Wednesday, 15 August 2018

When Grenfell ~ a poem


Yesterday was the monthly silent walk in solidarity and community with the people of Grenfell. Touching times, as ever. There is so much to be found there which is an inspiration for how to live more deeply and lovingly in the world, how to stand firm in the face of corporate indifference, how to keep hope alive in a world which so often suggests that it would be easier to let it die. It is both a privilege and a blessing to stand beside them in my own small way.




This month's walk was smaller, which had been expected over the summer months, but it is so often the case that when we break a habit it is hard to go back to it, even when we want to. I hope that people return after the summer holidays and, if you have ever thought of joining in the walk, please do. It takes place every 14th of the month, gathering at 6pm at Notting Hill Methodist Church, and walking from 7pm. You can check the details on the silent walk Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/GrenfellSilentWalk/ I know that it matters so much to those who continue to fight for justice for their loved ones that as many as possible stand with them. News moves on to the next thing. It is so easy to forget. It matters that, this time, that doesn't happen.



And here is a maybe-finished poem which has been going round and round in my head as I walked over the last few months. With thanks to John Clare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Gerrard Winstanley, Gerald Manley Hopkins, and Terry Pratchett for the borrowed lines. I hope that they wouldn't mind too much. It was done with much respect for their own journeys with the Land.

When Grenfell

When Grenfell,
when green fell,
when the green heart fell,
they dropped it and we picked it up.
They call it protest, we call it love.
And I am walking hand in hand with John Clare
who walked the land as prayer
and saw it lost,
the fences raised, the green ways dust,
and we have tied defiance in our hair,
and ceased to weave with toil and care
the rich robes that our tyrants wear,
know this earth was made a common treasury
for every man to share.
Because there is no justice, there's just us.
And we are all peasant poets here
we will not give way to fear.
Gerald Manley Hopkins, pray for us;
let kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,
reclaim the blaze that wrote their names
in ash, turned hope to stone,
took their homes.
Just another Enclosure, 
another Land Grab,
another Clearance, 
another little tyrant with his little sign shows 
where man claims earth glows no more divine,
but this glow is not going out.
Our silent footsteps fan the flames,
keep live the spark,
community becomes the still beating heart, 
and where the green heart fell we pick it up.
They call it protest, we call it love.

(Jacqueline Durban, 15th August, 2018)


References:


Terry Pratchett, "There's no justice. Just us." https://www.azquotes.com/author/11842-Terry_Pratchett/tag/justice


'As Kingfishers Catch Fire' by Gerard Manley Hopkins 


Sunday, 29 July 2018

New Family: On Falling in Love with Steve Mac Gwylan


In recent days we have received a great blessing in our lives here at the hedgehermitage; the presence of a fosterling, a herring gull fledgling who we named Steve Mac Gwylan. We have been told that many people who find gull chicks nickname them ‘Steve’, as in ‘Steven Seagal’ but the reasons for naming our own Steve were far less prosaic, or so I pompously like to believe. ‘Steve’ was for our neighbour, in whose garden two beautiful speckled olive hatched herring gull eggs were found earlier this summer, and whose face lit up when Mr Radical Honey half jokingly suggested Steve as a name for our new ground-level resident. We didn’t have the heart to change his name after that. ‘Mac’ was for ‘mackerel’ (Steve’s first meal in our company), and ‘gwylan’, the Welsh word for ‘gull’. It was a name that suited him well.




Steve Mac Gwylan first appeared in our lives a few months ago when he hatched on our roof where his parents raise their chicks every year. Usually we see two chicks but this year, quite late I think perhaps due to the spring storms, s/he was the only one. Our neighbour found two egg shells in his garden over a couple of days, one being played with by a fox, and so it may be that our resident corvids took the other chick to feed their own. All part of the beautiful web of things. Steve first appeared in clear sight on the roof on the evening of 26th June, backlit by the setting sun. He was already quite large by then, not the usual molecule of fluff that we first catch a glimpse of. He looked like an angel standing there and quite heroic! We have watched him grow over the last weeks and it has been a pleasure, although he did quite like sitting right at the edge of the roof which was rather nervewracking…




And then, last Friday, Simon went out to start Miss Stefi Spring-Green, the hedgetemple van and found a slightly bewildered and disheveled feathered being next to our neighbour’s fence. 



The little gull almost immediately approached him but then went under the van, which necessitated him being coaxed out with some tinned mackerel so that we could drive away. I fear that the mackerel sealed our fate.  We know well not to touch baby birds, even if they are on the ground and seemingly vulnerable. It is all part of their growing and many will spend time on the ground being fed by their parents after leaving the nest. It is more by luck than judgement that they land somewhere safe from predators. This fledgling had certainly not done that but we are used to young gulls being on the ground here as they nest all over our estate and are zealously protected by the adults as they attempt their first flights. We expected to be divebombed by this chick’s parents and relatives but nothing came. We felt concerned but decided to leave him. He spent most of the afternoon wandering along the path between our houses and, when Simon returned with me from my afternoon out and opened our garden gate, the bold little gull just walked straight in! We felt responsible for him after that.



We happened to have recently bought some long, shallow storage boxes and so we filled one with water and the being by now known as Steve Mac Gwylan was soon drinking from it and sploshing around. He seemed well, although one of his wings was drooping slightly, and happily accepted a further offering of mackerel. We contacted a wildlife rescue centre and they advised keeping him in a shed, or other safe place, overnight and then seeing how he was the next day. When I told them that we don’t have a shed they suggested popping him in the bath so that he could “chill out”. And so it was. Along with our neighbours we spent the evening cooing over him, whilst he stayed close to his newly discovered pool of water, and when it got dark Simon picked him up in a towel and into the bath he went. We found a large, low pasta bowl and filled that with water for his night time comfort and also gave him some more mackerel. He didn’t really appreciate the bath to start with but, after the inevitable mess that gulls are bound to make transpired and Simon hosed him down, he was much happier. He loved the water and, once the shower was running, decided that he would eat something and settle down for the night. He was surprisingly quiet and didn’t wake us until 6.30 the next morning when he commenced screeching like a banshee! I found him to be a fine alarm clock!

When he woke us Simon got quickly dressed and took Steve Mac Gwylan out into the garden where he spent a happy day exploring, trying out new foods, finding shady places to relax, stretching, preening, and practicing flying (quite unsuccessfully!). He disliked the slug that he sampled early in the morning, which caused him to spend some minutes wiping his beak on the grass in disgust, but did enjoy a range of tiny beetles and other scurrying things. His ability to spot tiny movements was quite incredible and Simon reflected on what the gulls might be able to see even during flight. They must experience the minutiae of life in a way that we can’t even imagine. Our new fosterling also became increasingly brave and confident with us. He spent some time sitting under Simon’s legs and by my foot and seemed to enjoy being close to one or other of us. Some of Simon’s family visited during the afternoon but Steve Mac Gwylan was unphased, especially as by then he had discovered his own reflection in our garden mirror. His parents occasionally visited the roof but paid him little obvious attention. It did seem though that he was communicating with his mother (or perhaps father, of course) from the bathroom in the morning and now and again during the day. She would often fly over the garden, where she must have been able to see him, and he would gaze up at her which he never did with any other gulls. We felt that we had been entrusted with his care, that his parents knew us to be of good intent.









We thought that Steve Mac Gwylan was doing well and would soon fly so decided to keep him safe whilst he gathered up his wings. Simon spent much time observing him; how he would tuck both wings over his back to rest on his tail but that, as he relaxed, his left wing would slip off. Simon felt that his tail feathers were perhaps not fully grown yet and that his wing muscles weren’t entirely developed. Certainly Steve had a fluffier head than the usual fledglings we see and there had been reports of too-young gulls abandoning their roof nests early because of the heat. On Saturday night when it was time for Steve to return to the bath he didn’t need to be picked up. He hopped into the house and, with some slight encouragement, took himself up the stairs! What a remarkable little bird! Gulls really are such intelligent creatures.

This time Steve Mac Gwylan woke us at 5am and, as Simon made him comfortable for a few more hours sleep, he noticed that his left wing seemed more difficult to move that it had been. When Steve was taken into the garden a few hours later it did seem that the wing had drooped further and that he was struggling with it. He sat on our garden path peeping mournfully with his parent above calling down to him. Simon, Steve, and Mother Mac Gwylan spent some time in consideration of what should be done and so we called the wildlife rescue centre again. They advised us to take Steve to their vets in Maidstone, about 35 miles away. The risk of taking him to a local vet was that, had his wing been broken, the majority would have insisted that he be killed. These vets would treat him and then he would be collected by the wildlife centre who would either care for him until he could be released or, if he was too disabled to live in the wild, take him to a local sanctuary where he could live out a happy life on the ground. We were told that many people would have refused to take him so far because they have better things to do! I must say that, although we knew that it was the right thing, we took him there with heavy hearts. Mother Mac Gwylan was sitting on our roof as we left preening her feathers. I felt that she knew that we were providing her chick with help that he needed but that she wasn’t able to give.



The vets were lovely and, whilst there, we also met Lorraine from the wildlife centre who appeared with a large animal carrier containing four other herring gull fledglings who had come for a checkup. She is looking after twenty four at the moment, as well as various other animals! She told us that it is hard to judge when gull fledglings are ready to fly and so, every few days, they take their charges to some open grass not too far from the beach and let them spend some time there. Some will find it in them to fly away but the others are gathered back in and taken back again a few days later. There was a time that the young gulls were released on the beach, which seems to make perfect sense, but on one occasion two fledglings wandered into the sea, became waterlogged and promptly began to sink, which meant that members of the wildlife rescue had to wade in to save them! Much better then to test out their readiness for release some distance from the water. It seems that for young gulls life begins with much trial and error, as it does for us all. Later in the afternoon we contacted the vets to see how Steve Mac Gwylan was. We were told that he had been x-rayed and that there were no breaks in his wings. Such a relief! The vet felt that he had sprained his wing, or pulled a muscle, when he ‘flew’ down from the roof and that he just needed some time to recover. He had been bandaged for a few days to stop him using his wing too much and was expected to be much better in a few days. After that he would go to the wildlife centre for rehabilitation and release. A happy not-quite-the-ending.



I must admit that the hedgehermitage feels very empty with Steve Mac Gwylan in it. He was only here for a few days but he had such a presence and gulls are such wonderful birds. It is heartening though that Simon’s instincts about Steve’s injuries were proven right and he has resolved to trust his intuition more firmly in future; a lesson that Life often reminds him of, and we are happy to know that Steve will be well and lead a hopefully long, happy, and successful life. We do though harbour secret thoughts that, one day, s/he might make his way back here and come to say hello. Stranger things have happened and he would be made most welcome. In the meantime, we feel that we have been offered a great blessing; the privilege of being trusted with a young life by wildly protective parents, the opportunity to more closely observe a being who we knew so little of in reality, and the gift of feeling more deeply woven in to the life that surrounds us here, particularly of the gulls. We have always loved them but now they are family. Our other family members here include nettle and ragwort, which I hope to write more about soon. Gull, nettle, ragwort; all unacceptable to many, often despised, thought unworthy of being given space in any ‘civilised’ garden, in danger of imminent eradication. Kindred spirits.



As for the herring gulls, most of their chicks have now fledged and so, although they will still be around, our time for being in close community with them is drawing to a close for this year. It has been a challenging year for them, not only because of the spring storms, but also because the army barracks, on whose chimney pots they have raised their chicks for more than a hundred years, have been demolished over the summer. I have been deeply concerned and distressed at the buildings being lost whilst the gulls were nesting but was at a loss to know what to do. It was only today that I discovered there are laws to stop this happening; that any building, tree, or hedgerow with nesting birds (or even birds scouting for nests) is protected between mid March and the end of August. The development company have committed a crime but, of course, the gulls are gone and it would be very hard to prove that now. And yet so much tree felling, building work, and hedgerow obliteration seems to occur between those dates. I have resolved to be more proactive in future and to know what to do before it happens. If you would like to know more you can find information on the Government website here https://www.gov.uk/guidance/wild-birds-protection-surveys-and-licences and also here http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/Images/protectingbirds_wales_tcm9-308104.pdf. I have no doubt that the developers would have an answer as to why it was acceptable that they disturbed these nests but it feels important to at least ask the question, and also to inform the local police wildlife crime officer, which was the advice I was given today by the wildlife rescue centre. Last week, my neighbour and I attended an information evening about the new estate that is being built all around us. A man there, who said that he was a tree surgeon, was angrily castigating the developers for felling many healthy 80 year old trees which need not have been lost. He said that crows had been nesting in those trees for decades, all gone. I am not quite sure of the date when they were felled but certainly the year had turned to spring. Nothing has been done on the site since. The crows could have raised at least one more family there. 

Herring gulls are often considered a nuisance to humans and, like crows, attract much adverse publicity. That they have come into closer and closer relationship with us might be seen as a teaching, revealing to us our own folly; the amount of food that we throw away and which ends up in landfill sites and often attracting and sustaining large communities of gulls, and our wider behaviour which has led to dwindling fish populations in the sea and so driving seabirds inland. It is to the herring gulls’ credit that they are so adaptable, just as our species is. In so many ways they are our mirror. For all of that the herring gull population has decreased by 50% over the last 25 years and they have now been placed on the RSPB’s ‘Red List’ of threatened bird species. I dearly wish that I had questioned the demolition of our nearby army barracks before it happened. I hope not to be so tardy in the future. I thank Steve Mac Gwylan and all that he taught me for helping me find the strength to even consider trying. Often in this world where so much is being lost, and we often feel overwhelmed and unable to act, our instinct is to cut ourselves off, to turn away, and yet so many of us live in such distress at what we cannot unsee. Better perhaps to more deeply weave ourselves in, and in that weaving find the power in community that helps us to stand with the non-human people, whoever they may be. It may be their, and our, only chance of surviving what comes. 

Fly well, brave Steve Mac Gwylan. We will miss you.




Lots of lovely herring gull info can be found here http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Herring_Gull

and 'gull friendly' wildlife centres here http://helpwildlife.co.uk/tag/gull-friendly/

Friday, 20 April 2018

Joseph Tubb & the Poem Tree ~ How to be Differently Alive

The Poem Tree, Wittenham Clumps, 2nd September 2012.

I wanted to write about another ‘holy activist ancestor’ who inspires me, the little known poet and wood carver, Joseph Tubb and his Poem Tree.

On the last day of August 2012 I walked through fields of Greylag and Canada Geese and followed a path of dog daisies to visit Wittenham Clumps, close to Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. 


Greylag geese, Dorchester-on-Thames water meadows, 2012.







Wittenham Clumps is the common name for two chalk hills, Round Hill and Castle Hill, in the Thames Valley. Castle Hill is the sight of an Iron Age hill fort, built on earlier Bronze Age remains, and, just over half a mile away, is Brightwell Bronze Age round barrow. At the top of the hills are small woods containing the oldest beech tree plantings in England, dating back to the 1740s. Their summits offer views over a landscape that once contained some of the earliest settlements in our land. The artist, Paul Nash, climbed the Clumps in 1911, subsequently visiting many times, and described the view as, “a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten."



Although 'Wittenham Clumps' is generally used to refer to the entire hills, that name really refers only to the wooded summits of Round and Castle Hills, with their older collective name being Sinodun Hills ~ Sinodun from the Celtic, ‘Seno-Dunum’, meaning ‘Old Fort’, although it has been suggested that it is a much more modern play on words based on ‘sinus’, which in Latin means ‘bosom’. Admittedly the two hills do looks very much like breasts. Some of their more colloquial names include ‘The Berkshire Bubs’ (before boundaries changed they were in the county of Berkshire), and ‘Mother Dunch’s Buttocks’! The latter was named for a member of a local landowning family, which makes me smile. I’m not sure that she would have taken it as a compliment! On the summit of the hills there is a hollow called the ‘Money-pit’, supposedly a treasure hoard guarded by a raven, and a copse named ‘Cuckoo Pen’, referring to the belief that imprisoning a cuckoo would bring eternal summer. Looking out, Dorchester Abbey is clearly visible to the north. At the time of my visit the abbey was displaying a newly commissioned painting, ‘Bright Rising’ by artist Rebecca Hind, which depicts Mary as the full moon rising above a water meadow ~ freeing the divine from church walls and subversively placing her in the surrounding landscape. It was to this strange and blessed earth that Joseph Tubb, in an act of defiance and devotion, came in 1844 to carve his Poem Tree.



Joseph was a maltster, converting grain into malt for use in brewing, and lived at Lavender Cottage in Warborough, near Dorchester. He had always wanted to be a wood carver but his father convinced him, due to family tradition, to abandon his dream and become a maltster instead. He lived at the end of the Industrial Revolution, which had drawn many from the countryside and agricultural work into the towns and cities. It was also when land once held in common as a resource for all had been further enclosed by the last wave of the Inclosure Acts. Some might consider that the two things were even related! Joseph strongly opposed this enclosure and often pulled down fences as an act of rebellion. Because of that he spent a short time in Oxford gaol. Over two weeks during the summer of 1844 or 45, he took a ladder and tent to Wittenham Clumps and carved a poem he had written from memory into the bark of a beech tree on the eastern slopes of Castle Hill.


Wonderful image of the Poem Tree when she was still standing. Photo: The Oxford Times


The poem he carved in a labour of love is a prayer to his ‘motherground’, the landscape that was his home from birth until death. It describes a moment in time, woven through with the threads of history, of both worldly and religious powers ~ Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Dane, the coming of Christianity and its own demands for land. I'm sure that, had he lived a hundred years later, he might also have mentioned Didcot Power Station, which can be clearly seen dominating the landscape from the top of The Clumps. 


View of Didcot Power Station from Wittenham Clumps, 2012.

As up the hill with labr'ing steps we tread
Where the twin Clumps their sheltering branches spread
The summit gain'd at ease reclining lay
And all around the wide spread scene survey
Point out each object and instructive tell
The various changes that the land befell
Where the low bank the country wide surrounds
That ancient earthwork form'd old
Mercia’s bounds
In misty distance see the barrow heave
There lies forgotten lonely
Cwichelm's grave.


Around this hill the ruthless Danes intrenched
And these fair plains with gory slaughter drench'd
While at our feet where stands that stately tower
In days gone by up rose the
Roman power
And yonder, there where
Thames smooth waters glide
In later days appeared monastic pride.
Within that field where lies the grazing herd
Huge walls were found, some coffins disinter'd
Such is the course of time, the wreck which fate
And awful doom award the earthly great.

(Joseph Tubb)


"Within that field where lies the grazing herd..."


View of the River Thames from Wittenham Clumps



Joseph’s poem speaks of the ‘ancient earthwork’, which may refer to Grim’s Ditch, a 5 mile long bank and ditch earthwork on the Berkshire Downs, or to The Ridgeway, a 5,000 year old ancient trackway along the chalk ridge between Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire, which Grim’s Ditch forms a part of. Mercia was one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and dominated England south of the River Humber for three centuries (between 600 and 900CE). During Alfred the Great’s rule (871 to 899CE) the border between Wessex and Mercia could be seen from the Clumps. I think of Joseph reflecting on the land being ‘carved up’ in this way as he carved into the bark of the tree. 

Mention of ‘Cwichelm’s grave’ is reference to Scutchamer Knob, an early Iron Age round barrow on the Ridgeway near Grim’s Ditch, which was originally called Cwichelmeshlaew or Cwichelm's Barrow and was believed to be the place where the recently baptised Anglo-Saxon king Cwichelm of Wessex was killed by King Edwin of Northumbria in 636CE. The round barrow was thought to have been the grave of Cwichelm for many years and to contain treasure, hence its changing shape as it has been repeatedly excavated but without any significant finds. I love too the description of seeing the barrow ‘heave’ in the misty distance. In my recent writing on Hocktide I mentioned that one of the customs involved local people lifting one another off the ground. I was reminded by one of my readers that this act of ‘heaving’ has its equivalents in many European spring traditions and that it was a way of proving one’s strength at the start of the year. I am sure that Joseph would have been familiar with such customs and wonder whether the ‘heave’ in his poem is a play on words evoking an image of Cwichelm’s long forgotten and ‘lonely’ barrow ‘heaving’ to test its strength against an incoming tide of invaders. It reminds me very much of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘The Land’, which similarly traces attempts by incomers to take over land which isn’t theirs and comparing them to someone whose ancestors have lived on and worked it for generations. I am sure that Joseph Tubb and Rudyard Kipling would have found much to talk about.

Joseph goes on to write of ‘disinterred coffins’, referring to the 18th century discovery of two coffins on the summit of Round Hill, together with the possible remains of a Roman Villa, a reminder that no power lasts forever, as the ‘lonely Cwichelm’ could no doubt attest; that even the ‘earthly great’ will end up in the ground with the lowliest of us. Here again, Joseph touches on my own thoughts. My friend, Will, who I visited Wittenham Clumps with, was once a member of the Peace Convoy which was attacked by police at the Battle of the Beanfield in Wiltshire on 1st June 1985 whilst on their way to set up the Stonehenge Free Festival. That is a story for another day but for now I will say that I was both moved and delighted when I discovered that, when he died two years after our visit, the burial site chosen for him following a series of ‘coincidences’ was, without knowing it at the time, on the very farm that the Peace Convoy had been so brutally driven from so many years before. There have always been those who hope to restrict the common people’s access to the land. In life they are very often able to do so, but death is the ‘True Leveller’ and Will’s bones are reclaiming the land, becoming part of it. No earthly power has control over that process of beautiful disorder. Joseph would have liked that I think. 

As for the beech tree which Joseph chose to carve into; she is believed to have been planted around 300 years ago but her health began to decline in the 1980s and she collapsed through a combination of rot and weather challenging to an elderly tree in July 2012, just a few weeks before I visited. Beech trees are not particularly long living and have shallow roots so this is all part of her life cycle. In fact, she lived an amazingly long life before she fell. Once she had been found to be in a dangerous condition, as many of the trees on The Clumps now are, a crane was brought in to make her safe but she disintegrated as she was being lowered to the ground. Luckily, British geographer Henry Osmaston took a rubbing of Joseph’s poem in 1965 before it became almost illegible and this was made into a plaque, which was erected on a Sarsen stone close to the tree in 1994 to commemorate 150 years since the carving was made. Of course, the plaque, which was sponsored by the Natwest bank, makes no mention of the reasons that Joseph may have had for making such a dedicated and lasting statement, nor for writing the poem itself. We must work that out for ourselves and in that way hopefully remember him as he would have wished. 


The plaque erected on top of Wittenham Clumps to commemorate 150 years since the carving of the Poem Tree

The tree herself has been left where she fell and will provide a valuable wildlife habitat and nutrients to the surrounding area in the years ahead. To me, she is just differently alive.


The fallen Poem Tree ~ differently alive ~ 2nd Sepetmber, 2012
The fallen Poem Tree ~ differently alive ~ 2nd Sepetmber, 2012

The Poem Tree, 2nd September, 2012

A few days after her transformation a tribute of flowers, including gladioli, was left on her broken trunk, such is the affection for Joseph and his Poem Tree, and I believe that we found a trace of that offering when we visited. 


Offerings of flowers left for Joseph & his Poem Tree after she fell in July 2012

I feel deeply blessed that I came to that place only a few weeks after she fell and when Joseph’s carving could still be seen in her bark, particularly as parts of it were soon after removed to be put on display elsewhere. And I feel deeply blessed to have touched the 168 year old carvings of a man who escaped the limitations and demands of family tradition to become the wood carver that he always longed to be, even if only for two weeks on top of his beloved Wittenham Clumps. On this high hill, rising above it all to make his stand, he perhaps found in her trees and earthworks a way to carve out just a little bit of liberty for himself and for the land that he loved. A land whose confinement echoed his own. May our own quiet rebellions echo through the years with such creative determination and brightness. 

And what of Joseph's bones resting now in the land that aroused in him such passion for common justice? Like his Poem Tree, they have transformed, become one with the earth, dissolved the boundaries; man, poem, and tree released to do their work in new ways. In death, Joseph Tubb truly has pulled down the fence. He has become differently alive.



Just one last word ~ while visiting the Poem Tree, my eye kept being drawn to this log in the grass nearby. I was convinced that someone was lying there reading. I like to think that it was Joseph, resting at last after making his mark as the wood carver and poet that he was born to be. 


Friday, 13 April 2018

Paul Robeson ~ Singing Across the Line


I want to begin writing about some of the people who inspire me and give me strength for the journey. Paul Robeson is one of those people; one of my own ‘folk saints’, a ‘holy activist ancestor’. And truly I knew very little about him until I happened to go and see a play about his life, ‘Call Mr Robeson’ by Tayo Aluko, in 2013. I can’t even remember what prompted me to go now. I rarely went to the theatre but I think that a friend had been to see it and recommended it, and I had such fond memories of my dad singing, ‘Ol’ Man River’ in his beautiful voice. I think that somewhere I have a recording of him that I can’t quite bear to listen to singing along to it with ‘Show Boat’ on the telly and it was one of the songs that we chose for his funeral. Yes, I think that I went to see the play because of my dad. I had no idea that I would discover in that play a man of such fire and dignity, of such hugeness of hope and heart. I am ever grateful.

Paul Robeson was born on 9th April, 1898, and so this week has marked the 120th anniversary of his birth. So much has changed, and so much hasn’t, since he joined us. His father, William Drew Robeson, a descendant of the Igbo people of Nigeria, was born into slavery on the Roberson plantation, North Carolina, in 1844. In 1860, when he was 15 years old, he escaped with his brother, Ezekiel, via a network of secret routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railway to make his home in the free state of Pennsylvania. He worked as a labourer with the Union Army in the American Civil War, joining at 16 in an effort to help the work of ending slavery in the South. After the war he went on to college and became a Bachelor of Sacred Theology in 1876. Whilst there he met teacher, Maria Louisa Bustill, a member of a prominent black Quaker family and whose ancestry was part Lenni-Lenape Native American, part Anglo-American, and part Igbo. Her family had been free since the 1700s and her great-grandfather, Cyrus Bustill, had been one of the founders of the Free African Society, which held religious services and provided aid for ‘free Africans and their descendants’. Her father, Charles Hicks Bustill, was an abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railway. Nevertheless, it was considered by her family that she had ‘married down’ when she chose William Drew Robeson.


Maria Louisa and William Robeson (Public Domain USA)

Maria, who was known as Louisa, and William married in 1878 and had seven children together, five of whom survived into adulthood. Louisa worked as a teacher and tutored privately and William became the minister of a Presbyterian church in Princeton, New Jersey, where Paul was born. However, when Paul was 3 years old, his father was ousted from his church after 20 years service having refused to bow to pressure from white financial supporters of the church to stop speaking out against social injustice. On leaving his entirely black congregation, all of whom supported him, he said that his heart was filled with nothing but love and urged them, "Do not be discouraged, do not think your past work is in vain." On resigning his ministry, William was forced to take low paid work and three years later, Louisa, who had become almost blind with cataracts, died when an ember from their kitchen stove set fire to her clothes. Only two of their children, Ben and Paul, were still living at home but William eventually became unable to provide a house for them and they moved into an attic above a store in Westfield, New Jersey. In 1910, William again found a position as a minister at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, where Paul would stand in for his father in giving sermons on occasion.

(newstatesman.com)

Both William and Louisa believed in the importance of education for their children and Paul attended a High School where, despite racial taunts, he performed in Julius Caesar and Othello, sang in the chorus, and excelled at sports. Prior to graduation, he won a statewide academic contest and earned a scholarship to Rutgers, the eighth oldest college in the United States, where he became only the third ever African-American student (and the only one at the time). On arrival his resolve to join the football team was tested via ‘excessive play’, which resulted in his sustaining a broken nose and dislocated shoulder! He also joined the debating team and sang off-campus to gain spending money. He also sang with the on-campus glee club, but this could only be informal as membership required attending all-white events from which he was excluded. During Rutger’s sesquicentennial celebrations he was left on the bench during a football match when a team from the South refused to play because their opponents had fielded a ‘negro’. Nevertheless, he was recognised in The Crisis, the official magazine for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, for his athletic, academic, and singing talents. A true Renaissance man! It was at this time that his father, William, became very ill and Paul took sole responsibility for caring for him, noting that his father had been, the “glory of his boyhood years.” It is touching indeed that he cared for his father so tenderly, especially at a time when he was just beginning to make his own way in the world; a care that was echoed by his own son, Paul Robeson Jr., when he himself became ill in his later years. A beautiful fatherline.


William died in May 1918 and was buried next to Louisa. Paul went on to make a huge success of his time at Rutgers, being recognised both for his sporting achievements (Walter Camp, considered to be the ‘Father of American Football’ considered his to be the “greatest end ever”), and by his classmates, who elected him class valedictorian. In his valedictory speech he urged them to work for equality for all Americans, having been critical during his time there of a country who would allow African-Americans to fight for them in WWI but not offer them the same opportunities as whitre citizens at home.

Paul went on to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1923, having abandoned his footballing career several months earlier. During his time at the school he had met and married anthropologist, author, actor, and civil rights activist, Eslanda ‘Essie’ Goode. Essie graduated from Columbia with a degree in chemistry and it was her time there that stimulated her interest in racial equality. After university she became the first black person to be the head histological chemist of surgical pathology at New York Presbyterian Hospital but she gave up her intention to study medicine when her husband’s career began to take off and became his business manager. Paul Robeson credited her with encouraging his acting career, saying that he only took roles in order to stop her ‘pestering’ him. Theirs was a tumultuous relationship, shadowed by rumours of his unfaithfulness. It was his affair with Peggy Ashcroft whilst he was appearing with her in Othello in London, that let Essie and Paul to become briefly estranged. 

At that time Essie resumed her career, taking parts in three films and gaining an anthropology degree from the London School of Economics in 1937, together with a PHD in the subject in 1946. She learned more about Africa whilst in England and made three journeys to the continent, later writing a book, ‘African Journey’, which urged black people to be proud of their ancestry. Her perspective as a black African-American woman was considered to be both unique and important. Like her husband, she had her passport revoked during the McCarthy era under accusation of being a Communist. When it was returned she again travelled to Africa, attending the first post-colonial All-African People’s Conference in Ghana in 1958. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1963 and died in New York in 1965.

Essie, Paul, and Paul jr, circa 1950 from chs.org

As for Essie’s husband, he worked briefly as a lawyer but renounced that work due to rampant racism. When a white secretary refused to take dictation from him, he resigned, saying: “On the stage only the sky could hold me back.” Essie financially supported them for a time but his acting and singing career soon led to startling success, despite his own reported indifference. Following various roles at home, he appeared in 1928 in the American musical ‘Show Boat’ at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which ran for 350 performances. He was hugely popular in his role, was summoned for a Royal Command Performance at Buckingham Palace, was befriended by MPs, and he and Essie bought a house in Hampstead. Nevertheless, he was refused seating at the Savoy Grill and issued a press release describing the insult. In 1930 he became the first black actor to take the lead role in ‘Othello’ since Ira Aldridge more than 100 years earlier. On opening night he received 20 curtain calls but reviews were mixed, suggesting that he was ‘too genteel’ in the role. He later stated that the sensitivities around a black man embracing a white woman had made him tense, "I was backin' away from her all the time. I was like a plantation hand in the parlour, that clumsy." Off-stage they fell in love and there are suggestions that they had planned to marry but the pressure of opinion against unions such as theirs was just too great.

Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft in Othello, 1931

However, it was whilst in London that Paul Robeson experienced an ideological awakening. In the winter of 1929, he had heard the sound of a Welsh miners’ choir. They had walked all the way from Wales to protest their desperate poverty and to petition the Government for help. He immediately joined them to sing, later paying for their train journeys home, together with food and clothing, and visited the Rhondda to sing for mining communities and talk to the people there. Later, it was often the people of Wales who supported and lifted him as he became more isolated in his own country. In 1934 he enrolled in the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he studied 20 African dialects and became more acutely aware of African history and its impact on culture, together with the effects of colonialism. In December 1934, due to his friendship with members of the anti-Imperialism movement and British Socialists, he visited the Soviet Union with Essie and said that it was the first time in his life that he had felt like a human being who could walk with “full human dignity”. In 1936, he and Essie decided to send their son, Paul Jr., to school in the Soviet Union so that he could experience a culture without racism.

It was the Spanish Civil War which Robeson credited with turning him into a poltical activist. He began to use his stage performances to advocate for the Republican side and for refugees of the war, together with permanently changing his rendition of ‘Ol’Man River’ from a resigned and world weary sorrow-song into one of defiance. When he was warned that this might affect his commercial success he refused to change his stance. Whilst in Wales he spoke in tribute to the Welsh people who had died fighting for the Republican cause and said, "The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." Those fine words were to become his epitaph. He later visited the Spanish battlefront, singing to wounded soldiers and attempting to lift morale.



On returning to England, he developed a close friendship with Nehru, who was working towards Indian independence, and, having heard him speak on Imperialism’s links with Fascism, decided to refocus his career on the struggles of the ‘common people’. He became an important voice in the Second Sino-Japanese War, sympathising with China and holding concerts to raise aid. A song, written by progressive Chinese activist Liu Liangmo, and recorded in the Chinese language by Robeson, became China’s national anthem in 1949. Even though Liangmo died in a Beijing prison in 1968, Robeson made sure to send royalties to his family. Robeson often recorded songs in languages other than his own, such as Gaelic and Yiddish, seeing this as a form of protest against colonialism. I so agree that, in order to be free, we must hear and dare to speak our Older Tongues.



Paul Robeson’s last film in Britain was, ‘The Proud Valley’ (1940), set in a Welsh coal-mining town. It was filmed on location in the South Wales coalfield and documented the harsh realities the lives of Welsh miners. Although by the time of its release Robeson was on Lord Beaverbrook’s publicity blacklist, having spoken out against British and French appeasement of the Nazis and remained pro-Soviet, his performance was praised as powerful and sensitive. He later said that the role, in which he built relationships across boundaries of nationality and race, was his favourite due to its sympathetic portrayal of workers and their lives. He was firmly of the view that the struggle for freedom transcended all differences, and that the fight of the Welsh miner was exactly that of the black slave in America.



Although he was feted as ‘America’s no.1 entertainer’, on his return there he was refused almost all hotel accomodation and the one hotel that would let him stay insisted that he use an assumed name. Because of this he dedicated two hours to sitting in the lobby each day! He had also come to the attention of the FBI, who declared the documentary ‘Native Land’, which he narrated and depicted the struggle of trade unions against corporate power, to be ‘communist propaganda’. Not long afterwards, he said that he would no longer appear in films as the roles written for black actors were demeaning.

After abandoning his film career, Paul Robeson went on to reprise his role in ‘Othello’, becoming the first black actor to play the central role with a white supporting cast on Broadway. His political activism was tireless, as he learned and spoke out about anti-fascism, continued racism within sport, and imperialism. In 1946, he founded the ‘American Crusade Against Lynching’ organisation, when President Truman refused to enact anti-lynching legislation after the mass lynching of four black men in July of that year. Some years later he delivered a petition accusing the United States government of genocide under Article II of the UN Genocide Convention. He became a great advocate for union rights, believing them to be crucial in the fight for civil rights. When he was called before the Senate and questioned about his affiliation with the Communist Party, he replied, "Some of the most brilliant and distinguished Americans are about to go to jail for the failure to answer that question, and I am going to join them, if necessary." Later, he was forced to again travel abroad as so many of his US concerts were cancelled at the request of the FBI.


The Red List

Whilst travelling, he spoke at the World Peace Council, where he was misreported as equating America with a Fascist state. On visiting the Soviet Union in June 1949, he learned of the persecution of Russian Jews but he never publicly spoke of it in order to prevent the Right Wing of US politics gaining ground. Speaking at the Paris Peace Congress soon afterwards he said, "We in America do not forget that it was on the backs of the white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of blacks that the wealth of America was built. And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong. We shall not make war on anyone." Words that many of our leaders would do well to heed now. Because of this he was blacklisted by the mainstream US press, including by many black periodicals. Attempts were made to remove him from history; a book described as ‘the most complete on American football history’ ignored his contribution, television performances were cancelled, and his passport was removed. When he asked why, he was told that it was due to his, “extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa." and that "his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries."

Further attempts were made to politically isolate him and articles designed to ruin his reputation and the popularity of the Communist Party were distributed in Africa. In 1952, he was awarded the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples by the Soviet Union and, on Stalin’s death the following year, he wrote ‘To You My Beloved Comrade’, praising Stalin as a peacemaker and a guide. He saw the Soviet Union as an essential source of political balance in an unbalanced world and continued with this stance even though it assured that his passport would not be returned. As an act of defiance, the union movement held a concert for Robeson at the Peace Arch on the border between Washington State and British Columbia in 1952. Three further concerts were performed by him there in the following years. At the same time he was encouraged by his friend Aneurin Bevan to record radio concerts for his supporters in Wales. 

With Welsh Labour MP, Nye Bevan

Robeson said that, "here was an audience that had adopted me as kin and though they were unseen by me I never felt closer to them.” That he remains much loved there is proven by the Manic Street Preacher’s 2001 song, ‘Let Robeson Sing’.



In 1956, during the McCarthy era, he was called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities after he refused to sign an affidavit confirming that he was not a Communist. When asked why he hadn’t previously remained in the Soviet Union with which he had such an affinity he replied, "because my father was a slave and my people died to build [the United States and], I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it!", going on to say that, “I will not discuss anything with the people who have murdered sixty million of my people.” He was refused the right to travel for the next four years and, in 1957, sang for sell out audiences in both London and Wales via the Transatlantic Telephone Cable, saying that "We have to learn the hard way that there is another way to sing". Amen to that!


Although he continued to find ways to perform by 1957 his recordings and films had been removed from distribution and it became harder and harder to hear him sing, buy his music, or see his films. However, an appeal to have his passport returned was successful the following year and he was able to visit the Soviet Union, England, and Wales, attending the National Eisteddford and becoming the first black performer to sing in St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1960, he visited Australia and New Zealand, becoming the first person to perform on the construction site of the Sydney Opera House and, having been brought to tears by their conditions, spoke out against the inequality faced by the Maori and Aboriginal Australian peoples, saying that, "..the people of the lands of Socialism want peace dearly".

Paul_Robeson_yn_Eisteddfod_Genedlaethol_Cymru,_Glynebwy,_1958 Geoff Charles Wiki Commons

 On their return to London, Essie argued that they should remain there as she feared that Paul would be killed should he return to the US. However, determined to resume his work with the civil rights movement, he insisted on going and left her in England to travel back alone via Moscow. Whilst in the Soviet Union a party, described as ‘uncharacteristically wild’, took place. During the evening Robeson became unwell, locked himself in his bedroom, and attempted to commit suicide by cutting his wrists. Days later he told his son that he had felt extreme paranoia, together with overwhelming emptiness and depression. His son continued to believe to the end of his life that his father had been drugged and that his suicide attempt, and many subsequent health problems, were due to the FBI’s and CIA’s attempts to ‘neutralize’ him. Others believed that he had already been suffering from a debilitating depression. If so, it is even more remarkable that he continued to fight for the dignity of others through it all.


Paul remained in the Soviet Union for a time until he was recovered enough to return to London. There, he later suffered a relapse and was admitted to The Priory where he endured many sessions of Electroconvulsive Therapy and heavy doses of drugs (but no psychotherapy). In August 1963, distressed at his condition and treatment, family and friends were able to facilitate his transfer to a hospital in East Berlin where doctors expressed ‘doubt and anger’ at the treatment he had been given in London. He quickly improved under their care but was never the same, physically at least.

At the end of 1963 Paul returned to the US and, following Essie’s death, lived quietly with his son and then with his sister. In 1973, he recorded a message to be played at a concert at Carnegie Hall in honour of his 75th birthday. He said, "Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood." He died following the complications of a stroke on 29th July 1976. Subsequent reflections on his life downplayed his political activism and his refusal to bend, describing him as a ‘Great American’. How easily the powerful believe that they can silence rebel and revolutionary with flattering words. They are wrong of course. Some keep listening.


Since his death, Paul Robeson has been honoured many times for his work to end racism and imperialism, including a posthumous award from the United Nations for his efforts to end Apartheid in South Africa. In addition he has been acknowledged for his other achievements ~ In 1995, he was at last admitted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1998, the centenary of his birth, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I wonder whether that would have been the case if he were still here singing out? His portrayal of Othello on Broadway was the longest running Shakespeare production ever staged there, and his performance has been described as ‘a high point in Shakespearean theatre in the 20th century.’ The main campus library at Rutgers is named after him and a black cultural centre at Penn State University bears his name. His rendition of ‘Joe Hill’ remains the third most popular choice for Labour Party politicians on ‘Desert Island Discs’. In 2010, his granddaughter, Susan, began a project with Swansea University and the Welsh Assembly to create an online learning resource in her grandfather’s memory. I think that of all the accolades and tributes he might have liked that the best of all.



I can’t pretend to know a great deal about history and so I find it hard to understand the fullness of Paul Robeson’s political activism, particularly his unflinching respect for the Soviet Union, and yet it seems that he was able to somehow see the vastness of so much that was happening in his, and our world, that he could sense the ‘ecosystem’, tap into the roots, and gain an awareness of where so many issues that we might see as separate join together. I wish that there were more who could do the same. I have always found such people inspiring, but what I most love about Paul Robeson is the determination that he had to speak his truth, the relationships that he built with people who seemed so different but who he knew faced the same struggles, and the heart and the passion that I hear in his voice, whether speaking out or singing. A visionary, a true prophet speaking truth to power. And I love that under all of that I can hear my dad.

After death huge efforts are made to tame the memory of so many activists who were unbowed in life. Martin Luther King has become a ‘national treasure’, despite the fact that at the time of his death he was wildly controversial, Nelson Mandela, a sort of kindly grandfather, and Paul Robeson’s rendition of ‘Ol’Man River’ is in most of our heads as the ‘resigned and world weary’ song of old. Has it been so easy for the river to put the fire out? Somehow I don’t think so, and fire that has gone underground is often the wildest of all.

I will end with the words of Naomi Shihab Nye and her poem, ‘Cross That Line’…
Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.
He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
that line.
Remind us again,
brave friend.
What countries may we
sing into?
What lines should we all
be crossing?
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?

Our holy activist ancestor, our prophet, our friend, Big Paul. Just as big in death as in life. Still singing to us across the line. It's up to us to make sure that he can hear us singing back.




References:





Videos:

Remembering Eslanda Robeson Goode ~ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3Ezymqbw-M

On the power of religion and organisation ~ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dS-KRBSrhbc