October 11, 2004

International tired old thing

I was at the Hackney Empire last night for a show called Our Left Foot, a tribute to the late Paul Foot. People like John Pilger, Michael Foot, Rory Bremner and so on, speaking about the great socialist writer and journalist who died earlier this year. It was very moving much of the time, not least because it spent - it had to spend - so much time recalling his accomplishments as a journalist, and in particular the number of people - some of whom were present on the stage - who were freed from jails in which they had no place, because of the work he did in pursuing these cases of injustice.

Words were said, over and again, to the effect that while Foot was patronised both before and after his death for his radical politics, the people who patronised him - while praising his accomplishments - could never, ever have achieved a single one of these successes. All of them depended on being prepared to take risks rather than play safe, prepared to ask difficult questions rather than accept evasive answers, but most of all on being outside the political and media establishment, the place where all that matters is what David Aaronovitch said in the Guardian or what Melanie Phillips said in the Telegraph or what Alan Milburn said in the House of Commons dining room, on or off the record, to either of them.

Pundits, columnists, writers of opinion pieces in which the opinions expressed possess no value except the financial advantages accruing to the writer who expounded them: these people have to patronise the likes of Foot, to protect themselves from their own shortage of substance and to preserve intact their own surfeit of self-esteem. I suffered from insomnia later that night and found myself watching Ann Leslie, of the Daily Mail, on an early-hours discussion programme on News 24. There was an inescapable fascination in watching this anti-Foot, this bloated and smug woman, perhaps the most self-satisfied individual I have ever seen, talk for around half an hour, all with an extremely-pleased-with-herself expression on her face, yet without saying anything that was remotely original, thoughtful or interesting. Ann Leslie. Jesus. She makes Mary Kenny look like George Orwell.

The evening closed with the singing of the Internationale. I wish it hadn't, though I knew it would. I have hated that song for twenty years. It reminds me of Orwell's comment in The Road To Wigan Pier:

I do think it a bad sign that it [i.e. socialism - ejh] has produced no songs worth singing.

Over a hundred years of Marxist meetings, which have, on occasion, attracted some of the world's most creative individuals, and the best we can do is this?
Arise ye starvelings from your slumbers
Arise ye prisoners of want
For reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant.
Now away with all your superstitions
Servile masses, arise, arise
We'll change forthwith the old conditions
And spurn the dust to win the prize.

So comrades come rally,
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale
Unites the human race.

In truth, the tune is not so bad. At least it sounded pretty good when they were singing it in Reds. But the lyrics are embarrassing. Arise ye starvelings from your slumbers. Can you imagine singing that without embarrassment? Can you imagine saying it without embarrassment? Wouldn't you worry about anybody who could sing that without embarrassment?

At least it recalls the message - ARIE, YE WORKERS - that Rubashov is passed in Darkness at Noon. But servile masses, arise, arise? Does anybody actually talk to their workmates, or address a political meeting, like that? How can it be inspiring to sing in a political doggerel?

Worst of all, it reads like a bad translation, something done hurriedly for an examination, or something by Constance Garnett. We'll change forthwith the old conditions /And spurn the dust to win the prize. The best you can say of that is that it is clumsy. Or that at last ends the age of cant is even clumsier.

Maybe it is better in the original French. Maybe it is much better. It could scarcely be worse. The only way in which it unites the human race could be in making them want to be as far away as possible whenever it is sung.

Of course socialist anthems and peace songs are simplistic and sloganistic. This is why so few of them are any good, but also why even the ones that are good are sentimental and easily mocked. And I grant that we are stardust, we are golden is a little more than I can take, but that doesn't stop my eyes occasionally misting over when I hear I have come here to lose the smog, and the lines from the succeeding verse:

...everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

Risible, no doubt, but only in so far as hope and idealism seem risible to the cynical. The relationship is the same that Paul Foot had to the columnists. And there is nothing turgid about the lyrics or the tune.

So I have no problem with the existence or even the singing of socialist anthems. I'd just like a good one, which, from start to finish, the Internationale is not. Bandiera Rossa - or Avanti Popolo as my great-aunt taught it to me - is a good one. John Lennon wrote a better one, albeit one you wouldn't want to hear sung communally.

I want some sentiment that moves me, set to music that moves me, that can be sung in such a way that moves me as the Paul Foot tribute occasionally moved me. Because the right sort of sentiments should move you, because of their idealism, because they would seem risible to the cynical, because in that absence of cynicism lies their potential and their truth.
It's only a choice... a choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one. Here's what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.


At October 11, 2004 10:37 pm, Blogger AngusF said...

Hadn't seen or considered those words before but they remind me of these:

Rise, like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number,
shake your chains to earth like dew,
Which in sleep has fallen on you.
Ye are many, they are few!

... which I think are much more powerful

At August 14, 2005 3:54 am, Anonymous Paul Lyon said...

Hm... This is the translation of the first verse of the Internationale on this side of the pond:

Arise ye prisoners of starvation,
Arise ye wretched of the Earth,
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world is now in birth

No more tradition's chains shall bind us,
Arise ye slaves, no more in thrall,
The world shall rise on new foundations,
We have been naught, we shall be all!

IMHO, this version is an improvement on the one you quote, tho' perhaps not by much.

Also, there is always ``Solidarity Forever'', and some of the songs of Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie. But perhaps these are a bit too much of the States to be portable :-)


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