Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Today Barak Obama became King of the World.

Or so it feels. The romance that has become associated with this whole handover of power seems to come from some medieval French story about chivalry and honour. Le Morte D'Arthur and elements of the Pentecostal Oath. In fact, maybe that's appropriate. Here is the man appointed by some higher order, who has come from low degree, or at least his race has in the history of America, recognised by a token and the hope of the people. But the Morte D'Arthur is not about a truly great king. It is about someone human, who make mistakes and is cruel and hurts his fellows - whose private life is a mess. There are disasters to which Arthur does not necessarily react in the best way he could, for all the veneration he earns and still does. I would rather Barak Obama tried to adhere to some of the values of chivalry that we do still espouse as a global community, than try to be the perfect image of kingliness that has transmuted itself into the idea of statesmanship. Of personal integrity, defence of the weak, fighting for right or, just as importantly, fighting against wrong. If he can do half of that, he will have earnt a measure of the hope that we as a world have allowed ourselves to vest in him.

Just food for thought, that I found the other day. See here for the reference.

What If

If you can keep your money when governments about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.
If you can trust your neighbour when they trust not you
And they be very nosy too;
If you can await the warm delights of summer
Then summer comes and goes with sun not seen,
And pay so much for drinking water
Knowing that the water is unclean.

If you seek peace in times of war creation,
And you can see that oil merchants are to blame,
If you can meet a pimp or politician,
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you cannot bear dis-united nations
And you think this new world order is a trick,
If you've ever tried to build good race relations,
And watch bad policing mess your work up quick.

If you can make one heap of all your savings
And risk buying a small house and a plot,
Then sit back and watch the economy inflating
Then have to deal with the negative equity you've got.
If you can force your mind and body to continue
When all the social services have gone,
If you struggle on when there is nothing in you,
Except the knowledge that justice cannot be wrong.

If you can speak the truth to common people
Or walk with Kings and Queens and live no lie,
If you can see how power can be evil
And know that every censor is a spy;
If you can fill the unforgiving lifetime
With years of working hard to make ends meet,
You may not be wealthy but I am sure you will find
That you can hold your head high as you walk the streets.

Benjamin Zephaniah

I actually prefer the original of this poem. Zephaniah is reactionary and specific, and for technical poetry the Kipling beats him hands down. The Kipling has rhythm and drive and sense missing from the update. But there are things in the new version that remind us how important the old one was, too. It acts as a critique. The final verse, I guess, is what I'd like to imagine as the life manifesto for someone in a position like Obama's. Very similar to the Pentecostal Oath, really. Speak for the common people. Keep your head. No arrogance. Work hard. Fight for justice. Have compassion. Be clear-eyed. Please? We, the world, need this from you. Perfect success is too much to hope for, but a worthwhile shot shouldn't be. What we want from our leaders hasn't changed in a thousand years. Have a crack. Like a strongman contest. Can YOU make the bell ring?

In an aside, I miss my copy of the Malory. I love that book. I need to re-read it, again. It might be written in C15th English in the Caxton edition, but it's such a wonderful story and really not impenetrable. It is, incidentally, one of the earliest works of fiction to be published in England (definition of 'work of fiction' dependent on your feelings about the Bible). If you can read Shakespeare, you will find this easy. I wrote so much on it for my degree - I ought to know chunks by heart. I probably still do. All of those images that you heard once, of knights and round tables and great deeds of adventure and love and betrayal, come from here (bar the odd French source of a similar period). They might be hackneyed now, but here is the first fresh telling of the tale. Go. Read like a child! I did.

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