Rats, Cats and Kings
A Homage to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
¡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…
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)
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