Heart on the Left

December 21, 2008 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | 1 Comment

Yesterday, the poet, playwright and children’s author Adrian Mitchell passed away from a suspected heart attack.

Mitchell was probably the first poet to make me understand and enjoy poetry as an art form. His work is renowned for his tireless, volcanic compassion, his bottomless humanity, and his rare ability mix the idealism of a cynical hippy with the cheek of a schoolboy and the wide-eyed wonder of a child.

A guardian of the left’s best instincts, Mitchell abhorred the cruelty he had seen humans inflict upon each other, was appalled by the poverty of capitalism, yet still held firm to an unwavering belief that we’re all capable of great good.

At his very best, his poems were splashed with imagination, vivid in their imagery, and throbbing with rhythm and relevance. His work was is a delight to read.

I couldn’t even begin to point you in the direction of his best poem or poems, but they’re likely to be found in his first anthology, the aptly-titled Heart on the Left.


Naming the Dead
~ From Heart on the Left

And now the super-powers, who have been cheerfully doubling their money
by flogging arms wherever the price is right, put on their Sunday cassocks
and preach peace to the Middle East. From their lips the word sounds like a
fart. On Twenty-Four Hours the other night, Kenneth Allsop interviewed a
British arms merchant who has been selling to both Egypt and Israel. Admit-
ting that he was having some doubts about his trade (he is now on the verge
of an ill-earned retirement) he said that nevertheless the real question was:
Am I my brother’s keeper? and that the answer was No. The question was of
course first put by Cain, whose flag flies high over most of the major cities of
the world.

The more abstract war is made to seem, the more attractive it becomes. The
advance of an army as represented by dynamic arrows swooping across the
map can raise the same thrill as a child gets from playing draughts. Dubious
score-sheets which say how many planes the government would have liked to
have shot down only add to the game-like quality of news – you tot up the
columns and kid yourself that someone is winning.

Wartime governments sometimes allow this process to be taken a step nearer
reality by issuing photographs of one atrociously wounded soldier (our side)
being lovingly nursed by his comrades, and another picture of dozens of prisoners
(their side) being handed cups of water (see under Sir Philip Sidney, gallantry
of). Such poses represent a caricature of war’s effect on human beings.

What have Arabs been doing? Killing Jews.

What have the Jews been doing? Killing Arabs.

Even that doesn’t get us far in the direction of reality. To add statistics saying how
many were killed takes us only an inch nearer.

Who is killed? What were they like? I would like to see every government in
the world held accountable to the United Nations for every human being it
kills, either in war or in peace. I don’t just mean a statistic published in a
secret report. I mean that all the newspapers of the country responsible should
carry the name of the person killed, his photograph, address, number of his
dependants and the reason why he was killed. (We often do as much for the
victims of plane crashes.)

This would mean that in some countries the press would be swamped with
death reports and even mammoth death supplements. (Well, what about the
advertisers?) But I want more.

I would like every death inflicted by any government to be the subject of a
book published at the state’s expense. Each book would give an exhaustive
biography of the corpse and would be illustrated by photographs from his
family album if any, pictures he painted as a child and film stills of his last
hours. In the back cover would be a long-playing disc of the victim talking to
his friends, singing, talking to his wife and children and interviewed by the
men who killed him.

The text would examine his life, his tastes and interests, faults and virtues,
without trying to make him any more, villainous or heroic than he was. It
would be prepared by a team of writers appointed by the United Nations.
The final chapter would record the explanations of the government which
killed him and a detailed account of the manner of his death, the amount of
bleeding, the extent of burns, the decibel count of screams, the amount of
time it took to die and the names of the men who killed him.

One book for every killing. I realise that this would take some planning. Each
soldier would have to be accompanied by an interviewing, camera and research
team in order to record the details of any necessary victim.

Most factories would turn out printing presses, most graduates would auto-
matically become bigraphers of the dead. Bombing could only take place
after individual examination of every person to be bombed. The cost of killing
would be raised to such a pitch that the smallest war would lead to bankruptcy
and only the most merciful revolution could be afforded. Hit squarely in the
exchequer – the only place where they feel emotion – chauvinist governments
might be able to imagine for the first time, the true magnitude of the obscenity
which they mass-produce.

This is no bloody whimsy. I want a real reason for every killing.

~ Adrian Mitchell (1932 – 2008)


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  1. […] children, executed gays and arrested women’s rights activists. To paraphrase the late, great Adrian Mitchell, from his mouth the words sounded like a […]

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