At some point in the 1970s, when I was at school at Monmouth and devouring every piece of knowledge I was presented with, I became aware of and committed to memory the striking quote by the fallen angel Satan, in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost:
“What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?”
I thought it was wonderful and I still do. As I described in some detail in A Tale of Sound & Fury, I’ve had what you might euphemistically term a varied and colourful career since I left school, one with a myriad crowning glories that I’m very proud of, but also one that’s brought innumerable setbacks and disappointments along the way. As such, the words “What though the field be lost? All is not lost..” have sustained and inspired me for decades, so it follows that I’m intensely grateful to the genius who composed them.
Now, however, the pleasure I felt for so long whenever I recalled this extract is becoming tinged with increasing melancholy, because it seems to me that “a study of revenge, immortal hate and courage never to submit or yield” are becoming the watchwords of our times, with disastrous consequences for us all. As I observed in a previous post, there’s no sign that I can discern of any of our leaders or politicians presenting us with an infinitely more uplifting vision of our shared future together on this pale blue dot.
When I turn on my television to see the latest news of the conflicts that plague us, I see three clearly-defined strata that become progressively grimmer the further down the scale we go. For me, the uppermost stratum of news is that occupied by the world’s superpowers, their leaders and the heads of other nation states; at this level, everything is on a grandiose and even overwhelming scale, with speeches delivered at the United Nations, military campaigns and apocalyptic warnings delivered by all sides.
Over the years, I’ve become inured to scenarios like this, most likely because it’s beyond my power to change them and because I’ve seen and heard it all so many times before during my lifetime. The lofty speeches and the bombs being rained down on distant lands are as far removed from me as the Moon and stars as they silently and inexorably make their eternal way across the vault of heaven far above me. All these things are unquestionably part of my existence, whether they’re heavenly bodies or bloody conflicts here on Earth, but while they all can and do affect me, they’re all so vast, so impersonal and so remote that it’s impossible for me to affect them in the least.
At the next level, I would say that the latest example is the bombing in Ankara today that has so far accounted for the deaths of ninety-five people, with hundreds more injured. Once more, the sheer scale of this carnage is such that it’s difficult to take in, but the terror and panic of those caught up in this attack is something that stirs memories in me, as I clearly remember living in London for sixteen years when the capital was targeted by the IRA, during the course of its mainland bombing campaign.
I was living in northwest London in 1992 when a one thousand pound car bomb was detonated one night, just a few hundred yards from where I lived at the time. I would say that unless you’ve personally experienced being in close proximity to an explosive of a comparable size when it goes off, then it’s impossible to imagine the aching dread and visceral horror that the sound of the blast brings in its wake.
It’s something that assaults not only your ears, but your innards as well, as if you’ve been punched hard in the stomach or midriff by a huge, invisible fist. The deeply unpleasant memory of this sensation comes flooding back whenever I see news reports of such attacks anywhere in the world and I know precisely how the men, women and children who are fortunate enough to survive such assaults feel immediately after the terrible thunderbolt has landed in their midst.
Even so, the final stratum is the worst and I saw yet another appalling example of it last night when a BBC journalist interviewed two mothers in Jerusalem, one of them Israeli, the other Palestinian. The Israeli woman lay in a hospital bed, recalling an attack in a market in which her husband had been killed, when she had begged onlookers to save her young children, only to be reviled. The Palestinian woman sat in her house being consoled by friends and neighbours because her thirteen year old son had been shot dead by security forces; so moving was this report and so emotive the account given by each mother that it was as if the sheer hatred that some people have for each other in this region physically emanated from the television screen into my living room.
“Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”.
I met thousands of people of every race, creed and colour when I lived in London from 1979 to 1995, while as the map above shows, I travelled a bit around Britain, Europe, Scandinavia and Russia when I was younger. The map isn’t an accurate reflection of the time I’ve spent abroad or of the interactions I’ve had with others, because with the exceptions of Spain, Russia and Austria, I’ve visited each of the other countries on at least four separate occasions, but the details of my various holidays and itineraries are unimportant.
One thing that made a lasting impression on me, when I’d had time to reflect on the journeys I’d made, was the fact that of all the places I visited and all the many people I met, I was only ever reviled on two occasions for being a foreigner. As I’ve recounted elsewhere on this site, I had a deeply unpleasant encounter with an old SS man one night in a bar in Austria in 1991 because he thought I was a Russian, although when this misunderstanding over nationality had been cleared up, I’m fairly sure that his opinion of me remained equally low for reasons I spelled out in the relevant post.
The year before, in 1990, I’d been attacked by a gigantic Finn in another bar in the remote south-west of his country when I was on tour there; the mumbled reason he gave for this attack, prior to coming off second best, was his belief that I was English, but in all honesty, he was so drunk, so vile and so pugnacious that I’m sure he’d have fought his own reflection in a mirror. These two minor events aside, I’ve always been treated at the very least with civility by all the inhabitants of all the countries I’ve visited, while the vast majority of the people I’ve met have been welcoming, warm and courteous, so although this might seem naive and simplistic, I can’t help but be mystified as to why some people in this world hate ‘others’ to such a ferocious and unrelenting degree.
What, if anything, can be done about this? Earlier in this post, I described what I see as the three separate strata or Circles of Hell that become progressively more unbearable the more intimate and personal the accounts become, so I’ll simply conclude with a recent experience of my own that involved an interaction with a foreigner, or stranger.
I’m not really fit to travel right now and I don’t enjoy it, but I had to go to London last week for pressing reasons and that was that; it was unavoidable. On the way back, I found myself at Victoria Station with its labyrinth of underground tunnels, so while I used the tube as if I were on autopilot during the time I lived there, it doesn’t come naturally any more. I was hot, tired and dehydrated, and anxious not to miss my train at Paddington, but I found myself momentarily bewildered as a great mass of humanity swirled around me, each person certain of their destination and of how to get to it.
I found myself staring at a map of the station in front of me, but for some reason, my mind had gone completely blank and I could neither remember nor work out which was east and which was west. I felt so bloody fragile and frustrated by this that my eyes welled up and I thought Christ, it’s all over, but then I heard a female voice with a pronounced Eastern European accent behind me, saying “Can I help you, sir? Where do you want to go to?”
I turned around to see a tiny lady in her early sixties, dressed in white trainers, leggings with a multi-coloured floral pattern, a pink woollen jumper and rimless glasses, with her long mane of brown, greying hair tied neatly behind her in a ponytail. The other commuters impatiently jostled around her, but she held her ground and looked up at me patiently and good-naturedly, somehow having sensed my distress.
I told her I needed to go to Paddington and I tried to explain how and why I was effectively lost, but the moment she heard me announce my destination, she linked her arm in mine, then marched me through some tunnels and down a stairway onto a platform. I couldn’t find my glasses, but without being asked, she pointed to the display just above me and assured me that the next tube train was the one I needed to catch.
I was so grateful to her that I couldn’t express it, but I took a guess that she was Polish, then gave her a hug and muttered a heartfelt “Jenkooyeh bardzo” to her, whereupon her eyes lit up, she giggled like a schoolgirl and came out with a stream of animated Polish that I couldn’t understand, but which I guess was to tell me I was most welcome and to express her appreciation that I could speak just two words of her language.
Regardless of precisely what she’d said to me, I’d clearly made her very happy through having once made the minimal effort of learning the Polish words for “Thank you very much”, while it surely goes without saying how pleased and grateful I was to this wonderful lady for having taken a minute or so of her time to help me, a stranger, when I’d have been lost in more ways than one without her.
And that’s it. I don’t have the solution to the world’s woes, but while I’m certain it’s not an original idea by any means, I can’t help thinking we can all make at least a start by the ludicrously simple expedient of treating each other as human beings, with consideration, courtesy and kindness, or as the master, William Blake, observed:
“Can I see another’s woe
And not be in sorrow too?”