There was a letter in October’s PN headlined: “Research on Reading”. I missed the capital letter and found I was reading about Reading and the impact of the cold war on this town. In the way of things, everything seemed to connect with one of September’s Peace Week events in Stroud.
Bruce Kent and Kate Hudson were to speak at a public meeting, and Dennis Gould and myself had been rowed in as “peace poets”. An odd thing to be; a “peace poet”.
I’m no more a peace poet than I am a peace father, a peace cyclist, or a peace lover of sport. But to the point: BK did his stuff, but KH it seemed was much in media demand in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s speech about nuclear disarmament, and so BK held the line alone. Meantime I’d wondered how I could pretend to be a peace poet.
In the event I performed two poems: the first was written in celebration of PN’s 70th birthday in 2006, and the second – written 20 years earlier – was a response to an election speech by Margaret Thatcher in 1983.
In it, Thatcher referred to the USSR as “our sworn enemies”. As I’ve grown older, my pacifist views have become more hard-line and allow of no flexibility; their origins lie in the cold war era.
Then, as West and East alike threatened each other with MAD (“mutually assured destruction”), I feared that any conflict anywhere might escalate into a nuclear war and opposition to all wars in any circumstance seemed to me to be an essential survival tactic. But there was a paradox at the heart of the western democracies’ opposition to totalitarianism.
How, I wondered, did nuclear annihilation square with liberation from communism? Did Thatcher’s piercing cry of “sworn enemies” allow that the peoples of eastern bloc countries were not clones of Stalin but individual human beings with a variety of views and attitudes? “Sworn enemies” was as sweeping as George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” and as unhelpful. However, if you want your people to contemplate going to war, I guess it’s necessary to make them hate the “enemy”.
When I was a small boy during the Second World War, I believed that germs were so called because of the Germans. Both were bad. The Germans, of course, were our sworn enemies and the notion of the existence of good Germans was not to be encouraged.
Civilian deaths in the Second World War were colossal, and now wars are routinely waged against civilians. Thus we liberate the people of Afghanistan from the Taliban by murdering them. It seems to me that the peace movement has an irrefutable case to argue here and it is as important as campaigning against the arms trade.
My poem Sworn Enemies was about the need to recognise that the people we were being encouraged to kill were much more like us than not.
However, for its chorus I chose extreme examples:
I don’t want to kill no comrades
Rub out no Reds in their beds
I don’t want to slam no Soviets
Nor nuke no Leninists dead
I’ve always liked the old PPU slogan: “wars will cease when men [and women] refuse to fight” and this – and the subliminal influence of Gandhi no doubt – informed that chorus. I’ve read Sworn Enemies many times and in many circumstances since I wrote it. Other poems I’ve performed have angered listeners from time to time and been challenged. But never Sworn Enemies.
I always introduce it as a poem about the refusal to hate. I make no claims for it being great poetry. It isn’t. But, I insist, it has a great message. However, writing about love and hate is a literary tightrope. William Blake managed it and never fell off. I have fallen off.
Years ago, I wrote a satirical poem at the height of the Vietnam War. It was called A Hymn of Hate to America.
In despair I wrote:
I dream that I’ll awake some day
And find America sunk
Some bubbles where the oceans meet
Floating coke cans, ticker tape
All that’s left of Uncle Sam…
Of course I don’t hate all Americans and I even listed some I love. The poem was taken literally, however, and, in the end, I had to change the title.