Posts by Cheryll Barron

Can artists grow the heart the European Union has to have to hold and bind together?

Roy Eales by Sascha Juritz,

Portrait (above, from A poem decides) and cover art (below) are by Sascha Juritz,  a lover of Breton culture who ‘saw Brittany as a twin for Lausitz, his own Slav country locked into the Czech and Polish borders’ 

Roy Eales -- cd cover Just in Case,

Imagine the happiness of sitting on a sun-dappled terrace in the French countryside, where you have had to reassure, say, the oldest person at your café table — your dear, monolingual English father-in-law — that you suggesting that he try la tarte du village has nothing to do with the two ladies of the night before, loitering beside the picturesque stone bridge in décolletage more evident than clothes.

Forever after, this will be the most risqué story you will repeat and embellish at family gatherings, but — still in the original moment — everyone at your table goes on to order a second cup of coffee and sipping quantities of gullet-scorching marc. Why? To stretch out the pleasure of listening to the unannounced, spontaneous concert-with-poetry that has begun unobtrusively at the other end of the patio, a performance mostly in the language or dialect of this part of France that lets you crawl under the skin of the place, into the preoccupations of its people, as you could not hope to do on the usual sightseeing-and-feeding tourist rounds. Perhaps you strike up a conversation with the born-and-bred-here family at the next table, when they explain the story behind the lines of one of the songs you’ve been listening to, which reminds you of a novel by Stendhal or Colette you read and wept over as a teenager. Your satisfaction, your feeling of enrichment, becomes incalculable.

Until and unless most Europeans have sensory treasures like these to savour, personal experiences of being in other EU nations, the Unión Europea, Europäische Union, Unione Europea and so on … will never be more than a merely pragmatic head-over-heart construction. This autumn’s dismal Brexit negotiations resemble the arguments in a divorce battle at the end of a marriage notable not just for a lack of love or passion but simple affection. It is a union of countries joined in the equivalent of an arranged marriage that made unassailable good sense on paper — but in which the parties never made any effort to get to know each other at the level of scent or touch, let alone become mutually endearing; or develop shared habits; or accumulate a store of common memories.

And how can you tell what a true inter-cultural marriage — respecting and revelling in cultural differences — would be like?

There is a sort of — marvellous — answer in a set of performances captured on Just in Case, a CD first mentioned on this site six years ago that reappeared in a bookshelf-tidying exercise the other day. It sounds sung and spoken straight from the souls of Bretons about scenes and old legends of Brittany, although all its material is new, and it lets you hear Bretonnais voices — including one that is especially gravelly and magnificent, belonging to Fañch Peru, to which you can listen on a clip uploaded here  — singing or reciting poetry, some of it protesting, conveying the depths of understandable anger about attempts by authorities in Paris to stamp out the Breton language as if it were a foul pest.

But no, not all the performers are actually natives of Brittany. Among them are Marianna Butenschön from Germany, Owen Martell and Tomos Williams from Wales, and several from other French regions. All the poetry and lyrics are by Roy Eales, a part-time inhabitant of Breton country whose forte is elegantly delectable whimsy with powerful undercurrents, and whose first language is English — even if, when reading English and French versions of his poems side-by-side, you might strongly suspect that several came to him first en français. The foreigners share Breton sentiments — cultural pride, outrage about subjugation — to a degree that would be implausible to anyone who had no idea of how many antifascist outsiders lost their lives fighting in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9, including 500 from Britain and 900 Americans.**

Roy and his wife and perfect mate, the painter Susan Eales, have with a fine and cherishing ear translated into English dozens of poems by a munificently gifted Flemish friend of theirs, Willem Roggeman, published in A splendid view on words. He has reciprocated, introducing Flemish readers to Roy’s poems in his own English-to-Flemish translations.

Like Just in Case, none of these collaborations and exchanges were subsidised by the EU or any government, as far as we know, or organised by official edict, or prompted by worthy kumbaya ambitions. They seem to have come about from natural attraction, or what is most essential in art.

If only they were more common, and were advertised and shared more energetically — not necessarily on the internet, where you can find uploads of the odd clip from Just in Case that, certainly at this stage of technological evolution, sound woefully anaemic and fail to do justice to its impeccable, professional production.

The collection’s tone is set by Julie Murphy, born English, but singing translations of Ealesian verse into Welsh — the language of her husband’s people — in a warm yet sublimely ethereal voice, as movingly as the young Joan Baez (and yes, that is saying a lot). It is a performance with an intimacy that cannot be faked, free of the annoyingly over-the-top emoting of too much Celtic fusion music, and of slick, big-studio tricks and manipulation. You, the audience, seem to be a privileged eavesdropper, as when listening to the riffs of jazz musicians who have been playing together for an eternity, or the improvisations of a classical Indian sitar-and-sarod ensemble — even if the pieces that make up Just in Case are not live recordings.

Saying more than this would approach literary or musical criticism. At post-Gutenberg, we prefer to let work speak for itself, on the whole — a preference that the objets d’art in this poem would certainly share:

Royal Academy of Arts

Nobody asks
how the paintings feel
when the exhibition is over.

Is it not then
that these tired oils
deserve a little rest?

They have seen enough
eyes and heard enough
words of artful observers.
Enlarged by a superior sense
who speak aloud, these masters …

… these accountants of
image, of culture,
these over-filled vessels of real meaning
(they speak of this work or
that to anyone
who listens till nobody hears).

These onlookers
must be taken down.
The paintings decide they can’t take any more.

Roy Eales, in A poem decides/ Ar barzhoneg an fini a ziviz/ C’est le poème qui decide/ Ein Gedicht entscheidet (2013)

** In the first part of her autobiography, An Unfinished Woman (1969), the playwright Lillian Hellman — who travelled to Spain to report on this war — wrote: ‘Never before and never since in my lifetime were liberals, radicals, intellectuals and the educated middle class to come together in single, forceful alliance.’



Summer turns binary

fire cloud vertical

pyrocumulus cloud (landscape)

Summers have turned binary in parts of the world living through the Time of the Wildfires — as if nature were playing a deadly metaphorical game inspired by transformations elsewhere (we are straining not to say digital revolution). The transition between phases is abrupt and disorienting.

Above: the apocalyptic part 2

Summer-to-autumn, two images from last summer — looking out of a kitchen window — that could easily be part of this one.

Dread; destruction; unending vigilance; a mind swimming in images of ashen skies choked with deadly particulates — not always a safe distance away.

Below: the hopeful part 1

Spring-to-summer, pictures taken this year.

Growth; blooming under blue skies and grey; cool and fragrant delight; a sense of endless possibilities for harmony and good.

In a very different context from his poem ( ‘Easter, 1916’ ), these lines of W. B. Yeats come floating in:

… changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

spring-summer panel.jpg

In the puzzling rise of retro nationalism in an age of digital linking, a well-argued warning by Spain’s most famous philosopher is being ignored — again


ortega y gasset

The Revolt of the Masses (1929) — a warning about nationalism published between the  world wars to international acclaim — is being dusted off and read, but not widely enough

The anger of people who blame their country’s social problems on letting in too many outsiders — Brexiters and their nationalist counterparts worldwide — is not hard to understand. They have been led to think as they do by the facts available to them — a minute fraction of the internet’s bounty, despite its magical capacity for instantaneous dissemination.

Some far from obvious information that they might want to look at — if only to refine their arguments and positions — is in Jared Diamond’s panoptic Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). In that prizewinning book’s interdisciplinary explorations, drawing on the whole of human history, Diamond floats his hypothesis that the most successful civilisations evolved where geography allowed for the freest movement of people, ideas, agricultural innovations and technologies, and let rival cultures compete in material prosperity.

In an interview posted on the leading American (NIH) medical research website, he described his theory’s genesis:

 … [Y]ou asked about “Eureka” moments. There were actually two. The first occurred in 1990 when an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina was discussing with me why Europeans conquered Native Americans, and we started talking about agriculture. “Yes, there’s corn and maize and tomatoes and wheat and so on,” he said, “but an important consideration is that Europe has an east–west axis whereas the Americas run north–south, and that made it difficult for crops, as well as technology, to spread in the Americas.” A year or two later, when I was at the University of Utah preparing to give several Tanner lectures and had 2 or 3 days to kill, I thought to myself, “I need another lecture topic. Why not see if I could have some original insights into African history?” So I looked at a map of Africa, and it was, “My God, look at that map. Here is another continent with a north–south axis.”

In fact, slow north–south spreads are an issue not only in the New World, with Andean potatoes and llamas never reaching Mexico and Mexican turkeys never reaching Peru, but also in Africa, where the spread of cattle and sheep and goats from the Fertile Crescent was very slow, and where wheat and Mediterranean crops from the north never reached the south at all.

Not much of a leap from that train of thought is the insistence nearly a hundred years ago of Spain’s most famous philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), that successful nations are built not from nationalism and shutting out other people and cultures but by opening mental doors and windows to their influence.

In The Revolt of the Masses ( La rebelión de las masas ) — a protest against narrow, parochial thinking that has been finding new audiences lately, not least because so much of its criticism applies to the nationalist prejudices reshaping contemporary politics all over Europe and in the U.S. — Ortega spelt out risks of aggressive tribalism that are not obvious. He distinguished between nation-building (good) and isolationist, defensive nationalism (bad) in making an original, passionate case for a European federation, advancing a refreshing argument from first principles. That was decades before the European Union was born, only after his and other wise warnings were ignored and nationalism killed an estimated 60 million in a second world war started less than a decade after the first.

Hispanist contributors to the Wikipedia have corrected a crucial misconception in the entry about his Revolt — pointing out that the ‘masses’ to which Ortega was referring are not the poorer, uneducated citizens that critics of ‘populism’ have in mind today:

He does not … refer to specific social classes, as has been so commonly misunderstood in the English-speaking world. Ortega states that the mass-man could be from any social background, but his specific target is the bourgeois educated man, the señorito satisfecho (satisfied young man or Mr. Satisfied), the specialist who believes he has it all and extends the command he has of his subject to others, contemptuous of his ignorance in all of them.

If only the following short extracts from TROTM could be debated on mainstream television …

Blood, language, and common past are static principles … If the nation consisted in these and nothing more, [ the idea of nations ] would be something lying behind us, something with which we should have no concern. … England, France, Spain, Germany would never have been born… [ but ] … Whether we like it or not, human life is a constant preoccupation with the future … bringing something future into effect.

… The groups which … have been known as nations arrived about a century ago at their highest point of expansion. … They are now mere past accumulating all around Europe, weighing it down, imprisoning it.… What was before a nation open to all the winds of heaven, has turned into something provincial, an enclosed space.

Everyone sees the need for a new principle of life. But as always happens in similar crises — some people attempt to save the situation by an artificial intensification of the very principle which led to decay. This is the meaning of the ‘nationalist’ outburst of recent years. … On the very eve of their disappearance there is an intensification of frontiers — military and economic.

But all these nationalisms are so many blind alleys. Try to project one into the future and see what happens. There is no outlet that way. Nationalism is always an effort in a direction opposite to the one that creates nations. The former is exclusive in tendency, the latter inclusive. In periods of consolidation, nationalism has a positive value, and it is a lofty standard. But in Europe everything is more than consolidated [ in individual nations ] and nationalism is nothing more than a mania, a pretext to escape from the necessity of inventing something new, some great enterprise.

… Only the determination to construct a great nation from the group of peoples of the Continent would give new life to the pulses of Europe.