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Ancestors -- Adrian Mitchell

My Favourite Contemporary Poet (tm) makes another appearance:
(Poem #397) Ancestors
We had an island.
Oh we were a stomping old tribe on an island.
Red faces, hairy bodies.
Happy to be hairy
Happy to be hairy
When the breezes tickled
The hairs of our bodies
Happy to be hairy
Happy to be hairy
Next best thing to having feathers --
That was our national anthem.
Right. Hairy tribe,
Hairy red story-telling, song-singing, dragon-fighting, fire-drinking tribe

Used to get invaded every other weekend.
Romans, Vikings, Celts -- fire and sword --
Pushed us back but they never broke us down.
In between invasions we grew spuds and barley,
Took our animals wherever there was a river and some grass.

When the snows came, we moved south
When the rivers dried, we moved west
When the invaders came, we burnt our crops, moved.

Until one day we were surrounded by warriors.
The same old fire and sword, but used efficiently.
They slaughtered our warriors, lined up the rest of us
And there were speeches
About law and order, and firm but fair government.

And this is what they did,
This is government.
You take an island and cut it carefully
With the razorblade called law and order
Into a jigsaw of pieces.
The big, rich-coloured pieces
Go to the big, rich men.
The smaller, paler pieces,
(Five beds two recep barn mooring rights five acres)
Go to the small, rich men.
And nothing at all
Goes to those who have nothing at all.

Absurd? The many nothing-at-alls
Wouldn't stand back and see their island
Slashed into ten thousand pieces.
They didn't stand back, our hairy ancestors.
Some of them spoke out. Some fought back.
They were slashed down by the giant razorblade.

And now, and now the rich seldom have to kill
To defend the land they stole from all the tribe --
Wire fences. Guard Dogs Loose on these Premises.
                        No Trespassing.
Bailiffs. Security Guards. Police. Magistrates' Courts.
                        Judges. Prisons --
Grey prisons where the brain and the flesh turn grey
As the green English years stroll by outside the walls.
So who needs fire and the sword?
The tribe has been tamed
And our island
Our daft green stony gentle rough amazing haven
Entirely surrounded by fish
Has been stolen from the tribe.
It was robbery with most bloody violence.
And that was history, history is about the dead.
Then is our tribe dead? Is our tribe dead?
Is the tribe dead?
-- Adrian Mitchell
from 'The Apeman Cometh', 1975.

This couplet:

"Pushed us back but they never broke us down.
In between invasions we grew spuds and barley."

is why I like Adrian Mitchell so much. He can make powerful, moving social
statemnts (it's not hard to picture him with a guitar and a harmonica, a la
Dylan) while retaining a light touch and a brilliantly earthy sense of humour
("Happy to be hairy" - Yeah!)... and to tell the truth I like him in both
guises, both prophet of the coming revolution and irreverent jungle bard.

Which is not to say that today's poem is without failings. The main one, I
think, is the change in tone between the light-hearted first half [1] and the
somewhat strident soap-box fare of the second - it seemed rather abrupt to me.
But it's all redeemed by the final repetition - "Is our tribe dead?" - which I
find heartbreakingly poignant in its sense of bewilderment and loss... it sends
a shiver down my spine.


[1] which, in its bawdy good humour, is very reminiscent of 'The Oxford Hysteria
of English Poetry' - see link below.


There's quite a bit of Mitchell on the Minstrels (as I said, he's my favourite
contemporary poet). Check out

'Nostalgia - Now Threepence Off' - a must-read for lovers of children's
literature everywhere: poem #95

'To Whom It May Concern' - a scathing denunciatian of the Vietnam War, at
poem #28

'Jimmy Giuffre Plays 'The Easy Way'' - as laid-back a poem as you'll find this
side of J. J. Cale: poem #337

and of course the uproariously funny 'Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry', which
taught me everything I needed to know about Literature with a capital L:
poem #211

For a poem which attempts (and, I think, pulls off) a complete change of tone
midstream, read Theodore Roethke's 'The Meadow Mouse', at poem #267


The tribe's 'national anthem' was published as a standalone poem in the same
anthology, as

'The Apeman's Hairy Body Song'

Happy to be hairy
Happy to be hairy
When the breezes tickle
The hairs of my body

Happy to be hairy
Happy to be hairy
Next best thing
To having feathers

        -- Adrian Mitchell