What rough beast slouches to the couch?
Events in Norway prompted me to look again at this piece which I wrote some time ago and have revised several times. I was living in rural Ireland, surrounded by farmers and their livestock, when I wrote some of the poem. The rest was written in rural Sri Lanka living next door to a family of Muslim butchers. I do not mention their religion as an easy shot at Muslims. In Sri Lanka, other religions are pious about slaughtering but still eat meat. Muslims have traditionally been the livestock rearers and slaughterers.
Why is it OK to kill some animals and not others? Why is it OK to eat some animals and not others? Why is it OK to kill some humans and not others? Jews and Muslims can’t eat pig. Hindus won’t eat beef (Buddhists don’t care to either). When I was in Peru I ate guinea pig. In Lewisham, Tesco’s shelves stocked Ostrich burgers and Kangaroo steaks. A Turkish supermarket sold sheep’s testicles. We sometimes note that our pet cat is fattening up to make a nice roast for Christmas but decide this is not a renewable resource – you can’t have your cat and eat it.
The Victorians were into taxonomy in a big way. Frank Buckland, one of the most celebrated popular naturalists of the Victorian era, was ecumenical in his zoophagous appetites. Buckland was a man who did not hesitate to dine on rodents, crocodile, rhinoceros and giraffe.
Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Virgil – Aeneid
These are the tears of things and our mortality cuts to the heart.
A Poem about Killing
Here is a poem about exploiting sentient beings for profit, pleasure or political cause. It is about objectification of other beings in order to be able to torture them and kill them. It is about killing by remote control. The blood and the bone do not signify if they belong to “the other” or if they are far away. Put the victim in a different category – species or ethnic group or religion- and the killing is easier to justify in the killer’s psyche.
HOW I BECAME A VEGETARIAN
Rural life is, like some farmers, nasty,
Brutish and short. Red in tooth and claw
Is what nature is. Scattered all across the vasty
Fields, dead lambs and sheep are nibbled and gnawed
By crows and worms and silphidae.
These carrion lovers are blameless, driven by need
And karma, but how did the sheep come to die?
Not the fox. Was it disease, exposure lack of feed?
Whatever, the farmers’ unawareness seems a sin,
A mindlessness of the sanctity of life.
These sentient beasts are a commodity to skin,
Dismember and freeze. No matter if they die without a knife
There will be more to come on the production line.
Sheep, pigs, geese, ducks, chickens and kine
Are all grist to the EU subsidy mill,
Entries bent to an accountant’s skill.
Two rascally lambs frequently escape together
And come through our garden hedge. No bother.
More problem when the garden is crammed
Like a commuter train, jointed and jammed
With big sheep who trample and chew,
An ovine plague of rams and ewes
With staunch purpose. Shouting and waving a cane,
Like Betsy Trotwood, I chase them away again
A scruffy crowd gathers at the far end of the acre every day.
Skinny and horned, they wheeze, cough and choke.
They sit and stare and chew the fat and the hay
As if they’re down the pub for a pint and a smoke.
Gates are mainly theoretical here. Along the lanes
Cows and bullocks wander freely like the sacred beasts
Of India. Even could you find the owner, useless to complain.
“Ah, they’re desperate cunts all right”, is all the farmer says.
We promise the cows that, come what may, we at least,
Won’t eat them. Their soft intelligent eyes fix us with a gaze.
“Small comfort to us”, they must think.
Mary had a little lamb-
The farmer’s daughter had a pet
Sheep. What happened to it?
“We ate it”.
In the Black Museum at New Scotland Yard
I saw the very gas oven and hobs
Where Nielsen in total disregard
Of normal culinary thingamabobs
Boiled up his victim’s heads in a stockpot
After ramming the remains of the remains
Of those he had garrotted
Down the inadequate drains.
After a repast of succulent roast lamb
The overflowing sink drenched my sock
In greasy water. Trying to locate the jam,
I unscrewed the U-bend and got quite a shock
As slimy lumps of white lamb lard
Slithered down my neck, cold and hard.
My old alma mater is now mostly car park.
School House, rickety death trap in the sixties
Surprisingly still shakily stands,
I walk through the empty site my feet treading
What was once the chemistry lab
Where I sweated cold in ignorant panic.
This is a short cut to the park
And Spa Road, past the corner shop
Where we bought ice cream
And idled away summer lunch breaks.
Another rickety old house, boarded up,
No longer in use. A literal death trap.
In a street named for the butcher of the Irish.
Number 25 Cromwell Street.
The local police often dropped in
For a drink and a laugh with Fred,
A good old boy from the forest of Dean,
Or to pleasure themselves with Rosemary.
Or with the waifs?
Like lambs to the slaughter. Innocent
Sentient beings. Anonymous.
Free of identity
Used for pleasure
Butchered for convenience
The “purveyor of fine meats”
Is “pleased to meet you,
And has meat to please you”.
An ultra-violet insect repeller hums
And gives out a purple glow
Like an undertaker’s neon sign.
A bluebottle settles with a cyclorrhaphous
Languor on a lamb carcass.
Among dripping cadavers of cows
And smaller pieces of mutilated animals
The butcher tuts and whistles
Through the gap in his teeth
As he reads in his news paper
Of carnage and mayhem in Ireland.
A literal shambles
Of children and pregnant women.
At the beef stall in Badulla market
Huge screeching crows make skidding
Scraping landings on the rusty,
Lacy corrugated iron roof,
Clattering, shrieking, swooping,
Scooping up bloody scraps of offal.
The butchers unload the slaughterhouse
Van using huge bovine rib-cages
To carry the other cuts.
People hand over small amounts
For small amounts
Of unrecognisable body parts.
No part of a cow is too trivial
To be sold and cooked and eaten.
Hairy matter that cannot be named
Hangs in folds and pleats and sheets
Like curtains in a horror house.
Disembodied ankles and hooves
Are lined up in neat rows
As shoes outside a hotel room door.
Bad tempered live chickens strut
About on strings, necks twitching,
Unaware that they
Are comestible commodities.
A man stands calm like a statue
With a live chicken under each arm.
Feral cats forage among the giblets and plastic bags.
The Tamil Tigers blew up a bus
Full of schoolchildren.
Those who escaped from the bus were shot.
Now the war is over,
The bombs are silent
But a vanload of children
Exploded in meat and blood
Because one driver
In this market economy
Cut his fares.
War and Terror, the War on Terror
“It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation. What, in killing, he does is to wrench around his most fundamental sanctions about how within civilization (and this particular civilization, his country) another embodied person can be touched; he divests himself of civilization, decivilizes himself, reverses not just an ‘idea’ or ‘belief’ but a learned and deeply embodied set of physical impulses and gestures relating to any other person’s body. He undoes the learning in his body as radically as he would if he were suddenly required to abandon the upright posture and move on four limbs as in his pre-civilized infancy. He consents to ‘unmake’ himself, deconstruct himself, empty himself of civil content ‘for his country’…When during peacetime he gently touches his neighbor, or keeps a five-inch space between himself and an acquaintance encountered on the street, one can ‘see’ civilization inside the gestures and postures themselves, see it literally residing within him, as will be especially apparent if one then observes his restraint when he comes upon someone he deeply dislikes and avoids him rather than shattering him… Because his act of killing does not itself contain civilization in its interior, the fact that it is being done for a particular civilization, the referent for his act, is re-established and carried by the appended assertion (either verbalized or materialized as in the uniform), ‘for my country’.”
Elaine Scarry – The Body in Pain
The Thirty Years War
In 1648, the Thirty Years War ended. CV Wedgwood wrote of those times: “The outlook even of the educated was harsh. Underneath a veneer of courtesy, manners were primitive; drunkenness and cruelty were common in all classes, judges were more often severe than just, civil authority more often brutal than effective, and charity came limping far behind the needs of the people. Discomfort was too natural to provoke comment; winter’s cold and summer’s heat found European man lamentably unprepared, his houses too damp and draughty for the one, too airless for the other. Prince and beggar alike were inured to the stink of decaying offal in the streets, of foul drainage about the houses, to the sight of carrion birds picking over public refuse dumps or rotting bodies swinging on the gibbets. On the road from Dresden to Prague a traveller counted ‘above seven score gallowses and wheels, where thieves were hanged, some fresh and some half rotten, and the carcasses of murderers broken limb after limb on the wheels’”.
Thirty Years of War in Sri Lanka
A thirty years war has ended in Sri Lanka. Perhaps 100,000 people died, many more were maimed or displaced or forced into poverty. The Tamil nationalists were fighting to detach the north and east from the rest of the country. The people of Sri Lanka are so relieved that there have been no terrorist incidents for over a year that they gave an overwhelming mandate to President Rajapaksa. Even the political parties who called for a separate Tamil homeland have laid down their arms and promised to work for reconciliation. There are those, mainly living outside Sri Lanka, who want the killing to resume in pursuit of the chimera of a separate Tamil nation in Sri Lanka. The USA and the UK criticize the way the war in Sri Lanka was won in spite of their own actions around the world.
In Ireland people fought to attach the north east to the rest of the island. I sat in a bar in Cork City. There was not a dry eye in the house as the TV news showed images of Omagh. On Saturday 15 August 1998, 29 people died and approximately 220 people were injured as a result of a car bombing carried out by the Real IRA. The victims included people from many different backgrounds. Among them were Protestants, Catholics, a Mormon, nine children, a woman pregnant with twins, two Spanish tourists and other tourists on a day trip from across the border in the Republic of Ireland.
The 1,648 page-book, Lost Lives by a number of experienced Northern Ireland reporters is basically a compiled list of the victims of the Northern Ireland Troubles and gives the detail of their actual death, who they were, and what they were doing at the time. It lists 3,638 deaths from 1966 to 2000 directly attributable to ‘The Troubles’. It depicts them as individual human beings, blood and bone, with families and emotions, not just numbers.
April 19 2011, marked the 16th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. Timothy J. McVeigh, a decorated army veteran, was executed on June 11, 2001. David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University’s Law Centre, says that ‘terrorism’ is normally defined as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” There were only two suspects, which excludes it from being a conspiracy. The attack prompted a broadening of the definition. “If you can brand your foes as terrorists, that’s an important moral and political victory,” says Brian M. Jenkins, a terrorism expert. “Bombs by their nature are indiscriminate weapons, and the issue is, why is it legitimate to drop a lot of bombs on a city, knowing full well that hundreds of thousands of innocents may be killed, but not legitimate to set off a bomb in a city in which scores may be killed?” The reaction to the Oklahoma bombing set in train a series of encroachments of freedom which led to the Bush regime’s use of torture so eloquently condemned in the writings of Professor Cole.
On 7 July 2005, 52 people were killed and 700 injured in co-coordinated terrorist bombings in London. Three bombs exploded within fifty seconds of each other on three underground trains. A fourth bomb exploded on a bus in Tavistock Square an hour later. The attack was by Muslim militants angry at Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. 30% of the victims were foreign nationals.
One George W Bush served two terms as President of the United States. He avoided killing anyone personally during the Vietnam War by staying drunk in Texas pissing on people’s cars throughout the hostilities. Somewhat eccentrically, he sent a lot of other people’s children to invade Iraq because a group of Saudi Arabians living in Germany killed around 3,000 people in New York. The latest civilian body count from Iraq is 126,371.
Previous Gulf Wars and the bombing of Kosovo were carried out with few US casualties. This was war by remote control, like a video game.
President Obama continues to authorise the killing of civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003–2007 – edited by Shawn Christian Nessen, Dave Edmond Lounsbury, and Stephen P. Hetz, with a foreword by Bob Woodruff, Office of the Surgeon General/ Borden Institute.
The photos show wounds—”Figure 4. Fragment of human rib removed from right scrotum”; “Figure 1. Wound showing evisceration of the small intestine”—that have never been seen in this way before.
“This 28-year-old male sustained an injury to his right leg from a high-energy blast,” begins the chapter on below-the-knee amputation. “His clothing was saturated with blood. Removal of his combat boots revealed a significant, grossly contaminated, soft-tissue injury and a poorly perfused foot.” There are full-color photos of legs that have been smashed and feet that have been pulped, of flesh that does not look like flesh, of bone hanging like broken branches.
Here are some explanations about parts of the poem.
I was educated at Sir Thomas Rich’s Bluecoat Grammar School in Gloucester. The school yard backed on to Cromwell Street. Gloucester builder Fred West and his wife Rosemary murdered an uncertain number of young women, including their daughter Heather West and Fred West’s step-daughter Charmaine West, in the basement at 25 Cromwell Street. He was charged with eleven murders but there were probably more. There were unsolved disappearances in Glasgow when he was selling ice-cream there. Fred West hanged himself in his prison cell on New Year’s Day in 1995 while awaiting trial. Rosemary West was convicted on ten charges of murder in November 1995 and sentenced to life. It has been suggested that incest was an accepted part of the West household when Fred was growing up in the Forest of Dean, and that his father taught him bestiality from an early age. West recalled, in police interviews, that his father had said on many occasions “Do what you want, just don’t get caught doing it”. A good motto for politicians. When Fred West moved to Gloucester, he took a job in an abattoir. Incest was a factor in Rosemary’s family also. What are the chances of two such people getting together? A marriage made in hell.
Most of their victims were runaways, waifs and strays. However, one was an art student from a loving family who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lucy Partington, the cousin of writer Martin Amis was waiting for a bus when Fred and Rose offered her a lift. I know well the spot on the Cheltenham to Gloucester road where she was abducted. Lucy must have thought it was OK to accept a lift because Fred had Rosemary with him. Lucy’s sister, Marian, writes movingly about this at
“But first I had to face the truth. Lucy had been abducted, gagged, raped, tortured and murdered, before she was beheaded and dismembered.” Marian Partington writes about Rosemary West: “I began to have some insight into her mind. I later discovered she’d been sexually abused by her brother, then abducted from a bus stop and raped aged 17. Her story seems to be about the impoverishment of a soul that knew no other way to live than through terrible cruelty. A life deprived of truth, beauty or love. I imagine that the deviant ignorance that fed her sadistic, egotistical crimes was rooted in her ruined, crooked childhood.”
In October 1996, 25 Cromwell Street was demolished and the site made into a small garden. Every brick was crushed and every timber burnt to discourage souvenir hunters.
The street in which the Wests pursued their gruesome hobby was named after Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell killed King Charles I and lots of Irish people. Cromwell has his defenders among modern historians but a recent book, God’s Executioner by Mícheál Ó Siochrú, is a forceful and largely convincing restatement of the case for the prosecution. The 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (40 %?). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country
I remember standing in a butcher shop in Burnage, Manchester (just around the corner from the Irish family of Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis) on May 17, 1974. News came over the radio of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, by loyalist terrorists from Northern Ireland. There was a literal shambles of broken humanity, including children, still-born foetuses and pregnant women. (Shambles – a flesh market, slaughterhouse, bloody carnage). Sammy Smyth of the Ulster Volunteer Force said “I am very happy about the bombings in Dublin. There is a war with the Free State and now we are laughing at them.”
Mild-mannered civil servant Dennis Nielsen was suspected of killing up to 15 homosexual men at his home in Muswell Hill, North London. He strangled most of his victims and disposed of their bodies by chopping them up and flushing them down the toilet or storing them under the floorboards of his home. Before becoming an employee of the Department of Employment, he had been a butcher in the Army Catering Corps. He was apprehended after neighbours complained about the smell coming from his drains. In 1983, after being found guilty on all counts, 37-year-old Dennis Andrew Nielsen was sentenced to life in prison. Gordon Burn wrote a book about the case called ‘Killing for Company’
Serial Killers and Animals
A lot of serial killers and mass murderers , like the Wests and GW Bush seem to come from disturbed backgrounds. Should we sympathise and forgive? Many serial killers started out by torturing animals. LTTE fuehrer Prabhakaran was known to do this as a youth.
On a quotidian level, a ready acceptance of received wisdom is toxic. The fantasies and delusions induced by our corporate masters through TV and advertising leads to posturing and violence. We are induced to respect the hit-man, the sniper, even as he kills defenceless victims unseen from a distance. Our meat is more palatable wrapped in cellophane in a clean supermarket than it would be if we had to wrestle it to the ground and listen to its cries as we slit its throat.
Orson Welles – Ask not what you can do for your country, ask ‘what’s for lunch?
National myths and patriotism brainwash us to justify imperialism. Are we inured to violence by violent images being thrust at us constantly for fun and profit? What damage is being done to us by getting our entertainment from murder and mayhem? The ante seems to be continually raised as we become de-sensitised to the gruesome horrors of Hannibal Lecter or Karen Slaughter. I have just read a crime novel by Mo Hayder which raises the ante still further, going far beyond necrophilia for fun. Should we be concerned that we are watching images of people being killed in order to have ourselves a little consumerist fun as we slouch our couches?