I wasn’t allowed out at night so, after my parents thought I’d gone to finish my homework and to bed, I went out the window. A younger brother asked to come too and I had to bring him along.
Ah! The pleasure, the joy, the freedom to be out on the streets at night – especially when it had been forbidden. I was wearing my new blue trainer shoes. They felt good. They looked good. I felt good.
We wandered on towards a street of brightly-lit shops, most of them still open. Around the corner we went – and walked into the tail-end of a robbery! It was a sports shoe shop and the robbers, young lads, were spilling out of the shop, bumped into me … and people were shouting. And then one of the bystanders or shop assistants pointed at me and shouted that I was one of the robbers!
Well, even if I could convince people I was not, when the cops questioned me, they’d at least take me home to confirm my address and check my parents. And I was not supposed to be out.
Getting out of there quick seemed like the only rational option.
As I ran, I cursed my new trainers as I heard my accuser shout: “Look, he’s even wearing a pair of the stolen trainers! The blue ones.”
I had to get out of the area and, if possible, change my shoes. How to do that? Nearby was a late-night school gym and that’s where I headed. Asking the brother to wait for me outside in the shrubbery, I ducked in.
I passed by some youth around my age in a corridor and got by them casually with not too many words. It surprised me that they were all black. I soon found a changing room with shoes and clothes scattered about – and no-one in there — great! There was even a pair of white trainers my size — my luck was in! But as I was changing into them, the door opened and a black kid walked in.
“Who’re you?” was his immediate question, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Marlon,” I replied, giving the first reply that came to my head. I was just thinking that was an unlikely name for a white boy and he might even think I was taking the piss out of current Afro-Caribbean youth names when he asked “Marlon who?”
And like some conditioned response, I replied “Brando”. My heart sank but I kept my face unconcerned. With any luck he only watched kung-fu and chain-saw massacre films.
His eyes narrowed. “That’s an actor’s name”. Damn! For a second I considered blagging it but knew it wouldn’t work.
“Yeah, sorry,” I replied, shrugging. “Just a joke.” And I gave him another name.
Just then, the door opened and a younger black kid looked in. I’d met him earlier, on the way in.
“Hi, Ian,” he said when he saw me. I’d probably told him my name was Ian Fleming. That wasn’t the problem, though; the real problem was that was not the name I’d just given tough guy, whose eves widened.
Young black kid had hardly closed the door and gone before tough black kid grabbed my arm, opened a door to another room and shoved me in there.
It was a toilet and looked like there was shit everywhere. And it was not in turds but in semi-liquid form, like an explosion – or more likely, several explosions – of severe diarrhoea. To say it was disgusting would so far below reality as to be a lie.
“It’s covered in shit,” I complained.
“So clean it up,” he replied, shut and locked the door.
The memory of what followed is all too clear to me but I’ll spare any of you the description. Suffice it to say that I cleaned it up, or most of it, dumping it in the pan and pumping the toilet flusher a number of times.
I had nearly finished when the door was unlocked and another black kid, this one in plastic apron, rubber boots and gloves, looked in on me.
“Done?” he enquired.
“Yeah,” I replied, washing my hands in the sink. “And it was truly disgusting.”
“You had it easy,” he replied. “You’d want to see the mountain of dog shit I’ve had to clear.”
He was wrong about that – I definitely did not want to see it. Right then I wished never to see shit again as long as I lived but it was just another of many wishes already in my short life that I knew would not be granted.
“Come along,” he said and beckoned.
He seemed friendly and anyway, what choice did I have? There was no other way out of that room.
He opened another door and I followed him into a compound of dog pens.
“Mamelukes” he said, showing me around.
“You mean Malemutes,” I began to say but trailed off when I saw them. There’s a lot of things I don’t know but I do know these were not malemutes – not even close. And Mamelukes were an Egyptian slave soldier caste. I don’t know what kind of breed these dogs were but they reminded me of that latest of accessory dog breeds, the shar pei. They had very short hair and wrinkled skin. But the pups were kind of grey-coloured and huge.
Despite my guide’s reassurance as he brought me into one pen, the pup was growling fiercely at me. Its mother (I presume) in the next pen, barked at the pup as if to say “Shut up, silly! Can’t you see this guy is a friend? He’s with our feeder and pen cleaner!”
Her head came up to the height of my chest. Even though she looked like she was friendly towards me, I was glad she was in the next pen, with a wire fence between us. Otherwise I would never have dared do what I did next.
Grabbing the pup around the muzzle so it couldn’t bite me, I flipped it on to its back and started scratching its stomach. The pup wriggled madly, at first in anger or fear, but then out of pleasure. When I let it up, dominance and pleasure-giving role established, it was all over me. Wagging its tail like mad, squirming, its wrinkles running up and down its loose skin. It was ugly, really but kind of appealing too.
My guide took me out of the pen and locked it but then, looking off to the side, exclaimed: “Oh no! One’s got out. It likes being chased and it’ll take me ages to catch it. Help me, please.”
I set off after him and we passed beyond the pens into a piece of undulating open ground where cabbages and other vegetables had been grown – some were still there, unharvested. In the distance, something was moving fast. Strangely, it looked like a head of cabbage.
I ran after the guy and caught up with him just in time to see the pup’s hind legs disappearing into a burrow.
“Quick, head it off at the other side,” he said.
The other side of the burrow was only a few steps away and emerging on to a ridge, where I took up station to block the pup. I heard and felt more than saw it coming and what flew out of the burrow at me was no pup or cabbage head but some kind of large flying insect. By reflex I reached out and grabbed it and some of its feet scratched my fingers. And then it was a bird.
It had been some time since I had taken any drugs and never the psychotropic kind but that was definitely a bird in my hand now. A pretty one too.
Next I remember I found the brother and we made our way home, me still with the bird quite placidly in my hand. And we walked into the house through the back garden and it was daylight and no-one was telling us off for being out all night.
We had some visitors I could see through the open door to the kitchen and it looked like my Ma and my younger sister had been having an argument. The visitors seemed quite shocked when the Sis said loudly: “I don’t give a shit!”.
My older brother walked past them munching something and gave me a sardonic lift of the eyebrow in passing. That was really weird – not so much the eyebrow but the fact that I don’t have an older brother – but it didn’t seem to bother me much at the time.
“Look at the bird I have!” I called to my sister.
A smile of malicious delight spread over her face. “Shove it up!” she shouted.
I once knew a cat but, what is more to the point, the cat knew me.
I knew the cat not well, but as a kind of nearby resident I had helped a little once and made friendly overtures to. He or she (I suspect she and will refer to it so from now on) first came into contact with me when a racket of magpies not far from my home attracted my attention. I found magpies harassing a marmalade (orange tabby) cat in a tree and the cat seemed trapped there.
Since there was no nest in the tree for the magpies to be protecting, I chased them off some distance with the aid of shouts and stones, then tried to persuade the cat to come down but she just looked at me – afraid of me too, I thought. Some days later, I came across a marmalade cat outside some nearby houses and called to her and, when she came, stroked her and then went on my way. She made as if to follow me but then gave up.
A few weeks later, I was coming up the road when I saw a marmalade cat about 50 yards away and wondered if it was her. She however looked up, saw me and hurried over, then began rubbing her body against my leg.
So how did she recognise me? Cats have very good hearing but I very much doubt she could identify my footsteps on a concrete footpath amidst all the traffic noise from so far away. Cats also have a good sense of smell but I don’t think it’s good over distance. They are not good at recognising human faces, according to tests. So, she probably recognised my shape and gait (like those recognition software programmes the secret services have developed and with which they monitor a lot of CCTV coverage — reassuring, huh? Not so much!).
It is true I have a somewhat identifiable gait, so I am told – a swagger learned as protective colouring in my teens but about which I am nearly always unconscious and when I am, try to control. Once doing that in New Cross in SE London, a black youth I knew from my work in a local youth club shouted from across the street: “Walk like a white man!” Apparently my attempt to control the Dublin swagger was resulting in the kind of walk adopted by many Afro-Caribbean youth.
But, back to the cat. Anyway, it was an amazing feat of recognition of an individual of a different species and of minimal acquaintance and I think she would have recognised me no matter how subdued my usual type of walk. I wonder how many individuals considered friendly or otherwise a cat can identify by sight at a distance – just how big is their database?
Another time I came upon this cat, she was stretched out on a warm sunny pavement but being persecuted by a pair of magpies (probably the same ones as before). The cat saw me and so did the magpies but I stopped at a distance to observe what was happening.
One magpie distracted her attention by strutting up and down in front of her head, but out of reach of swipe or sudden rush, while the other waited its chance and pecked at the cat’s tail. She lay there suffering this persecution, only twitching her tail from time to time in a futile attempt to keep it away from the bird or perhaps out of tension.
“But why don’t you move, Cat?” I asked her, half in amusement and half in sympathy.
She looked at me and seemed to say:
“Why should I? This is MY pavement and I am harming no-one! I am not going to let two BIRDS chase me off!”
“Well, you could spring at them …”
“What’s the point? They keep just out of range and I’d miss, giving them a reason to mock me.”
The Magpies, in turn, might have been saying:
“This has nothing to do with you, Mister. This is a Cat, ancestral predator on birds and fair game for us at any time. Keep out of it!”
“Yeah, we remember you butting in before!”
And magpies probably can identify human faces – at least tests with their close relatives, crows and jackdaws, show that they can. And magpies are the only bird so far shown able to identify themselves in a mirror.
I did keep out of it. I had things to do and left them to it – the cat after all had the option to leave and even were I to chase them off, the birds would only fly a little distance and then come back. I’ve seen magpies do this “torment-the-cat” thing before. And cats will kill a magpie, if they can.
The cat’s refusal to move or to make a lunge she knew the birds would easily evade, the provocative tormenting by the magpies and the way they worked in unison, all seemed to me so very human, even allowing for anthropomorphism.
But thinking about it later, I came to a different conclusion: it is not the animal behaviour that is human-like – it is OUR behaviour that is animal-like! After all, are we not descended from a common ancestor, albeit nearly 300 million years ago?
In total, I saw that Marmalade Miss maybe four or five times and then no more. Perhaps her owner(s) moved – I hope so and that she was not killed by traffic.
I had nothing I could gain from the cat, other than a kind of feeling of kinship perhaps. Other than a stroke now and again, she had nothing to gain from me. It was an uncomplicated friendship and not, like with some dogs, a dependency by either of us. I know she is gone but years later, as I pass near that street, sometimes still look out for her.
It was nearly ten o’clock at night when she approached me on a badly-lit street near Dublin’s North Circular Road. I had paused my bicycle to send a text on my mobile and I saw her coming towards me. I had the impression that, just before she made for me, she had been looking around as though to determine where she was – perhaps I had seen her doing that in my peripheral vision.
She had a handbag and was dragging one of those suitcases with an extending handle and trundling on little wheels. As she reached me, I asked her could I help her with directions, which actually interrupted her asking me for help. But that was ok, it worked against her being totally dependent, the asker – after all, I had asked too. She had a USA accent.
Yes, of course I would help if I could.
Did I know the whereabouts of a certain hotel? Well, the area in the hotel’s name I do know but I didn’t recall the hotel itself. And sometimes they give themselvess the name of somewhere known or popular even though their hotel is not near the place at all.
Did she have the street name? No.
The phone number? Somewhere in her bag (she meant her case).
I explained that I don’t have Internet on my mobile phone but she could look it up on Google map? She doesn’t have Internet access on her phone either.
Can she afford a taxi? Yes, of course.
Well, why not hail one? She has done that but they tell her the hotel is just down the road.
Well, why not ask them to take her there? She has, but they tell her it’s just down the road.
Hmmmm – a sliver of doubt entered my brain. Taxi drivers refusing a short drive fare on a weekday night? To an address with which they are familiar? And leaving a woman, clearly a tourist, on her own in that area on foot ….. Something is wrong with this story.
Still … what to do?
OK, so I’ll ride around on the bike and find the place (even if I have to stop a taxi and ask the driver, I was thinking). Then I’ll come back and tell her (and accompany her there too, I think to myself).
She is very grateful but I think it is not safe for her to wait for me here. Perhaps the courtyard of a pub a little further back? A well-lit one.
I walk the bike, she trundles the case. Talks about her plans for her two-week stay, which appear to be to arrive in Dublin and then figure out where to go from there. Relates having been booked into a Dublin hostel which another passenger on a bus told her was in a bad district so she didn’t go there. Something seems wrong about this story too.
We reach the pub – it is still in business hours and the courtyard, though deserted, is brightly lit. There are tables and chairs and and I ask her to wait there for me and I’ll be back in a few minutes. She agrees.
Three minutes later I have found the hotel and in four, five at the most, I am back at the pub.
But the courtyard is empty.
Oh, no! She just got up and went?!
Wait. Maybe she asked someone where it was and set off there on her own. But then I would have passed her on the way back – I couldn’t have missed her.
Maybe …. oh God! Maybe whoever she asked volunteered to take her there. And she went with them. Got into a car ….
Ah, Jayzus! What now? Call the cops?
But now I see her ….. coming out of the pub, pulling the case, carrying her bag, all of it awkward as she manages the door….. Maybe she didn’t feel safe out there on her own and went inside …. but no, she has a pint of lager in her hand.
I remind her that I asked her to wait and that I’d be back in a few minutes. I have found the place and was ready to accompany her there but now she has bought a pint. (I am hoping she will leave the pint but no chance).
She is so grateful and would like to buy me a drink.
It’s an offer I might well have accepted when I had got her to her hotel and she had checked in. Now, though? I show her where her hotel is, a straight walk down the road I point out to her, wish her well and ride off.
Asking for it – bloody asking for it! It’s a phrase that doesn’t usually mean someone wants something bad to happen, rather that their conduct makes that a likely outcome. Unfortunately it is used too often with regard to the victims of rape, when wanting it to happen is occasionally precisely what is insinuated – smearing the victim and exonerating the attacker. But usually, conduct with predictable bad results is what is indicated; for example, leaving your bag or laptop inside your car, visible to passers-by, is asking to have your car broken into. Leaving your bike unlocked in the open out of your sight is asking to have it stolen.
Surely it is not a healthy situation for a person to be walking around in a badly-lit part of a strange city at ten at night? And looking like a tourist, whom a predator might therefore assume to have some money and perhaps a camera, Ipad, etc? And a woman alone, considered a defenceless potential victim?
Surely one would want to get into one’s hotel as soon as possible? OK, I understand the appeal of the pint, particularly if one has been stressed out by travel and then wandering around looking for one’s hotel. But hotels have bars, where the worst that will happen to one (or the best, depending on one’s point of view) is that it will lead to sharing one of the hotel beds with a stranger. OK, if you want local colour with your pint, find a “typical” local pub after you’ve checked in. And be sure you know your way back.
But there she had been, wandering around a badly-lit street at night looking for a hotel (and walking further away from it when I met her). And someone goes to find her hotel and asks her to wait and in less than five minutes she’s bought a pint, which means she won’t be able to go to the hotel when the guy returns. And she blithely offers to buy him a drink.
Maribel Eginoa Cisneros died on the 13th of this August in the Santutxu district of Bilbao. She was many things – a democratic Basque patriot, dancer, choir singer, herbalist, mycologist, carer, wife, mother ….
I and two of my siblings travelled to attend the funeral. For me it was a farewell to a warm, intelligent and cultured person who, along with her husband, two of her daughters and a son-in-law, had been very welcoming to me. More than that or because of that, I thought of them as “my Basque family”.
Somewhere I have a Basque family related through blood and marriage but I don’t know them. Different loyalties and some German blood during the Spanish Civil War took my mother out of the Basque Country; the ties were cut and left behind. My mother became a woman in Madrid, where she met my father soon after.
Although they never met, it was because of my mother that I had first met Maribel. My mother, Lucila Helmann Menchaca (the Basques spell it Mentxaka), was born in Algorta, in the Getxo district, not far from Bilbao and spent her early childhood there. How her parents met is another story but Luci grew up bilingual in Castillian (Spanish) and German, with a Basque mother who hardly knew any Euskera (Basque) and a German father. All of Luci’s children, the five boys and one girl, knew of their mother’s childhood in the Basque Country and as we grew older, a desire grew with it to see where she had been born; each of us individually making the pilgrimage.
ONGI ETORRI – BASQUE WELCOME
I was a total stranger and low on funds on my first visit to the Basque Country. I had one contact, a woman I had met only a couple of times when she worked as an au pair in Dublin; she promised to help me get based and I arranged to phone her when I arrived. But the flight was delayed and then could not land at Bilbao airport – too much cloud, the pilot said – and we would land instead at Zaragossa, over 154 miles (248 Km) away. There the passengers had to wait for a coach and eventually arrived in Bilbao in the early hours of the morning. Of course, I had not booked an hotel, so the driver of the last taxi available tried a few without success and then brought me to the Nervión, a four-star hotel over its namesake river, dark and unlovely with a nightly rate that hit me in the gut.
Next morning I phoned my contact, Ziortza and she came to the Nervión and waited while I checked out. I expected to be brought to a cheap hotel or hostel but was instead brought to her family’s home and there, for the first time, I met Ziortza’s parents, Maribel Eginoa and Josemari Echeverria (women don’t change their surnames now when they marry there). I was welcomed, fed and shown to what was to be my room during my stay. It was Ziortza’s, who moved in with her parents – the other two sisters lived in their own apartments with their partners and children. I was fed wonderfully every day too.
I was stunned by the depth of the hospitality from people I did not know, a trait I have encountered again and again among many Basques I have met. Nor was that all. Ziortza took me on her days off on excursions to some different places and towns and her sister Gurrutze and husband Gorka took me on a tour along the Bay of Biscay before turning uphill to iconic Gernika (Spanish spelling “Guernica”). Ziortza also gave me instructions on how to get to Algorta by local train, where my hand-drawn map could take me to where my mother had lived, a trip I preferred to make alone.
The next occasion I returned to Bilbao, this time to begin to know the southern Basque Country, I stayed in their apartment again, in the same room, but this time without discommoding them, since Ziortza had moved out to her own place.
THE UNEXPECTED ONE
Maribel and Josémaria were fairly comfortable and retired when I met them but they had some hard times behind them. Josémari’s father had been a Basque nationalist and fought against Franco, a fact that did not escape the victorious Franco authorities. When it came to time for the Spanish military service obligatory for males (much resisted in the Basque Country and now
abolished throughout the State), they sent Josémari to one of the worst places to which they could send the son of a Basque nationalist – Madrid. His superior officers took pleasure in reminding him of his father and of what they thought of Basque nationalists (or even Basques in general). For the couple, it was a difficult separation but they married as soon as he was finished with the Spanish Army. Maribel was 21 years of age.
In their early years together they often travelled to Iparralde (“the northern country”), the Basque part under French rule, with a Basque dance group called Dindirri. The French state has no tolerance for notions of Basque independence but does not harry the movement as does the Spanish state in Hegoalde (“the southern country”). Maribel was fluent in French as well as in Castillian.
Born ten years after the most recent of another four siblings, Maribel was the result of an unexpected pregnancy. “It was destiny,” commented one of her daughters. “The unexpected one would be the one to take care of everyone in the future.” One of Maribel’s siblings had died after a few days, another at the age of 19 due to surgical negligence, another had cerebral palsy. Maribel’s sister herself had an intellectually challenged boy and, when she emigrated with her husband and daughter, left him in Maribel’s care. As Maribel’s mother grew old and infirm, she took care of her too. Her brother with cerebral palsy, although in a home for his specialist care, spent weeks at a time in the family home. And another relative came to stay with them too, for awhile. Maribel looked after everyone.
Of course, her husband Josémari helped, as did her daughters. And they all accepted that this was how things were. And to add to that, the couple visited friends and neighbours in hospital.
LANGUAGE AND POLITICS
When I met Maribel and Josémari, I heard them speak to their daughters in Euskera — the Basque native language. But they themselves had not been raised speaking it – they went to classes to learn the language and raised their children with it. Speaking or learning Euskera was illegal under Franco except for some dispensation to Basque Catholic clergy. It was the latter who founded the first illicit “ikastolak”1 to teach Euskera and later these were set up by lay people too. The ikastola, teaching all subjects except language through Euskera, is now the school type attended by the majority in the southern Basque Country and is mainstream in the Euskadi or CAV administrative area, encompassing the provinces of Bizkaia, Alava and Guipuzkoa.
Under Spanish state repression the old Basque Nationalist Party was decimated and although still in existence, its youth wing became impatient with what they perceived as the timidity of their elders. The PNV youth found a similar impatience among leftish Basque youth who had picked up on the vibrations of the youth and student movement of the 1960s. These youth brought to the table the narratives of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, mixed with socialist ideas of the Cuban and Algerian revolutions. Thus was Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Homeland and Freedom) born — doubly illegal, as they espoused Basque self-determination and socialism. And so they were spied upon by the Guardia Civil, harassed, arrested, tortured, jailed … after nine years of which ETA took up arms.
Of the Spanish state’s main political parties today, the ultra-right Partido Popular and the social democratic PSOE, the first receives very little electoral support in the CAV administrative area and the second always less than the total of Basque parties. Maribel and Josémari, like most of patriotic Basque society, were presented with the choice of supporting the PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) or the Abertzale Left, the broad political movement of which ETA was a part. The PNV was known for jobbery and corruption and collusion with the Spanish state so of course Maribel and Josemari raised their family in loose allegiance to the Abertzale Left, attending many marches of the movement, public meetings, pickets and now and then hearing gunshots and explosions, hearing of people they knew going into clandestinity and others arrested, tortured and jailed. Everyone knew someone who became a political prisoner (and that is still largely the case) — a neighbour, work colleague, a past pupil. One of Maribel’s daughters saw most of her quadrilla – a small circle of Basque school friends who typically stay close throughout life – go to jail; part of her life is now organised around making visits to jails throughout the Spanish and French states, thanks to the cruel dispersal policy.
At the funeral service in the packed Iglesia del Karmelo in the Bilbao district of Santutxu, I remembered Maribel’s warm personality and hospitality. In fact it was around that hospitality that I unwittingly caused a rift between us. By the last time I returned to stay with them, I had become active in Basque solidarity work in Ireland. Beset with communication difficulties with the organisations in Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) and desperate for regular sources of accurate information, I was essentially based at their home while seeking out and establishing contacts every day. Maribel, as a considerate Basque hostess, wanted to know in advance whether I was going to be available for meals and I sometimes forgot to tell her when I was not. I also didn’t get into the Basque rhythm of lunch, supper and main meal. In my focus on finding needed contacts I just didn’t appreciate the distress I was causing and that it might have appeared, as one daughter told me, that I was treating her parent’s apartment as an hotel. In subsequent annual visits to Bilbao, staying with others, I tried to make amends but though we remained friendly, it was never as before. Some rips you can darn but the fabric is never what it was.
In Maribel’s funeral service, the daughters led the singing of the “Agur Jaunak”2; I had the words printed out but didn’t recognise the air at first so by the time I caught on, was unable to find the place to join in. The first time I heard it, sung in performance by Maribel and Josemaria in their choir in another church, the song brought tears to my eyes. The couple belonged to two choirs and had even performed abroad; for many years choirs had been a big thing in the Basque Country but are not so popular now. The Agur Jaunak is a moving piece of music and the final words of farewell, now laden with additional meaning, brought forth my tears at the funeral too (and in fact bring some to my eyes now even recalling it).
When I got back to Dublin I decided to write an article dedicated to Maribel. And to the Basque love of mushrooms. Maribel and her husband were both mycologists (students of fungi) and she was a great cook too. At the time the urge to write struck me, it was autumn, the optimum time for fungi, when the weather is still fairly warm in much of Europe, but also damp.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE AND MUSHROOMS
The Basques imagine themselves in many forms but the most enduring is probably as a mountain people. Not all the country is mountainy, of course – it has lowlands along most of its coastline (yes, they sometimes see themselves as mariners too) and even some highlands are plateau rather than mountain. But. Mountain people, nevertheless. My mother told us that Basque patriots when they died were often cremated and their ashes carried up the mountains inside the ikurrina, the Basque national flag. On reaching the top, the flag would be shook out, consigning the ashes to the winds. The Basque irrintzi cry, like yodelling, is typical of methods that use the voice to communicate from mountain to mountain. Climbing is a popular sport and so is hill walking, often also done as a form of youth political and social activity.
Even among Basques living on the coast or other lowlands, it is hard to meet a native who has not been to the mountains and high valleys and many go there regularly, sometimes in organised groups. One of the reasons they go, apart from reinforcing their cultural affinity, is to pick edible fungi. I am told that there are 100 edible species known in the Basque Country and that “between 40 and 50 varieties are eaten regularly”.3
As opposed to other regional administrations, a fee does not have to be paid in the CAV administration (three of the southern Basque provinces) to collect these mushrooms, although breaching rules can cost between 30 and 250 euros in fines. The regulations specify a collection limit of two kilograms per person per day and one is obliged to use a knife to remove and a wicker basket to store.
Sadly, illegal commercial operations have cashed in on the love of mushrooms in the Spanish state and gangs have been discovered recruiting poorly-paid migrants or unemployed natives to collect without a licence in administrations where such is a requirement, breaching conservation rules and running the risk of arrest. These gangs are less likely to succeed in the southern Basque Country, a society highly organised on a voluntary and local basis and in general quite conscious of the importance of conservation.
Further northwards, 25 km. from Iruňa (Pamplona), is the Harana (valley) Ultzama, a natural reserve, over half of it thick woodland. It is in Nafarroa (Navarre), the fourth southern Basque province.
“A mycological park over 6,000 hectares has been marked out, a great luxury for mushroom-lovers. …. The park’s information point, in the municipality of Alkotz, indicates the routes where these mushroom can be found as well as information about the species and how to identify those that have been collected throughout the day.” The collection permit costs €5 per day and is available from the information office or on their website.4
The Basques go in family groups or groups of friends, knowing the edible types (or accompanied by at least one who knows) and they bring baskets, not plastic bags. The idea is that the spores of picked mushrooms will drop through the weave as they walk and so seed growths of new mushrooms further away from where the parent fungi were picked. It is actually illegal to go picking with plastic bags and though there are not many of them, the forest police will arrest people who break that law. In a nation overburdened with police forces, that force is the only one that seems free from popular resentment.
The best mushroom sites are kept secret by those who know and the location of those sites is sometimes handed down through generations. In a peninsula renowned for its types of food and preparation styles, Basque cuisine lays claim to the highest accolade. Yet it uses hardly any spices or herbs. Sea food is high on the cuisine list of course but so is the ongo, the mushroom.
On a Sunday in October 2010, I was present in Bilbao when Maribel and Josemari’s mycological group had an exhibition in a local square, where they also cooked and sold fungi. Josemari and Mirabel worked all day in the hot sun and then had their own feast with their group afterwards, though by then I imagine many would not have had a great appetite.
I was staggered by the number of different species of fungi native to Euskal Herria and their variety of shapes and colours — I was told by the couple, and can well believe it, that their association had exhibited just over 300 species in that exhibition, between edible, inedible and poisonous. This figure was down on the previous year, when they had exhibited 500! Apparently there are over 700 species known to the country.
I tried to imagine how many Irish people would attend such an exhibition in Dublin, even on a sunny day such as we had there — perhaps 20, if the organisers were lucky. The square in that Santutxu district of Bilbao was full, as were the surrounding bar/cafés. There were all ages present, from babies at their mothers’ breasts to elderly people making their way slowly through the crowds. The food was all centred around cooked edible fungi: shish kebabs of mushroom, peppers, onions; burgers made of minced mushrooms and a little flour; little mushrooms with ali-oli on top, served on small pieces cut off long bread rolls; big pieces of brown mushroom almost the size of the palm of one’s hand.
The people queued for the food and those selling it couldn’t keep up with demand. And the people also, including children, queued to see the fungi being exhibited. Unlike the Irish, who doubtless also have varieties of edible native fungi in their land but have largely shown an interest in only the common white cultivated kind and, among certain groups of mostly young people, the ‘magic’ variety, the Basques love their fungi.
I ate some there in that square and again, with other food also, down in the Casco Viejo (the medieval part of Bilbo city), where some new friends took me de poteo (from bar to bar) and wouldn´t let me buy even one round. Many bars serve pintxos, small cold snacks, some plain enough and others more involved – normally one eats and drinks and pays the total before leaving. But some of those bars have a room upstairs or to the side where meals are served and one had an excellent restaurant where we ate well and, of course, my friends wouldn’t let me pay my share of that either. True, I had organised some solidarity work for one of their family in prison but all the same ….. When it comes to hospitality, in my opinion the Basques deserve the fame even better than the Irish, who have been justly known for that quality too.
Some of the company had been the previous day in the town of Hernani, where a rally convened to call for Basque Country independence had been banned by the Spanish state. Despite the judicial order, thousands of young people had participated in the rally and had been planning to attend the rock concert afterwards. The Basque Region Police had attacked the peaceful demonstration with plastic bullets and then baton-charged the young people. Many were injured by the plastic bullets, by batons, and by being trampled in the narrow streets when people tried to flee the charging police. It was an object lesson in the drawbacks to regional autonomy or “home rule”. However, the resistance had been so strong that the police eventually had to retreat and allow the rock concert to proceed without further interference. But that too is another story.
AGUR — SLÁN
But five years later, outside the church after Maribel’s funeral, I waited with my two brothers on the margins of the crowd. I saw some youth among the mourners, including Goth and punk types, presumably friends of Maribel and Josemari’s daughters. Most in attendance were of older generations, however. It was noticeable how prominent the women were – garrulous and assertive. There were of course representatives of various branches of the movement, who knew the couple personally.
Inside the church I had already conveyed my condolences to Josemari, who had seemed amazed, amidst his grief, that I had travelled from Ireland for the funeral. I was surprised, in turn, that he would have expected any less; for me, there was no question – I’d have borrowed the money to go if necessary. His son-in-law burst into tears when I hugged him and that was it for me, my composure crumbled and we cried in one another’s arms. Now I waited for the crowd to thin so I could hug the daughters, the two who live in Bilbao and Maider, who lives in Gastheiz (Vitoria).
I stayed in a friend’s house a couple more days, renewing contacts and making a few new ones, meeting some old friends and then it was back to Dublin once more. Agur to Euskal Herria and agur to Maribel Eginoa – a loss to her family, to her nation, to me and to humanity.
1 “ikastola” = school or college; plural “ikastolak”
2Agur translates as “goodbye” butcan also be a greeting. The Agur Jaunak’s lyrics are short and simple; the song is performed usually a capella, in giving honour to a person or persons and traditionally everyone stands when it is sung. The provenance of the air is a matter under discussion but it is only the Basques who are known to have lyrics to it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNMaMNMpYEk is one of the best versions I could find on the Internet although there is a somewhat cheesy bit by one of the performers in it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7Z8E-xhYTU is vocally another lovely interpretation sung unusually high although I dislike the crescendo at the end which is not the traditional way of singing it, which is to end on a low note.
CATHERINE BYRNE, DUBLIN TD, SAID “WE SHOULD TAKE BACK OUR FLAG”. MAYBE SHE’S RIGHT ….
Dublin South-Central TD Catherine Byrne was warmly applauded when she said that they should ”take back our flag” from people who have been using it in protests against water charges and other issues. She made the statement at the Fine Gael political party’s two-day conference in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, held under strict security.
Arts Minister Heather Humphreys supported that view and told delegates in a secret session on the 1916 commemorations (a session which exposed divisions in the party): ”Some have used our flag to portray a different message – it’s time to reclaim our flag.”
Incredibly, I only discovered this recording a few days ago. I first heard this song sung by Cornelius Cardew whom I knew in London through political activism and interest in revolutionary culture. Years later I learned the lyrics and sing it now to the same tune, more or less, i.e. that of A Nation Once Again. Admittedly, it sounds great with a reggae or ska backbeat. I came across this recording while looking for a recording of me singing the song at a talk by Portuguese socialists given in Dublin last year.
The lyrics were composed by James Connolly and were published in the James Connolly Songbook in 1907 in New York with a foreword by Connolly:
“No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses, they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the fears and hopes, the loves and hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement; it is a dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude”.
Cornelius Cardew was a respected composer as well as a revolutionary, a central member of the English Communist Party (marxist-leninist). This small organization had a good track record on a number of fronts, including solidarity with the Irish struggle.
I remember the shock when hearing of his death 13 December 1981, the victim of a hit-and-run driver near his London home in Leyton. The driver was never found. It might have been an accident but he was not the only political activist to die in mysterious circumstances in Britain in those years, particularly if involved in Irish solidarity.
I recently went to London in order to visit my daughter and son, their partners and their children. My son and his wife Natalie had recently had a baby girl; and my daughter and her husband Irwin have a boy and a girl. It turned out for a number of reasons that I had more spare time than I expected, so with the help of a friend I got in some sight-seeing and with the help of another, attendance at quite few singing sessions. I also attended one political rally. The following is an account of those events with the least said about my family and friends since their lives are private, with the exception of my host, Jim Radford, who has a very public side with regard to political and community activism and singing.
Archictecture and Transport System
Visiting London, where I spent 30 years of my life was strange, in particular staying about ten minutes’ walk from where I had lived for about half of my time in that city. I had a sense of being an observer at a familiar place but of which I was no longer part, something like a ghost, perhaps.
Not only Kings Cross Station but the whole area around it has been redeveloped and changed so much. In the early ’90s I worked shifts as a Project Worker in a ‘wet hostel’ (one where street drinkers are permitted to continue drinking), very near to St. Pancras Hospital and about fifteen minutes’ walk from the station (if one walks very fast, which I often did to get in for my early shift). On a late shift, walking down St. Pancras Road, on my way to the Underground to head back to SE London, I would often pass a solitary sex worker or two hoping for custom. Displaying the goods on sale is a trade requirement and I felt especially sorry for them in cold or wet weather.
The area was well-known for a high level of sex work and illegal drugs – selling and buying. Four years later, after two years as a Deputy Manager in a number of hostels in other parts of London, I was back in the area again, with a different NGO, as Manager of a hostel for active drug users (most of them injecting). The area had been very familiar to me then but visiting now I could hardly recognise it. The train and Underground stations have been remodeled and an international train station connecting with the Channel Tunnel has been built. In addition the areas in front of them and to the side are unrecogniseable. A big plaza fronts the station and around the side and back is another plaza with the de rigueur converted warehouses and similar-type buildings also around the back of the station now hosting eateries and fashionable offices.
No doubt the area is much more heavily policed now in order to present a clean image for tourists and the middle class young eating and drinking there but I am sure that sex work and drug commerce continues. Perhaps much more cocaine rather than heroin or crack is sold now for the new client group. But though I was there on a weekend night, I observed many of the restaurants and winebars only half-full.
I went out to Stratford too to see the Olympic Stadium and surrounding area. I had worked in that area as a community development worker for six months and taught an adult education beginners’ class in Irish for some years there too — but again, would not have recognised the area now. Like King’s Cross, it had changed completely but unlike the former, in almost unbelievable ugliness. The shopping centre wasn’t too bad but very much of the UStater “mall” type. Apparently many people in the US spend much of their free time in such places and, indeed, there seemed little other choice in Stratford now, especially for teenagers, unless they were of the outdoor type and accessed the Lee Valley, Wanstead Flats etc.
An observation tower which is also a sculpture or “installation”, apparently, stands outside the the Olympic Stadium. It was chosen in competition but aesthetics can hardly have been one of the required features. I once saw metal girders and joists twisted in the aftermath of a very hot fire – the sculpture instantly brought back the memory.
Unfortunately that was not the only ugly construction in the vecinity: almost in any direction one cared to look, other ugly and often grotesquely-shaped buildings came into view. It was in truth almost impossible to credit that not only was I in the same country but in the same city as the work that had been done around Kings Cross.
But sadly, it was not the only place for ugly buildings. Just by London Bridge I had seen a few others and indeed could see the same ones as part of the distant skyline from Stratford too. The “Shard” is one of them, looking like some kind of unsafe rocket about to take off. Another building reminds me of one of those free-standing electric fan heaters.
Some pieces of metal fell off the Shard recently – perhaps the beginning of a suicide attempt by the building, prompted by shame – and would have killed anyone they had struck. The various companies involved, both in its construction and in renting space in it, have said that there is no danger and everything is being checked again. I’m sure that is very reassuring to people working there and to passers-by.
It occurred to me at some point that an Irishman taking photos of buildings around the Olympic arena could get into trouble, even these days — so took myself off inside the ‘mall’ to eat.
On a positive note about London other than the Kings Cross development, the new Overground system links up with much of the Underground and throws a public travel net around the city and outskirts, linking up a great many areas which were previously only accessible by using a combination of public transport systems often taking hours.
I was told about the Overground and even used it but it was some time before I noticed that both that system and the Underground use exactly the same logo design, the difference being the word written across the bar and perhaps the colour. Once one becomes used to a symbol, one no longer reads the words on it or notices anything except very different colours. That didn’t matter until the day I had to catch an Overground train at a station not organically connected to the Underground, on which I was travelling. My ticket was good for both and the Overground station was less than a minute’s walk away down the street. Seeing what looked like the same design and taking it for another entrance to the Underground station I had left earlier, I walked past it three times and once almost got on to the nearby British Rail (intercity trains) platform and wondered why everyone was giving me wrong directions!
It was going down to an Overground station in NW London that I saw a big Irish tricolour in someone’s yard, flying right next to the station.
Although I had prepared myself, I was a little shocked at how tall my grandson Kian had become. He is (of course) a very bright lad and was doing tests and making applications for different secondary schools.
Caitlin Rose, his little sister, seemed very excited to see me and I only had to look at her to make her break out in laughter. Grandad is very funny, apparently. Sadly, they have only two living grandparents now – me and my ex-wife. Their other grandfather died shortly before Kian was born and their other grandmother only recently.
Caitlin Rose was born prematurely – I dashed to London at the time and remember holding her in the palm of my hand fpr a little while out of the incubator. She did well but was later diagnosed as suffering from cerebral palsy – the most obvious way it affected her was that her muscles spasmed and drew the tendons in her calves and feet tight, bending her legs and putting her on tiptoe so that she could hardly walk. The condition can be aleviated but so far is incurable. But she is very competitive and determined as well as being very bright (of course). In addition, she had the SDR operation in the USA, a relatively new surgical technique, after which she improved enormously. (See this incredible footage taken about a year after the operation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6SGhuYzng8, from the blog recording her progress and others in the family and promoting the SDR operation http://caitlinroseford.com)
I didn’t get to spend much time during the day with my son-in-law, Irwin, who was busy figuring out how to plumb their new washing machine in to the waste water disposal system. I am not familiar with the closed system so didn’t offer too much advice. But later we went out to eat so I could chat to him a bit more.
We went out to a tapas restaurant not too far from where they live and I ordered the fish skewers from the menu, imagining them to be the size of pintxos in the Basque Country or chicken satay skewers one sees over here. When the skewers arrived I was shocked to see each contained three large pieces, each one the size of an individual fish portion in many expensive and niggardly restaurants, with what looked like a dagger or bayonet pushed through them, mounted on a stand.
The most surprising thing for me however was that all the staff were actually from the Spanish state1 with the exception of one from Latin America. In Dublin, I had become used to these places being staffed by people from non-Castillian-speaking countries.
In a Latin American restaurant in Camden to which a friend took me, allegedly Patagonian and with some beautiful enlarged photographs of that area on the wall, I asked our table attendant whether he knew any Welsh. There had been a Welsh-speaking colony in Patagonia, founded in 1865 and there is still some Welsh spoken there today. “Que va, hombre!” he exclaimed. “De eso no sé nada. Yo soy de Andlalucia” he concluded, smiling. (“Not at all, man! I know nothing about that — I’m from Andalucia”).
I queried some of the wines I didn’t recognise, not sure whether I wanted a glass or not, so he brought some for us to try and …. left the bottle! Of course it would have been discourteous to refuse such good fortune and, the wine being fine, we had a few glasses before he remembered and returned for the bottle. We paid for some of it, of course. I had a feeling he might have left it that long deliberately.
In a Turkish restaurant in Dalston, I wondered whether I might have a taste of a Turkish lager, which I had never previously tasted, before deciding whether to have a pint. The attendant paused and then nodded, coming back with a half-pint. I looked at her perplexed — “It’s on the house,” she said with a little smile. She was half-Scottish and half Egyptian, it turned out. I did like it and ordered some more. Turkish food is nice enough but not one of the world’s more impressive cuisines, in my experience (and I have eaten it there too, including in Turkish-occupied Kurdistan).
Stoke Newington and Dalston are multi-ethnic areas but especially prominent are Kurdish and Turkish businesses. Without a doubt however the most visible ethnic minority are the Hassidic Jews, the men with their long black coats and homburgs, boys with skull caps and side-locks. This sect is anti-Zionist and they are known, on occasion, to demonstrate against the state of Israel. However, I was shocked to learn that the women shave their heads upon marriage and wear wigs when they go out.
At the other end of London from my daughter and her family and also far from where I was staying, it was great to see my son Kevin and his wife Nat and the baby – Elora Mae. London is huge and a return ticket covering the zones on Underground and train cost nearly £10 each time. The Oyster Card they are introducing, like the Leap Card in Dublin, in an attempt to eliminate cash exchanges, makes the journeys a little cheaper but I hadn’t known about that.
I’m usually OK with babies but Elora Mae wouldn’t let me hold her for long before she started to cry. On my last visit, however, she seemed ok with me (or probably my smell) and even gave me a few lovely smiles. Smiling, by the way, as well as focusing on the face, are responses genetically built in to us. Babies do not “learn” to smile, which is instinctive programming but may learn different types of smiles, as well as appropriate times for smiling.
Songs and Singing in London
I was staying with a long-time folk and shanty singer, Jim Radford and he took me along with him to his weekly singing events. In one, an “open mic” event, I was not a little disturbed at the amount of noise in the bar in which it was held. Noise is distracting and I tend to sing louder to get over it, straining my voice and maybe also singing at the wrong pitch and key and therefore not at my best. I got more and more apprehensive as my turn to sing, indicated by the MC to me, approached and in trepidation when my turn came, went up to the microphone to sing two songs as expected. I sang Danny Farrell as an Irish (and Dublin) song unlikely to antagonise anyone there and to my relief the noise level dropped somewhat. My second song was the Pat O’Donnell Ballad, which although it involves the the “Invincibles” and the British administration in Ireland, was not too confrontational, I thought. Besides, it the story is interesting as it may be the first recorded “witness protection” operation in history, though one that went very badly wrong for the “witness” (or traitor) in question.
I was asked to sing a third song, as a courtesy to a visiting guest, I thought. Into the second line of Go and Leave Me, the silence around me became profound – so much that it scared me a bit. But I took confidence from it too. The lyrics are not bad and the air is lovely, especially in my opinion when it’s sung the US version way. It’s a reasonably well-known song about love and desertion in preference for someone richer and is one in my regular repertoire. “Regular”, by the way, might mean “sung two or three times a year”, since I don’t like to sing the same song too often and, like many other frequent singers, I have quite a few others. My host has about 250 …. I might have around a hundred, built up over years. And a few discarded along the way too.
The following week, back at the venue, I was asked to sing three songs and chose the Jim Larkin ballad by Donagh Mac Donagh (son of the executed 1916 Proclamation, Thomas Mac Donagh) and The Ludlow Massacre, by Woody Guthrie. A lot connects these two songs to one another and although in general I dislike song introductions (or “spoken sleeve notes”), I briefly explained a few of those connections before singing them.
Both the Southern Colorado Coal Strike and the Dublin Lockout/Strike began in the same year, only a month apart, although the Colorado strike didn’t end until December 1914. Both strikes involved attacks by state forces and scabs on the workers resisted, in Ireland forming the Irish Citizen Army, although many more were killed in Colorado (and in turn were killed by workers fighting back too). Evictions from company houses were a feature throughout both strikes as was general media and court hostility with open collusion between the forces of the ‘justice’ system and the employers. And, of course, both strikes essentially lost in the short term but, in the longer term, the trade unions involved, the ITGWU and the UMA, far from being broken, came out stronger.
For the third song my choice was Back Home in Derry, lyrics from a poem by Bobby Sands organised into a song by Christy Moore but to my own air. With this song I break my general rule about not singing the same song often, because I want to popularise my air with the lyrics. The lyrics are currently mostly sung to the tune of Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and I thought they deserved an air of their own.
At the various events, as one would in Dublin, I heard some good singers and some bad ones and some who were not particularly good but were interesting. However the general standard seemed noticeably lower than what I would encounter in the singing circles and sessions around Dublin – I have no idea why that should be but it can hardly be due to physiological differences. Also, many read from sheets while singing, a practice rarely seen in the Dublin singing circles (although prompts by mobile or IPad are not unknown).
On this trip I heard Jim sing a number of songs and a couple I remember in particular: The Shores of Normandy, Song for Stephen Lawrence and Home Boys Home. The last of those is about horses and English rural men in WWI and based on a poem, a lovely song which I have slowly started to learn. Jim wrote the other two himself.
Stephen Lawrence was a British Afro-Caribbean youth walking home in SE London with his friend in 1993 when they were both pursued by a gang of white racist young men. Stephen was mortally stabbed and left to bleed to death. Within a week the names of the murderers were on the lips of all the young people in the area. I can personally testify to that since the daughter of a friend was attending a school in that area at that time. First the police questioned Stephen’s surviving friend, treating him as a suspect. Then they couldn’t find the culprits, they said. But it turned out that the house in which some of the racists lived had been under police surveillance for some time and was actually being video-taped inside. It was a long time before that came to public knowledge.
Eventually five men were brought to trial but the incompetence (or sabotage) of police trial preparation allowed them to escape. In a long saga of the fight for justice by the Lawrence family and their supporters, two of the five racists were finally re-tried in 2012 and convicted, receiving long sentences. In the interim the McPherson Enquiry found the Metropolitan Police force to be “institutionally racist” (which Black, Asian and Irish people had been saying for decades) and later a former undercover police officer revealed that he had been tasked by his senior officers to find material with which to discredit the family and the campaign. The Lawrence family broke up under the strain and at least one of them left to go back to Jamaica. Jim’s song contains a powerful indictment of the racist murderers and of the police.
The Shores of Normandy was written by Jim when he visited the beach that he had last seen as a teenage seaman on D-Day on 6th June 1944. Jim was a merchant seaman on a tugboat, many of which were leased by the British Navy and their crews paid merchant seaman rates (which were higher than those of the Royal Navy). Over a few evenings sharing Jim’s whiskey and tea, he told me some things about the tugs’ role. They were of great importance to Britain in the War – they accompanied convoys and towed many torpedoed ships to safety, mainly merchant marine vessels (2. After some time the tugs themselves became targeted by submarines as they were saving so many tons of shipping to be repaired and re-outfitted to go to sea once more and 24 British naval rescue tugs were sunk.
In some of the photographs of the Normandy landings one can clearly see piers being used to disembark vehicles, equipment and men. As Jim says: “Those piers didn’t drop from the sky”. (No, but death was dropping from the sky and scything across the beaches too. I thought). The piers were made of concrete caisons, hollow cubes that could float and were towed across the Channel by the tugs. When they reached Normandy they were maneuvered into position at the correct depth and the sea allowed to enter them until they sank in a line on the seabed, making a pier. All this was done under fire at least some of the time. Over a year earlier, the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk had broken the Nazi advance and turned the war in East Europe, now the Sicily and Normandy Landings combined with the advances from the East towards the liberation of Western Europe and the final defeat of Nazi Germany. The air Jim chose for his lyrics is The Dawning of the Day.
Among the events at which Jim was to sing was the launch of Confronting a Culture of Militarism by David Gee, in Housmans Radical Bookshop. The shop, a little like Connolly Books in Dublin, stores a wide variety of radical and socialist book, pamphlets and periodicals. Looking at the many different British periodicals there, I reflected how much more impact they could have if many of them were to amalgamate.
The bookshop was soon crowded, with some late arrivals having to stand. First off was what I thought an impressive monologue performance by Steve Pratt, ex-SAS and now against war, also a painter. After that, David Gee, the author, spoke – a little too long but interestingly. Finally, Ben Griffin spoke, ex-Paratroopers and also SAS but now Secretary of Veterans for Peace. Ben referred to the vilification that soccer player James McClean had endured when playing for Sunderland and Wigan, for refusing to wear the Red Poppy. (3 He spoke about a visit Veterans for Peace had made to the Six Counties of Ireland in October and how people had spoken to them about harrassment, raids and shootings by the British Army during the recent 30 Years War; Ben asked how anyone could reasonably expect someone from one of those communities to wear the Poppy? (4
Jim was plugging the upcoming Cenotaph anti-war commemoration by Veterans for Peace and sang Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, inviting the audience to attend the ceremony and to sing the song with them. He also sang Eric Bogle’s famous anti-war song, No Man’s Land (better known to us as The Green Fields of France, thanks to the Fureys); he sang it in full to underline what a speaker had earlier said about the Joss Stone song promoted by the British Legion, a truncated version that sentimentalised the war and ripped the strong anti-war heart out of Bogle’s song.
Although a veteran libertarian socialist activist who considers the Royal Family to be “spongers”, Jim had accepted an invitation to sing The Shores of Normandy at the Albert Hall as part of the annual “Remembrance” concert, with members of the Royal Family present. He was wearing a Red Poppy too. I argued with him about the latter but his line is that the militarists and Royals have usurped Remembrance, which was intended to mark the terrible sense of loss after WWI with so many men dead in every town and village4.
The day after the concert, on “Remembrance” Sunday, when processions march in Whitehall and lay wreaths at the Cenotaph, Jim marched with comrades of Veterans for Peace there, with a banner declaring “Never Again!” They and their supporters sang Where Have All the Flowers Gone, an anti-war song, one recited a poem strongly attacking war and its financial foundations and they laid a wreath made entirely of White Poppies with two Red Poppies inside it. (5 Their bugler played The Last Post. I’d have been there to support them and to add my voice to the song but I was already several days back home in Dublin.
Jim brought me to a music session in The Jolly Farmer pub, right next to Lewisham Hospital. I had attended sessions there when I lived in Catford, 20 minutes’ walk away, and the pub now had another name. In those years there had been three, sometimes four weekly Irish traditional music sessions in the Borough of Lewisham, none very far from one another, in which I had played percussion and sung. There had been a few in the next borough, Greenwich, too. None of those seemed to be currently functioning.
The core of the Jolly Farmer session is formed by “Flaky” Jake on accordion, Guillermo on guitar and Jim on percussion (spoons and bodhrán), with other musicians and listeners in attendance. Jake has a huge repertoire of songs from rock to cajun, including songs in French and in Spanish. Guillermo knows some of the French ones and is from Mexico. During the course of the session we heard – and often sang – Rolling Stones, Irish ballads, Cajun songs, English shanties and music-hall, Woody Guthrie ….
A few strange incidents occurred around that time in that pub. The first week, there was a man there with an undiscliplined German Shepherd dog on a leash which his owner kept yanking to get the dog to stay by him. A man entered in a wheelchair and the dog went up to him and stuck his nose in the man’s crotch, whereopon the offended man slapped the dog across the muzzle (but not too hard – the dog did not yelp but just went back to his master). The dog’s owner, who I think had not seen where the dog had put his nose, was livid and began to swear and act out how if the man were not in a wheelchair he would do this … and that …. The man in the wheelchair turned and wheeled himself out of the pub. The atmosphere continued somewhat tense for a while but eventually the man and dog left.
Later that evening, I went to the toilet and saw legs sticking out of the cubicle next to the urinal. I pushed open the door to see a man lying in there on the floor, apparently very drunk. I informed the landlady and left her to it, as she requested. Later, at a music party, we heard that after we had left the pub, there had been some kind of disturbance with a drunk breaking glasses and furniture and that the police had been called!
The house party invitation came through afficionados of the session. Attendance at the house felt strange at first since I didn’t know the people but then I realised I did know one of them, although not well, a fiddle player. And later another person recalled that she remembered me from music sessions over a decade previously. When the music and singing got going it was great and again we covered a wide range. We went through a huge range of songs and tunes with accordion, guitar, fiddle, banjo, spoons and bodhrán. In honour of our hosts, one of whom was German, I sang Mus I’ Den and The Peat Bog Soldiers combined with Hans Beimler.
The first is a German folk song of departure by one promising to return and to be true to the other in the meantime. Such songs are fairly common and we have more than our fair share of them in Ireland. Elvis Presley’s songwriters used the tune for Wooden Heart in one of his many badly-acted and badly-scripted films GI Blues. The first of the remaining two is a song that was sung by German political prisoners in Nazi concentration camps; somewhat allegorical, it was tolerated by the guards for awhile but eventually earned a death sentence for anyone heard to sing it. Hans Beimler was a German communist who was imprisoned by the Nazis but escaped and went to the Spanish state in 1936 to fight fascism there where, like many other International Brigaders, he was killed. Because of the history of each as well as because the Beimler song is a very short one, I like to precede it with two verses of the The Peat Bog Soldiers.
It happened that the “Return to Camden Festival” took place during my London visit, spread around a number of venues in the borough, including of course the Camden Irish Centre, which is where I went with a friend. I knew the Centre from a long time past, a social and welfare agency for Irish migrants run by the Catholic Church for many years and notable through much of my time in London for steering clear of politics. Of course one can never really do that and one ends up supporting one kind of politics or another. The Centre gradually secularised itself in a time of grants for ethnic minority support work but did not raise issues uncomfortable for the British state such as the unjust murder convictions of a score of Irish people in five different cases during the mid-1970s, the iniquities of the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act, nor the prevalence of anti-Irish racism in treatment by many state and local authority agencies and its wide acceptance in news and entertainment media.
Gradually during the late 1980s (or perhaps early 1990s) the Camden Irish Centre was pulled into some of those issues but in an NGO-type of way and within such parameters and re-branded itself as “The London Irish Centre” (there were by then another five Irish centres in different parts of London but none claiming to be The Irish Centre). By that time the Centre’s management was connecting itself to the Federation of Irish Societies, an organisation that infamously at its AGM in 1981, as news of the death of Bobby Sands reached delegates, failed to even table a vote of sympathy for the family of the deceased. (7
The “Return to Camden Festival” at the Camden Irish Centre seemed to be owned by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (often mistakenly called “Ceoltas”), a huge largely volunteer organisation promoting Irish traditional music, song and dance. The Centre was heaving and service at the bar was quite slow. The bar staff were all young and someone told me that they were on job schemes, all employed by a contractor who manages the catering for the Centre. It was hardly suprising therefore that they understood not one word in Irish, not even go raibh maith agat.
We sat and listened to a large number of musicians playing together, some as young as eight or nine, then peeked in at the céilí, after which we set off for the singing session. It is run by a Connemara man who sings sean-nós style, who was very welcoming and encouraging; we sat in a circle and sang (or declined) in turn. Again I met people who remembered me from music sessions or from other Irish community activity. The singing was interesting and some singers were exceptional, especially a couple of young female musicians who had to leave early to play their instruments and a few others. I heard a couple of songs I had not heard before, which is always welcome, as well as some I had not heard in a long time. But after about two hours the session came to an end; time then to get something to eat and start the journey back across the city by Underground, changing to Overground at Canada Water station. Reaching Honor Oak Park and walking up to Jim’s house, I passed by foxes twice; the London ones probably became urbanised long before their Irish cousins did.
Solidarity with Kobane’s resistance to ISIS
I knew from an email notification that there was to be a Kobane solidarity demonstration scheduled for a Saturday in central London while I was there and, since this was not one of the days I was visiting grandchildren, I headed out to Charing Cross station, next to Trafalgar Square. Kobane is defended by a Kurdish guerrilla resistance organisation composed of the PKK, some Kurds within the Syrian state’s borders and the few Peshmergas who didn’t flee ISIS. There are probably some Assyrians and Yezidi involved in the defence too.
The Kurds are a huge nation of around 30 million people, spread over territory currently within the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Azerbaijan, with a sizable diaspora also in parts of the US and in some parts of Europe, notably in Germany and France. The politics of the Kurds within Turkish and Syrian borders tend to be secular and the PKK has always espoused some kind of socialism. Kobane, a town in the northern part of the Syrian state, is run mostly by Kurds from there and from the Kurdish resistance movement inside Turkey’s borders. Despite the hype about the Peshmergas (Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas), it was the PKK and Syrian Kurds who rescued the Yezidi and some other religious and ethnic minorities from ISIS in Sirjan and opened up a 100-Km long corridor to bring them to safety in Rojava (Kurdish northern “Syria”). A large proportion of these Kurdish guerrila fighters are women, perhaps as much as 30%, fighting inside their own units under the overall leadership of the PKK-affiliated organisation the YPG.
Kobane is under attack and surrounded on three sides by ISIS (“Islamic State”). The fourth side is the heavily-guarded Turkish border and the Turkish state is hostile to the Kurds, both within their own borders and within Syria. Based on ISIS behaviour to date, should Kobane fall, massacre of civilians and defenders will follow, along with enslavement of women as prostitutes or concubines.
While living in London I had been to Trafalgar Square many times for rallies on different causes that I supported (including of course Ireland, until that plaza was banned to Irish solidarity demonstrations). Nelson stands tall on a pillar there, reminiscent of the one we had in Dublin city centre until it was blown up in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Rising. I wondered whether I would meet people I knew, either from the British Left or from Kurdish solidarity work, in which I had been pretty active during the early 1990s (8. The area was a-flutter with various Kurdish organisational flags and some from the Turkish left, also some banners and a number of placards were on display.
Most of the crowd looked like they came from the Kurdish part of the world. The stage seemed to be taking a long time to get set up but eventually the Kurdish MCs, a man and a woman, began to announce the reason for the rally and to introduce a list of speakers to the crowd. I was suprised to hear an Irish priest, an O’Brien, I think, introduced as having been a long time active in Kurdish solidarity, although in the 1990s I had never come across him nor heard his name mentioned. I had the same reaction to a few others introduced in similar terms.
A Kurdish traditional musician, seemingly well-known, played a short percussion piece on what looked like a slim but wide bodhrán. Looking for it on Google, I would say it was the Daf, which apparently is in wide use across a number of Near and Middle Eastern regions by a number of ethnic groups. There was no song sung throughout the rally before I left.
The speakers were from a number of British Left and ethnic minority organisations, one MEP and a number of elected representatives. There was also a report from Kobane itself broadcast through speakers. Mark Thomas, a left-wing comedian, spoke emotionally on the issue. Peter Thatchell spoke strongly as well. One Left-wing woman with an English accent, in the course of her speech, attacked the SWP for supporting Islamicism in the past. The next person to speak, also a woman with an English accent, declared that she was in the SWP and that her organisation is strongly in solidarity with Kobane and with the Kurds.
Some of the speakers praised the Kobane ‘government’, saying it was secular, egalitarian, socialistic …. The speakers all attacked ISIS and called for solidarity with Kobane. Some called for British Government intervention (to drop weapons and supplies to Kobane) while others called for military intervention against ISIS. Some called for the unbanning of the PKK and some for the release of Ocalan. The PKK was declared a “terrorist” organisation by the EU years ago, a totally unjustified action by any means of definition, since the organisation was engaged in armed resistance against the attacks of the Turkish state, which is still not a part of the EU; furthermore it was not engaged in any armed action outside its part of the world and nearly all of that within Turkey’s borders. (9
Abdullah Ocalan (pronounced “otch-al-an”) was the leader of the PKK when he was kidnapped in Nairobi by the CIA in 1999, taken to Turkey, sentenced to death and, after Turkey abolished its death penalty to gain EU entry, sentenced to life in prison. He is kept on an island prison – the only prisoner there, at least for 10 years. Prior to his incarceration, Ocalan had a position within the PKK that arguably went considerably beyond recognised leadership. Nicknamed “Apo” (“uncle” in Kurdish), his image was carried on Kurdish solidarity demonstrations and pickets by many Kurds in London and in Dublin.
After Ocalan’s capture he declared that the Turkish government should engage in peace talks with the Kurds, that the PKK were not seeking immediate independence but some kind of regional autonomy. Furthermore, he declared that his own release was a necessary prerequisite to carry this process through. This is not too disimilar to the position of Arnaldo Otegi, of the Basque independence movement’s leadership, also of the Sortu party and of many of their new allies since they renounced armed struggle and ETA declared a “permanent and verifiable ceasefire”.
Ocalan’s change of tack surprised many on the Left; I don’t know how the PKK’s own followers reacted at first but soon they were issuing statements along the same lines, (although they have given no hint of intention to disarm). That position of the PKK and of Ocalan explains to me the relatively sudden interest in them within much of liberal and Left quarters. The other factor is the Left and liberal fear of ISIS and the fact that the only coherent and effective defence of Kobane and the rescue of the Yezidi in Sinjar is and was carried out by the PKK, not the “Peshmergas” loudly praised by the Western media (but only mentioned by one speaker at the rally) or by the US, imaginatively claimed by some media.
The “Peshmergas” are Kurds and guerrillas, but of the tribal factions of Bardani and Talibani within Iraq’s borders. On one occasion years ago, they cooperated with a huge Turkish military operation against the PKK by attacking them simultaneously from their side of the border. During the war of the Western states against Iraq around Kuwait, the Peshmergas followed the call of the West to rise against Sadam Hussein; the Western powers then left them to be slaughtered by the Iraq military. During the Western powers’ invasion of Iraq, the peshmergas formed war bands that as well as attacking the Iraq military, looted the Iraqi hospitals, museums, commercial enterprises and people’s homes. At times they even fought among themselves and there were many accusations of murder of military and civilian prisoners, kidnapping for ransom and even of rape. Among much hype, some moved to the rescue of the Yezidi in Sinjar but most quickly withdrew after armed contact with ISIS, totally abandoning the Yazidi, although Sinjar is within Iraq’s borders.
Many speakers at the London rally denounced Turkey for their indirect assistance to ISIS by harrasssing PKK guerilla reinforcements trying to get through to reinforce their Kurdish brothers and sisters in Kobane. Some alleged more direct assistance to ISIS and called for the NATO and the EU to pressure Turkey into ceasing their obstruction of reinforcements for Kobane. Some spoke against Assad and one for him but mostly neither he, his government nor the war there were discussed.
I recognised not one of those speakers present as having been active on the Kurdish issue in London back in the early 1990s. This would be understandable of younger people who had not yet become politically active then, perhaps – but the others? No, Thatchell and others like him had not been. Back then, the PKK had been in armed struggle against the Turkish regime and was being looked to by national liberation activists around the world. But Turkey was – as it is now – an ally of the West, a member of NATO, so the EU did not want to attack it for its widescale abuse of human right among the Kurds, although it considered Turkey too unstable to admit it to the EU. The Left organisations were campaigning on other issues and had no time – or perhaps tolerance – for Kurdish solidarity.
But now that that the PKK has indicated a willingness to enter a “peace” process, they seem to have many friends in left and liberal quarters than they had before. They may even end up, like the Abertzale Left of the Basque Country and like Gerry Adams and Co. of Sinn Féin, having lots of capitalist and imperialist friends too. Some may say that is one important reason for entering a “peace process” but the problem seems to be that in order to keep those new friends on board one has to abandon so much of the goals about which one’s movement was that it becomes something very different, the goals hugely reduced and arguably bringing not peace but co-opting of resistance and a deferment of struggle, probably to another generation (as happened in Palestine, after Arafat’s and Al Fateh’s agreement at Oslo).
One or two of the speakers called for Western armed intervention to assist Kobane, most notably Peter Thatchell, who called for NATO intervention. It was noticeable that this call garnered hardly any applause from the crowd, as distinct from calls to pressurise Turkey to stop trying to block the PKK sending reinforcements to the beleaguered Kobane and for the EU to drop arms to the Kurdish resistance. The London Kurds seem to be quite politically sophisticated and know that NATO is far from being a friend of the Kurdish people. I expressed some of my opinions to a Kurdish couple in their 30s or early 40s and they indicated agreement, particularly the man, who confided many of his own opinions. After hearing about a dozen speakers, I shook hands with the Kurdish couple and bade them farewell, taking a similar journey back to my friend’s house as had Jim Connell, while writing The Red Flag in 1889.
The Red Flag, written by an Irishman in London
Although he had lived in the area for decades, Jim was not aware that Jim Connell, the author of the communist anthem The Red Flag, had been living nearby for many years and had in fact been on his way to his earlier address, also in SE London, by train from a Trafalgar Square demonstration, via Charing Cross, when he began to compose the song. Jim Connell was from Kells in Co. Meath and a member of the Socialist Democratic Federation and later of the Independent Labour Party. He put the lyrics to the Jacobite air The White Cockade. For some reason it began to be sung to the air of Tanenbaum, a German Christmas hymn, which upset Jim Connel: “Ye ruined me poem!” he stormed.
I knew a good bit about this because the Lewisham branch of the IBRG, of which I was Secretary, had been in correspondence with a local history employee of the local authority about putting a plaque on the house. The plaque had been the council employee’s idea but we had influenced the wording (10) and in 1989, the centenary of the writing of the song, attended the small unveiling ceremony outside the house. A little-known MP called Gordon Brown had spoken and never once mentioned Jim’s wish for a free Ireland or the war then going on in the Six Counties, so I felt obliged to jump up on a garden wall and in a short speech, supply the missing information. There were no police present and I was not interfered with although the applause was scattered. The event and the fact of my speech was covered in the Irish Post soon afterwards. A half-hour before I was to catch the train to Gatwick Airport, Jim drove me to Stondon Park and I found the house and photographed it and the plaque (and also Jim in front of it, for his own album).
It would probably be another year before I would see my kids, their spouses and my grandchildren in the flesh. Of course, there is always Skype ….
Waiting for either the number 16 or 41 bus home from Dublin Airport, I noted the inadequate shelters from weather, the general lack of Dublin information and the tatty state of the one map of Dublin that someone had thoughtfully sticky-taped to one of the shelters. Even the Bus Átha Cliath timetable for the 16 route was tattered and flapping in the breeze. Ireland, I do love you but sometime you disgust me too.
I arrived home to find that in delaying paying my Eircom bill, they had without notice cut my ability to reply to emails but strangely the Facebook connection continued. I got some money together and paid my bill.
A chríoch/ Ends
1 I don’t like to say “Spain” as the term is objected to by people in a number of nations within the borders of that state, some of which want total independence and to create their own states.
2 Despite this, 2,426 ships of the British Merchant Marine were sunk with 25,070 men killed, including of course many Irish but also others from the British Commonwealth and many Chinese. In 1942 a special camp for merchant marine seamen prisoners was built at Westerimke ten miles north of the German port city of Hamburg. Around 5,000 men, including 2,985 from 211 British ships, were interned at this camp commonly known as ‘Milag Nord’.
4 One wonders whether the footballer is aware of John Maclean (24 August 1879 – 30 November 1923), Republican Communist from Glasgow who was jailed in 1918 for “sedition” due to his anti-war activities and force-fed while on hunger strike.
7 There had been many pickets and demonstrations in Britain to try to save Sands’ life and those of the nine hunger-strikers to die subsequently. The 1981 Hunger Strikes had a huge effect on the Irish community in Britain, breaking the terror stranglehold of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the neglect of the Federation of Irish Societies was answered by the formation of the Irish in Britain Representation Group. See https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2014/02/15/how-to-silence-an-ethnic-community/
8 Including a trip in a small delegation of trade unionists in the early 1990s across much of the Kurdistan lying within Turkey’s borders.
9 From Wikipedia: “…NATO has declared the PKK to be a terrorist group; Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, and fields the group’s second-largest armed contingent. Closely tied to NATO, the European Union—which Turkey aspires to join—officially lists the PKK as having “been involved in terrorist acts” and proscribes it as part of its Common Foreign and Security Policy. First designated in 2002, the PKK was ordered to be removed from the EU terror list on 3 April 2008 by the European Court of First Instance on the grounds that the EU failed to give a proper justification for listing it in the first place. However, EU officials dismissed the ruling, stating that the PKK would remain on the list regardless of the legal decision. Most European Union member states have not individually listed the PKK as a terrorist group.” Three Permanent Members of the EU Security Council list it so but the remaining two, Russia and China, do not.
10 We had not been told that the words “Labour Party” would be affixed and only noticed it on the plaque much later.
I no longer watch television at home. It was not a case of rejecting that form of mass media, as some assume, but the result of a tiresome tussle with the huge US-based UPC monopoly, out of which, not surprisingly, I came off worst – they control the aerial in my block of flats and I am not permitted to put up my own dish to receive through a competitor.
Anyway, I used to darn socks sometimes while watching TV, especially during advertisements. Radio would have been ideal but I have long ago lost the habit of listening to that medium. When I lost my struggle with UPC, I stopped watching TV; I could have watched it on my laptop but I find it unsatisfying to watch on a small screen. And when I stopped watching TV, I also ceased darning. The pile of socks with holes in them grew, to be mended “some day”, until eventually I had to buy new ones.
I am aware that for many in our society here today, darning would be considered a quaint or even archaic activity, associated with oil lamps and making your own butter, perhaps. Or cooking on a range and the absence of indoor plumbing. For others, darning might signify poverty or meaness. To me, it is about using and reusing what can be used, and about mending what can reasonably be mended to use again. Clothes, like all other items we use, are produced by human labour and it seems wrong to me to waste that labour unnecessarily – a kind of negation of the labour in the first place and, following that, a negation of the activity that might follow when the workers have produced enough of the items.
Of course, in our time and in this place, it is likely that the socks that I buy have been made in some sweat-shop in a more undeveloped country where, if they think about it at all, the sweated workers hope that we’ll go throwing away our socks as soon as the first hole appears, or even sooner if possible, so that they can continue to sweat producing replacements and being paid their meagre wages in order to pay for food, shelter and medicines. So that they can continue sweating and raise their children who, in turn, will become sweated wage slaves producing articles of clothing, undercutting the wages of those who might produce the same articles here, but who rightfully demand more humane working conditions, annual holidays, health insurance and the level of wages necessary to maintain an average standard of living. My darning my socks does not help, even in the tiniest way, the workers in those foreign sweated shops, nor the unemployed clothing workers in the country in which I live.
So why do it? I am not well-off by standards in this country but any amount I save by darning will make little difference. True, I was raised in a different time and I have imbibed some of the culture of that time (and also rejected much of it). But it is neither meaness, habit nor a perception of helping workers that causes me to think I should darn my socks, but a respect for labour. I am aware that practically all items we use were created by labour. I am aware that the power to create that material wealth has been, for centuries, appropriated by a parasitic class that many call capitalists. Before them, that labour power was expropriated by the feudal lords and their monarchs and before them, by the huge slave empires of Rome and Greece and of others outside Europe.
I aspire to a society where that labour power will no longer be expropriated and where the workers shall decide how that power is to be used, for the benefit of all. “The labourer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7, King James Bible) but s/he is worthy of much more than that — s/he is worthy to control all of her/his labour power and of the distribution of the wealth it produces. And so labour must be valued – not just some day in the future, I believe, but now. The new society takes form within the old, although it must destroy the old from which it was born and will, for a time also, carry some of the taints of the old. But it begins now, in the present – in my case, with me.
So the other day, although I still have undamaged pairs, I began to darn old pairs of socks. It was surprisingly restful. But after darning a pair, I fretted at the time spent on this, time spent away from other work, piling up. I darned one of another pair and put its companion and darning away materials away. I will return to darning socks, a few at a time, on other days. Or, at least, I hope to.