £350 million per week, NHS, Immigration, Turkey, Immigration Immigration Immigration – were either lies or never intended to be delivered, only to inflame.
  • Since we have voted to Leave the country has plunged into chaos but the outcome of the vote is still unknown. No one has a plan. All options seem to be on the table. This means that protest is a totally valid attempt to influence the outcome of this political turmoil. However…
  • The wounds that have been opened by the campaign, particularly the belief that immigration will not just cease but go into reverse, mean that whatever the plan, a very large section of the population will feel utterly let down. In fact, it seems likely, paradoxically, that one way or another nearly EVERYONE will feel let down. Democracy in action. Sure.
  • Let’s look at the likeliest plan: we become a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), paying higher fees than we paid to the EU, but with very few of the funding benefits. We would also have to allow free movement of people. Oh but no EU veto, against Turkey, say, if that bothers you. So it’s like being in the EU, but a lot worse, and without any power.
  • So yes, this is all why it’s worth protesting. It’s not anti-democratic. It’s a protest against an appalling campaign that should never have happened. It’s a defence of democracy. It’s a show of support for immigrants and foreign people living in the UK. It’s an attempt through popular protest to get us into the least bad position, which, no matter what that turns out to be, will have been and continue to be a lot worse than the position we were in, with serious ramifications across all of society.

Longest, Rambling, Despairing, Confused Version:

This is a hastily written attempt to try and process what’s happened over the last few days and explain what my current state of mind is and why.

It’s been slightly weird watching everything unfold. Unfold’s too neat. A vast undermining, slow collapse. Like Cameron and the political and media classes have been playing jenga and this was the piece that finally saw the whole shitshow come crashing down. Unexpectedly in Australia on business, I managed to scramble an emergency proxy vote with the help of my brother (thanks Jack) and a very efficient Lambeth Council (highest proportion of remain votes in the country i think UPDATE apart from Gibraltar). I think most of the experience has been fairly similar to people I know in the UK – watching the cascade of twitter with horrified, hypnotised fascination, too appalled to look away or take time out to breathe or find meditative space. What has been different is the fact that I’ve been experiencing it in solitude. Rhythms slightly out of whack with the UK news cycle, and frozen in daylight horror as the results themselves came out on Thursday night (my Friday). No one here gets it, understandably. They all think we’re soft in the head, and are very surprised by the result. (‘Aren’t you?’ ‘No!’). People ask me how I feel about it and I answer angrily, shaking, ‘I’m really fucking upset actually’ and they look at me like I’m overdoing it, or am perhaps taking it a bit too hard. Overheard conversations by non UK people are even harder to take. Not that there’s anything wrong with that obviously – they’re talking about the news in another country – but there’s a grind of correction, nuance and argument in my head, which only emphasises the specific elements of national sickness that have led us here.

It’s inexplicable to everyone else. It’s horribly believable to anyone with an awareness of Britain in recent… what… months? years? decades? All of it really.

How I feel hasn’t changed much since that Friday – very sad, upset, sick, ashamed, and disgusted.

That all of the things that have taken place – all of them – were predicted beforehand, is just barbed wire to those emotions. And of course they were predicted in places I go to – my particular bubble on social media, friends, colleagues – but not, as far as I could tell to the extent that I still consume conventional media, on TV or in the newspapers particularly. After all this is part of the reason why I no longer read newspapers or watch TV news. Both generally come across as superficial to the point of negligence, if not downright mendacious. But nevertheless the available expert opinion of people who worked in sectors that would be affected (finance, education, telecoms, constitutional law, the civil service) all agreed that a vote to leave the EU would represent a national catastrophe. The very worst people were running the Leave campaign. Poisonous chancers who persistently showed they had NO PLAN. None. This still staggers me. There was very evidently no post-brexit policy – that could be seen even or especially in the main media outlets. There really is no excuse for anyone with even half their wits and a modicum of interest in politics not to have seen this coming.

But ok, yes, to process it. This does happen, despite the prolonged, appalled mental paralysis. Like a waking nightmare where you can’t move but awful things are happening around you. Obviously there have been a shit load of articles to read and things to watch – so much of everything everwhere, as one person put it – but a handful of things I’ve read have resulted in my current state of mind.

The first, importantly, and despite its unhelpful headline, is this:

Why the North of England Will Regret Voting for Brexit

It’s important because the ‘fucking racist proles’/’stupid, uneducated idiots’ line and its rose-tinted John Harris reverse is completely unhelpful, and is also the fissure that’s attempting to be bridged by the ‘I understand your concerns’ line that so many pols on the left and right so feebly tread.

Looking at the most Eurosceptic areas in the North as an example, Hartlepool lost £28.9m by 2015 as a result of public spending cuts; Blackpool has seen £400m worth of cuts since 2011; North East Lincolnshire needs to save a total of £76m by 2017.

In these towns, like my own hometown of Knowsley in the North West, the high streets are dead, the libraries are shut, Sure Start centres don’t exist anymore, NHS waiting times are long, jobs are scarce, wages are low and benefits have been cut. All the while, the cheap migrant labour coming in to fill low-paid precarious positions expanding under the recession becomes far more obvious. These areas aren’t just in crisis; they’re also, unlike their metropolitan neighbours, totally unused to high levels of historical migration and less equipped to culturally absorb recent arrivals.

This is the late-game position of the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron continuum. No wonder those communities are sick of EU neoliberalism no matter how it manifests itself. Neoliberalism – a saturation of wealth for the wealthy, a favouring of the odds to the already favoured, with the trickledown tap shut off to not even a parched drip – has fucked them. Unfortunately, as they pointed over at Crooked Timber:

The context of the referendum meant that it was always going to be a choice of evils: between the racism and bigotry that animated so much of the Leave campaign, and the neoliberalism of both the Cameron government and the EU. The option of a social democratic, or even soft neoliberal, EU was not on the ballot.

And it’s hard to see how it could have been. After all it’s not just not an option on the ballot. Oh and btw, add ultraneoliberalism to racism and bigotry there.

This article was interesting:

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

The whole piece does ignore the fact that the referendum never needed to be held in the first place, and in fact there are different types and structures of democracy designed to allow the execution of policy without having to hold a referendum for every decision. However, it did briefly have me flirting with the heresy of accelerationism.

Put it this way, a victory for Remain feels like it would have been only a postponement, a repression of the things we’ve seen unleashed with such venom since Leave won. Farage’s pre-election comment that if the vote went to Remain 48-52 it wouldn’t be the end of matters didn’t feel like it just signified Farage’s stance but also significant sections of the media and English population. It doesn’t feel like it would even have had its intended result of a put-up and shut-up for the Tory party, let alone for a disaffected, disenfranchised and media-goaded set of people. A catastrophic collapse might bring about a point confrontation sooner where we are required to re-assess how we have distributed wealth in this country over the last three and a bit decades, rather than perpetuating it with ever worse and more horrible results.

But of course that’s not at all how it works. Things are likely to get a lot worse for the already badly off and unhappy sections of society. This is an acceleration only to a point where things are likely to get very much more shit much faster without any compensating reverse in the political trends of the last thirty years.

Marxist praxis if not theory, and accelerationism by extension, has been characterised as being millenarian at base – if the right circumstances are in place the process of history will ensure a completed state of ahistory. There is a bottom to raw capitalist or neoliberal mode beyond which we cannot go, beyond which, in fact, things start to redistribute.

But our current state feels better characterised by Shakespeare and King Lear. There is no bottom to it, just madness, loss and slaughter. Just before I came out I was reading Empson on the English notion of the ‘dog’, a reassuring concept, outside of religion, not part of the Platonic chain of being, imputing a certain amount of human affection to the lowest a human could go.

Whereas Shakespeare felt that “there is no worst”, and the corresponding depths to him were fearful degrees of lunacy; “fool” was his earth touching word, not “dog”.

This prompted the thought that by some Boris Johnson is seen as a ‘dog’, cheerful, bit dodgy, bit of a ‘ledge’, bit of #bantz (and god help us all, some of the recent epileptic spasms of racism do seem to be in places partly, grotesquely characterised by #bantz). But no, Johnson is the fool, he is representative of folly, and folly, as Blake pointed out, is the cloke of knavery, and presiding absently over this chaos is the utter knavery and incompetence of our political establishment. So yes, Boris as fool in Lear. And there for propriety’s sake the analogy must stop.

So, no, there is no relief in the idea of accelerationism – even if there is a bottom, it’s not a place worth reaching under any circumstances.

Tom Ewing’s bitterly enjoyable A-Z tumblr post, Obsolete Units Surrounded by Hail (!) was particularly handy codifying the strands of brexiteers:

There are the blue rinsers — Tory heartland Eurosceptics, mostly now quite old, motivated by dreams of British exceptionalism and an ancient tribal cause. There are left-behind Labour — mainly in the north of England, Midlands,and Wales, motivated by their belief that immigration has inflamed the pressures of austerity. There is the Far Right, racists who hated immigration in the first place. Those are the biggest groups. Then there are also the leftists voting for “Lexit” (motivated by dislike of the EU’s implementation of neoliberalism), the Gove-ite ultra-neoliberals (motivated by dislike of the EU’s non-implementation of neoliberalism), and last and frankly also least the tiny rump of original UKIP, genuine sovereignty wonks like Alan Sked.

Useful, because as can’t be said enough these groups do not share anything beyond “Out”. And, again, can’t be said enough: politicians used and provoked the inflamations of the old Labour heartlands for their own purposes. As one tweet exchange had it: ‘If no credible plan emerges soon, Brexit voters may wonder if they have voted merely for the ambition and hollow vanity of their leaders.’ Response: ‘But that’s exactly what they voted for’.

Right now, it seems likely the Leave ringleaders, and indeed everyone else scrambling for a plan, are going to try and find a way to remain as much in Europe as possible. Let’s say we become a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), paying higher fees than we paid to the EU, but with very few of the funding benefits. We would also have to allow free movement of people. Oh but no EU veto, against Turkey, say, if that bothers you. So it’s like being in the EU, but a lot worse, and without any power. Probably the best of all the bad outcomes.

But of course this is an outcome that divides them against many people whose support they courted.

And, so, the racist whiplash. Bad, horrible now, but when it becomes apparent that immigration control is not and was never on the cards for any sort of economically interested politician, likely to become far worse.

This is racism, but where ‘racism’ rightly includes a wide spectrum of prejudice against races, colours, countries and creeds, this racism needs to be distinguished by the social thuggery and violence, both incoherent and programmatic, which exists sub-politically, but has been tacitly, even explicitly encouraged by vocal parts of the media and political establishment, and thus resembles the early stages of Western European fascism. The most disgusting thing listening to Cameron’s call for calm the other day was the recent memory of the most careless, casual statement of his careless, casual tenure, where he referred to a ‘swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean’. A statement from our head of government that legitimised years of Express and Daily Mail front page rhetoric.

Tom Ewing’s horribly right to highlight the future of the Calais internment camp – all I find I get in my head are images that resemble Larkhill resettlement camp in V for Vendetta. Even in terms of the people supposed to protect the interned, let alone those who wish to do them harm, our track record of private security firms running immigration holding centres – most notoriously at Yarl’s Wood – is characterised by sexual violence, suicide, hunger strikes, and reports of children being kept in ‘extremely distressing conditions’.

The use of immigration as a target for that pent-up generational economic disenfranchisement has resulted in and legitimised racism. A thwarted, worse-off section of society, with immigration as its catnip, and the apparent expectation in some places of repatriation of foreigners, can hardly be expected to respond positively to an outcome that makes things worse without any perceived benefit.

A handful of other things (because there is just too much of everything):

Hack Attack

Yes, Nick Cohen, but his piece on politics-as-journalism was otm:

Johnson and Gove carried with them a second feature of unscrupulous journalism: the contempt for practical questions. Never has a revolution in Britain’s position in the world been advocated with such carelessness. The Leave campaign has no plan. And that is not just because there was a shamefully under-explored division between the bulk of Brexit voters who wanted the strong welfare state and solid communities of their youth and the leaders of the campaign who wanted Britain to become an offshore tax haven. Vote Leave did not know how to resolve difficulties with Scotland, Ireland, the refugee camp at Calais, and a thousand other problems, and did not want to know either.


Ah yes, the Irish question. This set of tweets cannot be improved on, though I would say that people did bring it up before the referendum, but it went the way of other expressions of ‘expertise’:

Shocko @shockproofbeats

1. My thoughts as a Northern Irish person on how NO LEAVERS REALISED that Brexit will likely precipitate utter carnage in NI and, thusly, UK

2. I’m angry that the NI point is never, ever discussed. Despite the fact we are (a) the only people who have a land border w EU…

3. (b) simultaneously the only part of UK for which a border would prove uniquely, and dramatically problematic…

4. (c) since we overwhelmingly voted for Remain because of the previous two reasons. So there’s that. But it gets worse. It gets much worse.

5. The fact is that either they put a militarised border between North and South or all their talk of Fortress Britain is nonsense.

6. A fully open border EXISTS between the UK and the EU; one such example is my dad’s back fence; a 15 second walk from ROI and thus the EU.

7. You’re French. You travel freely via EU to Dublin. Get bus to Lifford (3 hrs). Walk for 90 seconds to Strabane. Ta-da! You are now in UK

8. No border checks, no machine guns, no “papers please”. Just open. This is no longer acceptable to the mandate we have just been handed.

9. A border is bad for practical reasons; people like my sister live in Donegal and work in Derry, and thousands more vice versa…

10. MUCH MORE IMPORTANT are the psychological effects. Lot of Good Friday Agreement predicated on free movement between north and south.

11. This and cross-border bodies were just enough to comfort nationalists but not close enough to a united Ireland to antagonise unionists.

12. Actually, an awful lot of the framework of the GFA was underpinned by existing EU laws anyway, so it may now be entirely undone.

13. But more importantly, making people undergo any form of border checkpoint between the two countries will not just be an arse ache..

14. … will massively inhibit the sense of security half of NI population takes from it and ROI being part of a wider European state. HUGE.

15. I want to stress that this not a new concept for us. I’m 30, so I remember checkpoints as a kid. I remember machine guns and dogs.

16. My dad making sure we weren’t nervous while he was being asked patronising questions by the armed men inspecting his driving license…

17. ..and checking under our car forexplosives. This used to be EVERY FUCKING DAY. 18. This won’t be some new, weird thing – this will be a direct, unbidden return to something we worked very, very hard to get away from.

19. Something that we were promised was over. That we finally thought we HAD gotten away from.

20. A notion of peace that thousands of very stubborn and dangerous people finally struck a peace for. Put down arms and moved on from.

21. A long process of peace, to which we must presume thousands of people now alive in NI and mainland UK, literally owe their lives.

22. And now we see violence could sleepwalk back in as a SIDE EFFECT of Brexit. One that no one ever mentioned in any debate I watched.

23. The Troubles, back as A SIDE EFFECT of a tussle for the leadership of the Conservatives, a party NI citizens don’t even fucking vote for.

24. REMEMBER: Irish-Identifying NI citizens (I don’t like saying ‘Catholics’) risk now being physically cut off from Eire. That is DRAMATIC.

25. Vast majority are not hardened, violent. Same was true in 60s-80s. It takes an angry minority, w a “legitimate” grievance to recruit.

26. The recklessness of not appreciating this powder keg AS EVEN A FUCKING TALKING POINT IN THE DEBATES disgusts me.

27. I identify as Irish (and have Irish passport) but am happy for NI to remain part of UK if majority say so; and we have peace, stability.

28. Same is true of LARGE percentage of Irish-Identifying NI people. But free travel to Eire is part of that peace, part of that stability.

29. As is the HUGE amount of cash the EU gave us in peace dividends. (€3.5bn from EU in last round of budgeting).

30. But at least English people (and Welsh too – wtf lads???) can strike a blow against bendy bananas.



A Very Big House in the Country

One almost minor detail is the complete absence of leadership in the immediate aftermath of the results coming in. This absence allowed Nigel Farage to take centre stage. A man who has never won an election being a figurehead the biggest upheaval in Europe since the fall of the USSR. It was a tweet by @yorksranter than pointed out that the really new thing about Cameron’s government was the way the State just stopped, seemed to cease entirely, at weekends. This is country house politics. Bojo off to play cricket and do his Telegraph column, Osborne off to dive into a mountain of coke, Cameron to do whatever he did that had him looking so fucking awful in the house on Monday. Brexit chaos as Wodehouse farce doesn’t seem that inaccurate tbh. Gove still utterly absent. Johnson only available for paid engagements. Farage making a massive tit of himself at the European Parliament.


A cheap pound is already seeing Russian and Chinese money circling property in the capital. The palm-greasing and spivvery of the government is about to get a lot lot worse. Money from anywhere we can get it. Expect to see some seriously unwholesome relationships and very nasty deals formed in an attempt to scramble cash. Probably a fuckload of deregulation as well. And not just in the area of no longer binding EU legislation.


Labour are totally fucked as far as I can tell. Corbyn cannot lead, something about which I have mixed feelings – apparently decent man, way too quiet during the referendum – but the Blairite policy is substantially responsible for the situation we’re in. Peter Mandelson’s comment, drenched in infamy, that the Labour heartlands could be depended on to vote Labour no matter what, “because they’ve got nowhere else to go”, has turned out to result in a situation where in fact Labour have nowhere else to go. Their best hope is a substantial cross-party redrawing of the political map. But fragmentation now seems inevitable, with the disappearance of a viable opposition (not particularly viable for a while tbh, with the narrow backbench Tory victory margin doing more for Corbyn than Corbyn).


My biggest fear in some ways is that the new state of being, whatever that turns out to be, becomes normalised by the churn of the news cycle. We get on with being poorer, more divided – rent apart in fact – smaller, more racist and uglier, bitterer, less welcoming to foreigners, with fewer opportunities for those growing up, less international expertise, weaker educational establishments, with a shamed and shamefully incompetent political establishment. That, regardless of where we go from here, will be the legacy of a referendum that should never have been held.

In the next couple of days it’ll be time to come back to the UK. I’ll be pleased to be back. I’ll be protesting on Saturday, whichever way I can. But I’ll also be coming home with intense sadness, anger, and shame, and home should never feel like that.

Death is a very little thing

Enough life and money has been spent on this sterile quest. The pole has already been discovered. What is the use of another expedition?

Winston Churchill, then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, 23rd January, 1914

Dear Mr Winston Churchill,

Do please look favourably … I am trying to do good and serious work … Death is a very little thing, and Knowledge very great … And really Regent Street holds out more dangers on a busy day, than the 5 million square miles that constitute the Antarctic continent.

Ernest Shackleton, 27th February, 1914

I went to Enduring Eye: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley yesterday, and found it very moving.

Spectral figures, in caps and sealskins, with their pipes and tins of food and books and roll necks, standing in icy desolation, at the centre of a long night, trapped in cabins and makeshift huts.

Walking through Frank Hurley’s remarkable photographs makes a hard challenge to Shackleton’s statement that Death is a very little thing. The photographs in the exhibition seem to represent a group of men and dogs in Death’s encroaching hinterland, vast and implacable to human endeavour. One of the most striking images, of the Endurance trapped in the ice floe, is entitled by Hurley The Long, Long Night, taken in the middle of that first fearful June, when they never saw the sun, and slept and ate in their winter cabins. The black and white photography makes it look like a ghost ship, the negative of the image even more so, but in fact it bulwarked life. If Death was a very little thing, it was because they made it so over those two long years, and it is hard to conjecture a person for whom It was not little who you can imagine surviving that long Antarctic isolation.

When they were  rescued finally, after an astonishing 750 mile trip by Shackleton and three others to get help, there is a sort of glory in it. It is very hard to see how the men Shackleton left behind could maintain hope against despair, and given the delays attending the rescue mission itself as it fought its way to the marooned men on the uninhabited Elephant Island, it’s hard to believe that there weren’t times when it must have seemed as if they must die there, among the penguins they burned for fuel and food.

They did return, but it was to the worst of worlds. Although war had been declared as they sailed down the Thames two year before, the full implication of that declaration was not a thing they could know. The light of hope, of defying odds, that must have kept them alive, and which characterises their endurance, is something that goes out with the slaughter in northern France and Belgium. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is expressive of the individual, or small collection of individuals, facing Death by themselves – David against Goliath. The War – The Great War – the most total experience of self-engineered death humankind had known – harvested individuals so comprehensively it destroyed a generation.

I have done it … not a life lost and we have been through Hell.

Shackleton to his wife, 3rd September 1916

We … are going home to take part in this awful war.

Alexander Macklin

Hurley became a war photographer and his pictures show a world  where Death is no longer Tennysonian, or Romantic, but had become industrialised, a harbinger of the modern world, delivered with a form of cost-benefit strategically applied, a vast and grotesque tactics of triage: who should we allow to die to achieve our purpose.

As Walter Benjamin said in his essay, The Storyteller, on Николай Лесков (Nikolai Leskov – yes I’m practicing my cyrillic, no I didn’t get it right first time), in a quote I’ve continually returned to:

Beginning with the First World War, a process became apparent which continues to this day. Wasn’t it noticeable at the end of the war that men who returned from the battlefield had grown silent – not richer but poorer in communicable experience? What poured out in the flood of war books ten years later was anything but experience that can be shared orally. And there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been more thoroughly belied than strategic experience was belied by tactical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on horse-drawn streetcars now stood under the open sky in a landscape where nothing remained unchanged but the clouds and, beneath those clouds, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.

Chiefly I return to this quote because of its emphasis of the replacement of experience as authority – my contention being that an understanding of statistics and probability filled that space, a largely welcome occurrence, though not without significant collateral negative effects.

Here I quote it because of the line about the generation that returned, and its relation to the experience of the men on Shackleton’s expedition. There are two aspects to that relation. The first is the nature of what they returned to: while they were in Hell, the world they existed outside of, or had been separated from, became transformed by a colossal and unprecedented rupture. Like science-fiction stories where explorers return to Earth after devastating epochs have passed, they exist in an unknowing silence. The second aspect to the relation lies in the striking simile with which Benjamin finishes, the distant echo of the landscapes which they endured, as if the photographs I saw yesterday were the documentation of some dark and uninterpretable prophesy.


as Hegel had it, and as Brecht had up on the wall of his Danish retreat (der Dänische Zufluchsstäte) and later in his New York home. it’s a pleasingly astringent thing to say to yourself whenever you find your thoughts becoming too fanciful or high-flown.

i’ve been really enjoying the poems in the Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems, edited and with a really good introduction by Michael Hofmann, and have been coming back to the Brecht poems in particular. This one’s been stuck in my head for the last couple of days:
(although I don’t speak a word of german i do like pretending i can pronounce the words, so original first, then translation.)


Ein Ruder liegt auf dem Dach. Ein mittlerer Wind
Wird das Stroh nicht wegtragen.
Im Hof für die Schaukel der Kinder sind
Pfähle eingeschlagen.
Die Post kommt zweimal hin
Wo die Briefe wilkimmen wären.
Den Sund herunter kommen die Fähren.
Das Haus hat vier Türen, daraus zu fliehn.


(A Place of Refuge

An oar lies on the roof. A moderate wind
Will not carry away the thatch.
In the yard posts are set for
The children’s swing.
The mail comes twice a day
Where letters would be welcome.
Down the Sound come the ferries. 
The house has four doors to escape by.

trans. John Willet)

Why do I like it? There’s a ghostly sense of uncertainty and unease about the now of the poem. The absences are alarming. It’s tense and watchful. The first line has a strange and unstable image – the oar on the roof feels like the consequence of an atmospheric upheaval, but the wind is only moderate. In fact the second line claims stability – this instability is in fact solidity. The yard posts are ‘set for / The children’s swing’ but there is no swing there. Has it been removed? a reminder of loss of innocence, of flight maybe? Or is it yet to come? If a swing has been there before, it can be set between those two posts again, when there are children once more. In its absence it holds in potential both possibilities, swinging neither this way nor that. Will there be a future here, where there was a past? Both future and past flow away from this isolated point in time.

‘Down the Sound come the ferries’ – this is something that happens daily, continuously, reliably. Solid, habitual present tense. ‘Down the Sound’ feels like a rather jangling translation. The original German has a lovely balance  and flow: ‘Den Sund – herunter kommen – die Fahren’ – with the lingering, almost longing sound of ‘Fahren’ before the blank practicality of ‘Das Haus hat vier Türen’, again balancing something continuous and reliable – the ferries – against spatial and temporal uncertainty: any one of those four walls, any direction, might need to be the  method of a sudden exit, at any time. The refuge is necessarily porous. And after all, what else might those reliable ferries bring?

It all constitutes the refuge as an ambiguous notion – a place of safety, but also a place to which you run out of fear or danger.

I’m uncertain about ‘the mail comes twice a day / where letters would be welcome.’ It’s an unnerving image  – communication without anything to be communicated, administrative continuity but without any ability to bring things that you actually want. And what are the letters that are wished for? Letters from loved ones who have not left Germany perhaps? Or letters to relieve solitude and fear, bringing a sense of the outside world?

It’s a very guarded poem – it won’t put its money on any particular outcome. But, like the other Brecht poems I’ve read, it’s also wide open, like a raw nerve or an open eye – it’s not a self-indulgent poem (he does not seem like a self-indulgent poet).

Expanded existentially, it could be argued that it becomes about a permanent state of uncertainty and futures being held in abeyance in the face of that uncertainty, though I think Brecht would reject the existential reading (not KONKRET enough) and just say in times of war and state violence this is who you are, refuges are where you live, this is what the world becomes.

blind man, have mercy on me

When I was about five or six, nothing produced a greater feeling of dread than a Mervyn Peake illustration of Blind Pew from a copy of Treasure Island given me when I was young. Peake’s Treasure Island illustrations use no outlines, but are composed of the finest etchings of pen, so that nothing is distinct but emerges as it were from a sea mist. The bullying, terrifying Pew himself seems woven from the darkness around him, his blindness part of the fabric of the world in which he exists and a thing more powerful than sight.

The picture shows him moments before he gets trampled to death by a horse. He has taken a wrong turn, and the caption has him piteously pleading and wheedling –

‘Johnny, Black Dog, Dirk,’ and other names, ‘you won’t leave old Pew, mates – not old Pew?’

blind pew

I still find it utterly hypnotic – no illustration or work of art has a more immediate hold over me.