The New Viking

Untitled-TrueColor-01

Long, long ago, (although not in a galaxy far, far away) I posted a poem about Vikings which was called, astonishingly, Vikings. (It can be found here should you wish to re-visit it.

This is a rather tongue-in-cheek follow up.

The New Viking, a Reformed man

 

He brought death and terror to these Saxon lands,

Taking iron and fire to fearful hamlets,

But he was defeated by a woman,

A yellow-haired woman, soft and pliant.

And now the screams of battle are the

Bloodcurdling cries of infants.

 

He beats his sword into a ploughshare,

And grows rows of turnips and cabbages.

His axe cleaves firewood.

Maybe he’ll name his house ‘Dunplundering’.

 

He no longer lives within sight of his beloved sea,

But he watches trees ripple in the wind;

An ocean of billows topped with brilliant green spume.

 

Casting long shadows in warm sunlight,

These immobile giants roaring and sighing,

Desperately attempting to free themselves

Of their earthen shackles

Feel uncomfortably close to home.

 

Those northern winters still call him.

The fire, the mead, the fighting,

The tales of monsters and warriors.

 

Hamstrung by instinct

He shifts uneasily, guiltily, on his chair by the hearth.

His sword fingers twitch and tap and he

Looks for reasons to pick arguments

With his neighbours.

 

Anything would do.

Advertisements

Salt

salt-workers

I should feel like an Egyptian pharaoh,

But I never had all that splendour.

Mine was such a short life,

And then I was mummified for the Hereafter.

 

There was never anyone to wait on me,

To bring me delicacies or fan away the flies.

You could not imagine Liz Taylor

Wanting to play my part in a film.

 

But I want you to take a moment or two,

To imagine that your feet and hands

Are permanently covered in cracks and crevices.

And to imagine the constant burning pain.

 

And contemplate now, the virtual blindness

That comes from seeing – day in and day out –

The bright sun reflected from the brilliant white

Of salt, from horizon to horizon.

 

And breathing, such a natural thing!

But even breathing was slowly killing me.

Coughing, spitting, rasping breath and breathlessness

And worse…

 

And when I died, they could not burn me.

Not properly, for the years of salt had seeped

Into my skin and as a final indignity,

Ensured that even death was not a true escape.

 

 

Sprinkle, sprinkle on your dish,

Shut your eyes and make a wish,

Up above the world so high,

If there’s a watcher in the sky,

Pray they somehow can arrange

For this indignity to change.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the extremely difficult conditions endured by Indian salt workers – and many others all over the world (the link is here should you care to read it) – which I don’t think have eased since then.

As you add salt to your meal today, think of them.

The Enduring Lie of A Golden Age

It seems that huge numbers of people have an impression that there was a ‘Golden Age’ at some previous point of their, or some other, society.

They may not define it in those words, or even acknowledge it as such, but it seems to be very common for people to yearn for another time. Sometimes, this is nostalgia – for the days of their youth – but frequently it is for some far-off time that they feel to be somehow better than the time they live in.

Untitled-Grayscale-01

Fantasy books frequently encourage this sort of thinking. Regardless of the actual storyline, the heroes and villains and cast of other odd characters tend to run around and fight and go on quests and sit around in quaint thatched inns quaffing head-splitting alcoholic drinks and everyone is jolly and no one ever dies of dysentery or bubonic plague in misery and agony and squalor.

The Lord of the Rings is a fine example of this. It is a favourite of mine, but it is very noticeable how no one dies of disease, but mostly lives to an exceedingly old age unless chopped into pieces by Orcs.

Hollywood, too, plays its part in this. To take a film at (almost) random, an old version of ‘Robin Hood’ (set in medieval England, remember) depicts a group of merry men dressed in very strange attire living in the depths of a forest and merrily ambushing the Bad King’s men, merrily dining at long tables out beneath the spreading branches of merry oak trees under starry skies and everyone looks clean and clean shaven and everyone is merry, and it never rains.

Pah!

This is meant to be medieval England. Life expectancy at the time was around 30 years. Huge numbers of people died of dysentery, mainly because there was no concept of hygiene. Occasional plagues carried off massive numbers of people, emptying entire towns and villages. There were no antibiotics or anaesthetics. Disease was sent by God and the only way to cure it was considered to be prayer. Or witchcraft. Women routinely died in childbirth, in great pain. The majority of children never reached their teens. Every peasant in every village was effectively a slave under the command of the local lord, who held the power of life and death over them, and might exercise this on a whim at any moment. The threat of famine was ever present.

Pain and misery was a given.

The majority of people lived, too, in a very real terror of the Devil and the threat of eternal damnation.

The list of horrors is almost endless. The phrase ‘life was nasty, brutish and short’ is an apt description of those times. Certainly, I would not wish to live under those conditions.

There are plenty of other ‘Golden Ages’, of course. Almost any time in history can exercise a fascination on us, if certain aspects of it appeal to us and there are things we dislike about the society we live in. And it is natural to yearn for something better; something more than we have.

And this is not to suggest that every age was a living hell for everyone in that society, but that life in most of these times was reasonably decent for the very few on top of the pile, and pretty miserable for the rest. In fact, the measure of how ‘Golden’ an age was, tends to be the conditions of the upper echelons of that society, and perhaps those of a middle class, if such existed.

There is much wrong with our world today. But the huge advances seen over the last hundred years or so, especially in medicine, have meant that our lives have been improved out of all recognition. No longer does surgery equate to filling the patient with a quart of whisky and then sawing off a leg or an arm. No longer do those patients routinely die of infections after surgery, thanks to antibiotics. High blood pressure is controlled, rather than routinely killing. Children usually survive all the diseases of childhood, rather than being most likely to die. Women rarely die in childbirth, and the pain can be somewhat controlled.

Women and children are no longer the legal chattels of men.

Work conditions are hugely improved. Children do not go down mines or work at dangerous looms 14 hours a day. Instead, most receive a proper education. Adults, too, work fewer hours and under far better conditions than previously. When they are too old or frail to work, the state provides a certain amount of dignified support. People do not as a rule die these days of starvation. We do not execute children for stealing sixpence, or poaching rabbits on the Lord’s estate.

In most cases, for most people, today is the Golden Age.

Despair – a poem.

She counts the tomato flowers:

One, two, three, four,

On the stunted plant.

 

Forever waiting.

Hoping….still hoping.

 

Old plastic sheeting and palm fronds.

Dry ground and hot sun.

IMG_0021

Stunted children,

One, two, three, four.

With spindle legs,

And hard, round stomachs,

Lie beneath the palm fronds.

 

Silently.

 

Flies,

Around dry mouths,

And dull eyes.

 

A few onions,

Some spinach.

Dry soil.

 

He was a farmer.

Drought.

Poor harvests.

And debt.

 

All he grew was hunger.

***

This year, he takes another loan to buy seeds

But this year will be different.

He will keep one tenth of the crop

For the seeds

 

Next year,

There will be no more debt.

 

No more hunger.

 

There is a harvest.

Jubilation.

 

Next year,

Sterile seeds.

 

Although he has paid back some money,

The debt has trebled.

***

That land was his,

Over there,

On the other side of the village.

 

That land covered in waste,

Hope buried under rubbish.

The future smothered with despair.

 

The land that belongs to someone who lives

In the nearby town.

Someone who has never seen it.

 

The next day,

She pulls up one onion.

Picks some spinach.

Boils some water for her children.

One, two three…

 

Her fatherless children.

***

In India every year, large numbers of farmers take their own lives when they become trapped in a cycle of poverty, high-interest debt, and bad harvests. And to compound their problems, certain huge multi-national companies are developing seeds that produce only sterile plants, meaning that the farmer cannot use harvested seed to grow new crops, and has no choice but to buy seed again the following year, sinking further into that hopeless spiral.

The government seems unwilling or unable to do anything to break this cycle.