Alan Morrison

 

 

Rats, Cats and Kings

A Homage to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

 

 

1.

A Republic’s crisis in striking distance

on the map of things, lightning not visible

but the purr of the rug-cat thunders the drums

of sensitive ears out-listening their nation’s

deafness to all but cricketing meadows,

dull willow thuds and lily-white claps –

tub-thumping thunder tumbling near

from red earths of Aragón and Huesca.

 

 

2.

From Jerusalem’s slums and coal-charred yards

to draughty halls of the ILP –

cheap soap and woodbine, chip shop and Brylcreem,

hard-grafted faces lit up with hope’s politics,

journeymen, poets, dust-jacket dilettantes,

honourless prophets, clean-cuffed Quixotes

and flat-capped Panzas, united to joust  

and oust the Fascist windmill giants;

leathery hands shake with white spiders

pale as the pamphlets of fingered polemic;

turpentine mingles with whiffs of fresh paper.

 

All differences left breathlessly behind

tousling chimneys of a frostier home:

heat-drowsed idealists enter their dreams

on chivalrous trains to mythologized fronts

(a tubercular scribbler’s Burma’s intact

on this clattering carriage of Socialist tract);  

English, German, Italian, French

billeted together through exercise of will,

not sufferance of jingoistic blackmail:

our Captain says THEIR Country Needs You!

Man with beret displays deft marksmanship

with porrón: thread of red resuscitates flagging,

parched-mouthed Spaniard, stubble ruby-clagging.

 

 

3.

The Diggers, Keir Hardie and George Bernard Shaw

would have been in their elements in Barcelona:

no classes, differences, privileges here,

no profits, no tips for waiters or bootblacks,

a city collectivised, transport for all

in red and black taxis and trams on the Ramblas;

formalities, titles, traditional greetings

all levelled: Senor, Don, Usted transposed

into Comrade and Thou, even Buenos Días

replaced with Salud! Now cats look at kings

straight in the eyes and square in the face,

Socialism in action – so much for the Church

of Spain, its capitalist altars: a trace

of deep-veined anarchy clots the character

of this Roman Catholic, Agnostic race.

 

 

4.

Green dreams of dust-jacket crusades

to battlefields of excrement and jagged tins,

bullet-rattled hills, birdless valleys,

villages sprawled like scattered dice,

crinkled hillsides like elephant hides

looming cold daunting – insect figures

shivering round flags, hugging flames

of pilfered Church candles they strike their lights by,

coughs for confessions in sandbag pews,

mortars sacred as plaster Madonnas

too precious to touch or use –

stagnation on the Aragón front;

heated exchanges of smoke-breathed views.

 

 

5.

The shabby freedom of a nation defended

by ragged children with sticks; greyed youth

greasing corroding scrap-iron rifles

with olive oil – Keep your powder dry!

cried Oliver Cromwell in a greener war,

now black and sea-green is black and blood-red

knotted in scarves round sticking necks

the colour of quail’s eggs.

Don’t tap the butt on the limestone ground!

Blunderbusses go off indiscriminately,

only guns are non-partisan here

along with the shakes and pneumonia –

not forgetting ‘impartial’ bombs that take out

the thrower as well as the target,

killing two stones with one bird.

 

A fag for a bomb worth throwing; a flag

for a trusty rifle; a cause for a clause

worth fighting for in this war against virus,

impasse against men; conflict postponed

for too distant pitching of camps and dug-outs

on honeycombed hillsides; sand-martins’ nests.

The cracking of bullets on Fascist machine guns:

nuts hitting stones. These freezing soldiers

ache for battles and cigarettes

but night and the Jesuit return empty-handed.

 

 

6.

Shouting instead of shooting:

verbal bombs bounce from camp to camp;

starved cats have fasted for shouting duty

so hours of vocal volleys follow fuelled

on lack of tabaco, gut-rumpus of hunger

and spirits that scavenge glimpses of hope

on blue-smudged horizons, sights thrown amok

like a scamper of tramps scrimping fag-ends,

itching in lousy hair-shirts and goat-skins,

fleas hopping ship to and fro.

 

Futile mascots abound: a frozen

Moor in No-Man’s-Land.

What gullible bribe brought him in the service

of Christians and Catholics? Should have fought

with us: raiders of gold-spoilt Churches;

we modern Roundheads; recusant hunters;

goosy ganders with highfaluting passwords

chiselling off Heavens from the headstones,

turning God’s bullet-pocked Houses

into sanctuaries for smashed furniture and excrement.

 

 

7.

Casualties, the inevitable price of clashes;

competing with bombs, sirens caterwaul

from streams of juddering ambulances

that rescue the wounded, jolt them into corpses.

Sadly not as regular as faeces that spoors

in rank latrines, gifting rafts for rats,

is the infrequent trickle of Fascist deserters

inspired by catalysts of sparring polemic

ricocheting like cartridges through No-Tramp’s Land:

Viva el POUM – Fascistas maricones! and so on –

arguments, like the spit of bullets, seem never-ending.

Damp trenches cause a passion for warm baths and clean sheets.

 

Polemic warms the farm house: heated politics

debated in freezing, rat-infested dug-outs

sandbags for soap boxes, bullets for ballots,

ideology in action on inactive battlefields

of barbed-wire –isms, shell-splintered -wings;

pens dipped in blood; bayonets dripping ink.

 

 

8.

The battle-scene: a war-torn bed chamber

exposed to skies for a roof scooped by a bomb:

bedsteads for barricades; bed-pan latrines

filling with yellow water from urinating rains,

rats large as cats splashing in them like otters –

hardly the picturesque brocade crocheted by

fevered imaginings in rapt English bed-sheets

before the pan was spilt; and barely picaresque:

the only rogues here are rats and grenade-pins

and Catalan cats staring out Spanish kings –

who doesn’t know the way to a monarch’s heart

is through explosives? Cue Guido Fawkes,

the Catholics’ last coup with grit and gunpowder

to blow down Parliament’s pack of cards,

towers of matchsticks and ratified tricks.

 

Who will oust out this brute Franco?

The folk songs of Lorca? The buzz of de Falla’s

swarming El Amor Brujo?

Not strums of flamenco, stamping fandango,

choreographed toreadors’ pugilist ballet

in blood-coloured dust of the bull rings.

 

 

9.

On the Aragón front flares clash with the flash

of clean bayonets, white armlets and gritted teeth,

or the whites of the eyes of terrified sheep

herded by bullets in the still lunar darkness

black as liquorish-root cigarettes –

thanks to Franco’s annexed Canary plantations –

on grounds pockmarked with shell holes like

the cratered moon. What contrast by day:

faces stained by white ferocious suns,

windburnt; sunbeaten. Gnarled-faced Andaluces

bask in anarchy of classless ranks,

prized for their deftness at tucking in ends

of cigarettes shovelled with brittle tobacco.

 

 

10.

On a chattering train anís-totting

leather-faced peasants reflect the drab palette

of conscripted cats’ coarse brown and khaki

who naturally care only for a fresh packet

of fags: a day’s wage for philanthropy

at ten pesetas, price of altruism

along with rice-leavened bread, consistency

of communion wafers; bread like putty;

screaming trams and milkless tea;

scourge of olive oil; cigarette famine;

pounding stomachs in tortuous streets.

 

 

11.

¡Hola otra vez Barcelona! The lights of this city

of labyrinthine intrigue pinched out like candles

in Church-like dark cast by Tibidabo,

hill from which el Diablo showed

Christ the countries of the Earth – Franco’s

shadow obscures truth, inspires

Communist plots, Valencian papers

flaming with Fascism – the Fascist plot:

Impeach the POUM – suppress the lot!

Adios Maurín, la Confederación Nacional

de Trabajo, La Batalla’s championing

of the Friends of Durruti. Nín disappears

like invisible ink while libellous blots

of lily-white foreign newspapers stain

red permanent slander on hearts and minds  

of lamb; give the view of the Balaclava hill

through safe sights of picnicking opera glasses.

 

We are called Fascists behind our backs

and behind our fronts – No hay tabaco –

Quiroga, Barrio, Giral – Bilbao.

Communist policies of pin-pricks pummels

subtly away at the honour of the POUM,

turns freedom fighters into fugitives,

slams foreign crusaders into germ-ridden prisons

to die from their wounds and ideals –

in the meantime Franco’s Spanish rats

spill in through the chaos and wobbling lines

of faction-split fronts: Madrid, Aragón,

Málaga, Bilbao, Huesca, Barcelona,

Valencia; all fall like dominoes – blood

pours into Spain like wine from a porrón

 

 

12.

Rats large as cats nibbling scraps

in Republican pannikins: new rule of kings

sets in with the twitch of liquorish moustache,

stamp of black boots, a yellow/red flag,

rumpus of tub-thumping Fascist salutes,

Ustedes, Dons, Senores restored

with classes and castes, tips, brothels, profits,

private monopolies – everything back

in its kepi-pressed place... only the oranges

glow the same colour, like paraffin lights

in ink-spilt night’s genuflected trees.

 

Oranges are oranges under Republicans,

Socialists, Anarchists, Fascists, all –isms;

they all taste the same to rats, cats and kings.  

 

 

 

 

First drafted 5th November 2004

Read out as a commission at the Christopher Caudwell conference, Toynbee Hall,

2006 the poem also features in Alan Morrison's 2006 volume, The Mansion Gardens 

(Paula Brown © 2006)

 

__________________________

 

Notes: 

 

Stanza 2: ILP = Independent Labour Party

         ‘a tubercular scribbler…’ = refers to George Orwell

                 porrón = Spanish drinking vessel for wine

 

Stanza 3: Ramblas = a mile-long promenade in Barcelona

                 Usted = formal version of ‘you’ in Spanish – the Republicans occupying

                 Barcelona altered such formal addressing of citizens to the informal, to

                 emphasize equality; the Fascists preferred formal addresses

 

Stanza 7: POUM = (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) The Workers Party

                 of Marxist Unification Fascistas maricones = Fascist poofs

 

Stanza 11:   ¡Hola otra vez Barcelona! = ‘Hello again Barcelona!’

           Maurín = leader of the POUM

                   Confederación Nacional de Trabajo = (CNT) National Confederation of

                   Workers La Batalla = pro-Fascist paper in Madrid

                   Friends of Durruti = anarchist militia opposed to militarization and      

                   governmentalism in the peoples’ militia

                   Nín = co-founder of POUM who was falsely accused by the Communists

                   of conspiring with the Fascists, and subsequently disappeared

           pannikins = metal containers for warming up food rations in and eating                            

                   them from