Month: October 2015

Postman in the Smoke, and Inferno by Antony Owen

rathaustrumWhen you look at the iconic picture taken of the German city of Dresden in 1945, it is as though the statue of the Rathausturm, known as ‘Die Gute’ (the Goodness – a personification of kindness), is pointing in disbelief at the utter devastation wrought by the British, where an estimated 25,000 people (many of them civilians) were killed. Almost five years previously in November 1940, my home town of Coventry, was heavily bombed by the Germans because of its industry and munitions factory. Although the death toll (estimated c560+) was far less than in Dresden, it was still massively devastating in terms of the damage done to the city, which took years to rebuild.

Coventry_Cathedral_after_the_air_raid_in_1940The greatest symbol of that destruction is the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral. I still go up its tower, St Michael’s, and two things stay with me when I look at the view; the first is imagining being up there on the night of the bombings, seeing planes overhead encircling the city. The second is, if you look south across the city, to the west you see the green of the more affluent parts of Coventry, including the War Memorial Park, whereas to the east you see the grey concrete-dominated developments of the less wealthy.

Dresden and Coventry are now twinned. In fact, Coventry was the first to twin with another city (Stalingrad in 1944) and has become foremost in symbolising peace and reconciliation through antony owenwars; its theatre is called The Belgrade Theatre, after the then Yugoslav city donated timber for its rebuilding. Antony Owen’s two poems here, Postman in the Smoke and Inferno, poignantly reflect the impact bombing had on the people of the two cities. In Coventry, “A postman stands in the flame grey postcode/staring at doorways with chimneys around them,/moaning as they open to charred occupants.” Then in Dresden: “These pails of dead firemen filled/with initialled rings weigh heavy.” But it is the men of power, (more…)

O Pioneers! (after Willa Cather) by Sarah Barnsley

Back home, our area of Coventry was originally named in the Doomsday book, and in the 19th century when still largely unpopulated, was a place for wealthy tradesmen. However, the city spread to this outlying area in the early 20th century and housing estates began to encroach on the land. My parents bought a two bed terrace there for about £1,500 and all around us, mainly families from Ireland bought up their own. In a way, they were the new pioneers, to borrow from Sarah’s borrowed phrase.

But this was a divided area: between those who owned their houses and those who lived in the identikit council alternative; of course it was only divided by banter. We were no sociologists, but we took on stratification when taking the piss out of those who weren’t allowed to paint their own house, where the streets had the same fence, where dogs roamed wild in hand me down clothes, and there was a pervading smell of poverty. None of the latter was true of course, but it was good fun at the time, and we were all mates (well mostly).

However, such divisions in the working class are often used by politicians to demonise and divide; so they no longer use class as a term, it is all about hard working families, not those on benefits such as the disabled (a third of disabled adults live in a low-income household). It also iniquitously hides the fact that many hard working low income families are on or below the poverty line.

Sarah BarnsleyNonetheless, it doesn’t mean we can’t take the piss out of our own; snobbery is not only for the middle and upper classes. Sarah Barnsley’s poignantly funny poem, O Pioneers! highlights such snobbery in a warm hearted way, when describing the family move; “We travelled to the wild West/Midlands, chugging through/cooling tower canyons in the/turquoise Ford Triumph that/Dad had bought for fifty quid.” But there is tension between parent and child in terms of identity, with the mother wanting to maintain a sense of being of a higher class than where “the cuffies lived,/with brown settees, half cladding/like unfinished Scrabble, and kids/who ran around with their arses/hanging out.” The child wants to belong, doesn’t want to be told to fuck off by the local kids no more, so when tasked with making a clay model of their home at school, “I quiffed the roof/into a triangle, pressed pennies/against the windows, attached/Scrabble pieces up one side/like a climbing ivy of squares,/and moved our cuffy arses into/the frontier, where we belonged.” Brilliant! (more…)

At the Border, 1979 by Choman Hardi

In 1990 I took a one way flight to Istanbul with three friends. We were going to return to England by train. This was just after the fall of communism and was my first experience of crossing borders in Eastern Europe, and is something I reflect on regularly but of course with recent events, the memories surface once again. As British citizens, the only time we had trouble at a border was arriving in Istanbul with no return ticket. The immigration officials were perplexed; they had little experience of people coming to Turkey without a return, and we confused them further when saying we were leaving to travel through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia (as it was still then).

hussein ceausescuThe most notable event of our trip by far was Romania. We reached the border at midnight. When the train stopped, two men entered our carriage and sat down. They turned out to be Iraqi Kurds. Two Romanian guards came in soon after to check our passports. They had only a cursory interest in us as their appetite was for grilling the two men. The four of them looked at each other in silence for a moment, then one guard looked at their passports. He looked up and simply said, “Saddam Hussein,” then laughed at them. The Kurds took it on the chin, and one of them jabbed back, “Ceausescu,” and laughed himself. We were beyond nervous. The four men went silent again, until the guard handed back their passports, said “Saddam Hussein,” once more then left. There is no surprise that the two tyrants met a number of times, and apparently Ceausescu’s Romania supplied uniforms to the Iraqi army in a deal brokered by the Americans.

Choman Hardi’s classic poem, At the Border, 1979 reflects her personal experience as a five year old girl, crossing a border with her family into their ‘homeland’ of Kurdistan; ‘It is your last check-in point in this country!’/We grabbed a drink -/soon everything would taste different.’ But she shows us how borders are a construct, lines drawn by colonists and dictators. So there is irony in this ‘everything would taste different’. “The autumn soil continued on the other side/with the same colour, the same texture./It rained on both sides of the chain.” The persecution of Kurds continued in Iraq and eventually Choman’s family had to move once again fourteen years later, this time to the UK. I really like the fact that for all of the history of conflict and migration she experienced, Choman says that she first started writing poetry when she fell in love; “her early poems are much more ‘flowery’ because she ‘belonged to the Kurdish tradition and engaged with [her] poems in an intensely emotional way.’ Learning to write poems in English, she says, has given her a measure of detachment “which is essential when writing about painful, personal and sensitive subjects.”

The Kurdish people, spread across a number of countries, continue to be shunned by powers in the region; they are one of the most poignant examples of how borders separate people, of how lines on paper divide lives on the ground. We see it also with the Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, and imprisoned in their own ‘designated’ areas within Israeli borders. All of this lies at the heart of what we see today with the refugee crisis; a crisis made explicit to us by the European situation but is far worse in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Hardi_Choman (1)Born in Kurdistan in 1974 and raised in Iraq and Iran, Choman Hardi came to the UK in 1993 and studied at Queen’s College Oxford, University College London and the University of Kent in Canterbury. A poet, writer and academic researcher, she has published three collections of poetry in Kurdish and her first English collection, Life for Us, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004. Her eagerly awaited new collection by Bloodaxe, Considering the Women, is published on October 22nd, and Choman will be appearing at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November, where there will be a series of readings on Poetry and Freedom. (more…)