Wednesday, 12 August 2009


The Twa Corbies

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the thither say,
'Whar sall we gang and dine the day?'

'In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens the he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.

'His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady's ta'en another mate
Sae we may mak our dinner sweet.

'Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pike out his bonnie blue een:
Wi' ae lock o' his gowden hair
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare.

'Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane;
O'er his white banes, when they ae bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.'

(Traditional Verse)

I GENERALLY KNOW THE SUBJECT FIRST, and then, before I start writing down my thoughts on it, I try to think of some quotation that might somehow work with the piece.

I knew I was going to have a look at gang culture, particularly in Bermuda as it is now an unavoidable and deadly problem on that tiny Atlantic archipelago. There have been a number of shootings and knifings, including drive-by shootings, Bermuda style, from cycles. Pedestrians have been caught up in the random gunfire. Public events such as sports games (even cricket!) bring out the gangs, often armed with machetes. You will see a young man walking oddly because he has a machete or club suspended inside the leg of his trousers. He'll tell you it's for his personal protection.

I had several quotations from members of gangs in Bermuda that had been published, accurately, I trust, in the daily newspaper there a few days ago. However, I wanted some other quotation to head up the page as the gang interviews are, I think, going to slot into my narrative and will be scrutinized and commented on there. All that is going on in my head right now, as I sit here.

In 1964 and 1965 I was taking my GCE "O" Level courses in about 8 subjects, one of which was English Literature. The Lit course included Shakespeare's great Henry V; a dreadful novel called The Gun by CS Forester; and some poetry. I believe the longest poem was Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge, which I rather enjoyed, despite my age (15). I listened to that same poem read on the BBC recently and it was quite wonderful. We read some Chaucer, though our real exposure to The Canterbury Tales came from our Chemistry master, who took time off from making explosive substances (he may have been re-growing his eyebrows and bangs). There were other poems, most of them short, none by women. And we also read the traditional song The Twa Corbies. We were told this translated as The Two Crows, and that's all that got into my mind in the mid-Sixties that I was then aware of. The Twa Corbies verses were in, it seemed to me then, a language too foreign, too peculiar, to devote my precious time to. After all, I had The Rolling Stones on vinyl records, real poetry: I live in an apartment on the ninety-ninth floor of my block, and I sit at home looking out the window imagining the world has stopped. Then in flies a guy who's all dressed up just like a Union Jack, and says I've won five pounds if I have his kind of detergent pack. That was poetry for this poor boy.

Then, a few days ago, as I rolled the word gang around in what's left of my mind, the line 'Whar sall we gang and dine the day? floated to the surface after 45 years. Dear God! Gang as in get together, group.

I hunted down a copy of The Twa Corbies and read it, in all its strangeness. And understood every word. I'm almost certain that I'm not recalling some translation I might have been given in 1965. Rather, after four and a half decades of steady reading, of experiencing life, of meeting people, of travelling and conversing with friends and strangers, and possibly with living in a part of Britain where some very old dialects are still spoken, I have, in 2009, the tools (a mental seer stone, perhaps) to translate and comprehend these rather dodgy lines. What's more, I can visualize the scene, and even wonder a little at it. I am not entirely a positivist.

The two crows have observed a knight, newly killed, perhaps in battle, whose body and soul have been abandoned by his hawk, dog and wife. The crows decide to pick out the knight's blue eyes, a nice meal, and to use his blond hair to line a nest with. And at the end of the day, even if some may miss the knight, none will know where he went, whether he is alive or dead, and the wind (and weather) will blow for ever over his whitened bones.

A grim story. Questions: Why was the knight killed, was it for a good cause? Why did his lady, hawk and hound, who knew where his body was, not bury it or take it home? Had anybody else cared enough to look for him after the battle? Or was it murder? A ride-by slaying? Crows, of course, seek out carrion. We would not expect the poet to have robins delivering these lines. But was there a conscious effort to have dark birds and a pale corpse? Was that somehow more evil, more discomfiting, and better for the poetry business? The knight lives an ordered life, and the crows are birds that take advantage of a situation. Crows just wait around for something else to do the work, dirty and clean. The Patrician and the Lumpenproletariat.

Quite a bit to think on.

Here's something a gang member in Bermuda said:

"Let's be real. Yes, some of us sell drugs. Yes, some of us fight, either for ourselves or for our boys. We have each others' backs. We have to because no one else does.
"Look in the papers, maybe three jobs out of the entire employment section are for Bermudians and spouses of Bermudians only, and they are bottom jobs. Housekeeping, janitors, bus drivers, truck loaders, those are the jobs our Government holds for us. They let foreigners come in and take everything.
"Our boys are dying slowly. For most of them hard-core academics are not appealing, and they drop out of school. So when you're like me — a 16-year-old black Bermudian male, with no education, no trade or skills and no money — you figure out you can make $1,000 a day selling drugs.
"What do you think is going to happen? What do you think these boys are going to do? It's called common sense and politicians are so busy making laws to bind us that they forget to use it."

Let's see, these gang members don't want to indulge in hard-core academics, but they complain that the better jobs go to others, to foreigners. They are non-starters. There's something else you should know: in Bermuda too many younger black males tend to be losers, and black females tend to be the breadwinners and to do quite well. I taught night school a few years ago in Bermuda and my students were nearly all black women, and intelligent and hard-working women at that. There were no black males in any of my classes. I saw no young black males going to other classrooms, except to an African drumming course.

And why should a 16-year-old be fully educated, settled into a trade? He is just beginning! He is hardly mature. He can hardly negotiate. Is this gang member so naive that he expects everything to be handed to him in his mid-teen years? But he can make $1,000 a day selling drugs. I've never sold drugs; I don't know how easy it is exactly. I've watched people doing it. Drugs are hidden, and not really hidden, just off the street in a box or bin or under something. Clients know where to get drugs and come along openly. That's the thing, out in the open one is less suspect. The dealer takes the money, steps around the bus shelter (I used to see this in Bermuda next to a pharmacy, which I thought interesting), picks up a packet of something, returns to the street, and hands it over, and the vehicle moves on. This was going on across the street from me here in Amble; the drugs were in a bin used to store emergency road grit. Hardly clever. In Bermuda the dealers were young black males, boys really. My neighbour in Amble was white trash, and female. She carried one of her babies out to the street with her. Her hours of business were late night till dawn, and she was a noisy dealer.

From the Bermuda newspaper:

A 19-year-old said: "There's just no coming up. Everything we do is a problem; it's bad, it's wrong. Now we're going to get locked up for chilling with friends from the neighbourhood? What else do they want us to do?"
His 22-year-old cousin spoke up and added: "Government spends billions of dollars every year building new hotels and buildings, buying more buses and ferries, and planning expensive tourism ventures.
"They are never concerned with the happiness and satisfaction of their own people especially the youth. Besides a bar, movies and bowling, which all get extremely boring after the first 50 times, what else is there for us to do? Nothing! So we sit off out the road and chill, now that's illegal too?"

This sort of thinking really bugs me. The Bermuda Government doesn't spend anything (much less billions) building hotels. In fact, hotels are not being built in Bermuda as the tourist industry has slumped there and the international recession has strangled the money supply. Hotels would be built by investors. The entire annual budget for the Bermuda Government would not exceed a billion dollars. But this young man, somehow, believes something else and acts on it, no matter how ridiculous it is.

And I'm appalled that these young men can find nothing to do in Bermuda. They may be stuck there, in gang demesnes of a few square miles, which they've delineated themselves. This seems to me to be some sort of tribalism. It is a fact of life in Jamaica as well, and there are Jamaican gangs in Bermuda. They may not be able to leave Bermuda because the USA will not admit people with drug and other criminal convictions. But what is it about life in 2009 that is so boring?

In 1965 I had so much to do that I couldn't keep up with it. These were not activities that cost me any money, as I had little of it. Certainly not the equivalent of $1,000 a day from sitting on a wall selling twists.

I used to read second-hand books bought at thrift shops, I spent time (not money) at the Library. The Bermuda Library is so under-used now that it is frequently closed for long periods. I did go to movies, the inexpensive shows. I went to the beach, I went for walks, and I fished. I listened to the radio. I painted (pictures, not terribly well, but I enjoyed the effort). I studied history, biographies, and travel books. I went to quite a few parties and dances; I loved live music (and still do). We played cards, Scrabble, checkers, chess and dominoes. I mowed lawns and washed dishes to raise the money to buy my own choice of clothes and record albums. I house-sat and pet-sat. I used to row a boat for the pleasure of it.

And I did travel, saving up for the few weeks. Making sure I was not limiting myself to a few streets in Bermuda by having some sort of police record. I visited places that were, if possible, free or very reasonably priced.

Can a young black lad not find anything to read about, any architecture or art to study in a book or to see in person? Can he not sit down for two hours two nights a week to do some creative writing (or some other subject) in a classroom format, subsidized by the Government? Is all art, are all buildings, and are all books … white? Of course not.

There was a gang incident in the UK this week. A gang, of just two, it turned out, chased after someone, a youngster like themselves, and used a live python as a weapon. They allowed it to bite the unlucky lad. It was, apparently, racially motivated. There are many gangs in Britain; most are, they say, formed as a reaction to a perceived white threat. Racism is vile. That said, most gang violence is between groups of non-whites, in Britain and definitely in Bermuda. Membership in a gang is not so much for protection, but to put oneself in the line of fire.

However, I think the point is that a great many young people are just too bone-idle to take advantage of all that life does offer. They don't want to join a class, or pick up a pen or book. They don't want to learn the names of the stars and the constellations. In fact, they don't even want to look up. Or within. They'd rather smoke dope. Isn't that it? Just stop existing.

Who is to blame? Often, I fear, fathers just like them. Fathers who smoked dope, and still do. Fathers who thought life cheap because there is a reset button on video games that seems to fix any brutality and murder. All that dope and violence and gangrene sets in.

And, in Bermuda, black society and family life tends to be matriarchal. There are few male schoolteachers. Complete familes are rare. Instead of mum and dad you have granny and aunties. And, I'm afraid, pudgy Saturday and Sunday pastors. And they are often too busy attending funerals to attend to the living.

The Bermuda Government has announced plans to ban gang membership, to make it illegal. I'm not sure that this is possible as these youngsters don't carry membership cards, don't wear an identifying badge or crest. According to the Bermuda Police, the gang members are known, but surely the courts must have evidence. Not-so-secret handshakes or public salutes, signatures. Perhaps sitting on walls will be banned. Might the lads not move to park benches, and have every right to sit on them?

Meanwhile, these lads prosper by selling drugs to ... dare I say it? ... all those affluent and educated people, many will be white, who somehow don't get caught using or possessing illegal substances. The professionals, the people we look up to, not the rock and roll suicides.

The bones of a dead black man are also white. The wind will blow over them, when they are lost, for ever.

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