Friday, 8 August 2014

New series! Literary comment - The Hunchback in the Park by Dylan Thomas

The hunchback in the park
A solitary mister
Propped between trees and water
From the opening of the garden lock
That lets the trees and water enter
Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark

Eating bread from a newspaper
Drinking water from the chained cup
That the children filled with gravel
In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship
Slept at night in a dog kennel
But nobody chained him up.

Like the park birds he came early
Like the water he sat down
And Mister they called Hey Mister
The truant boys from the town
Running when he had heard them clearly
On out of sound

Past lake and rockery
Laughing when he shook his paper
Hunchbacked in mockery
Through the loud zoo of the willow groves
Dodging the park keeper
With his stick that picked up leaves.

And the old dog sleeper
Alone between nurses and swans
While the boys among willows
Made the tigers jump out of their eyes
To roar on the rockery stones
And the groves were blue with sailors

Made all day until bell time
A woman figure without fault
Straight as a young elm
Straight and tall from his crooked bones
That she might stand in the night
After the locks and chains

All night in the unmade park
After the railings and shrubberies
The birds the grass the trees the lake
And the wild boys innocent as strawberries
Had followed the hunchback
To his kennel in the dark.

Literary comments on The Hunchback in the Park – by Dylan Thomas.
I should begin this post by detailing how this happens to be one of my favourite poems, for its comments on human nature, cultural norms, metaphor, nostalgia and reality. Since Thomas has something of a cult following, in no small part emanating from the enigmatic and tragic personality of the poet himself. Whilst not being one of his best-known poems, The Hunchback in the Park is layered with hidden meaning.
                A first-reading, prima facie approach to the poem may not reveal much to a superficial, and perhaps prejudiced reading. A lonely old man, plagued by pesky school-children, appears to be lost between the reality he no longer lives in and the horrendous present he finds himself in. The only characters established are those frowned upon by a ‘modern’ British society, perhaps even Welsh, if the poem is considered drawn from Thomas’ personal experiences. The truant boys, already an idiom, appear predetermined to their fate of failing to attend school, having low prospects in life, or at least in the pure economic terms that often cloud an audience’s perceptions. Whilst their behavior appears carefree the ‘innocent as strawberries’ simile provides an objective and melancholy tone from the author: this appears only to reflect on their possible future as miscreants. The irony of this; that their behavior is innocent, and yet on another level, destroying the soul of the ‘hunchback’, offers a damning verdict on the interactions between people never really able to understand each other, and yet all, fully, uncontrollably influenced by the environment in which they live.
                And what of the hunchback himself? The idea of the ‘garden lock opening’ and letting the trees and water enter is subversive, implying that the park only exists, as this timeless and not ephemeral place, through the man – it is somehow dependent upon him in order to access its true identity. But likewise, he is a part of the park – having been there ostensibly for so long, he is as timeless as the trees, water and railings. Thomas uses the powerful metaphor of the ‘Sunday sombre bell at dark’, with clear religious connotations – the ‘bell’ may be coming from a church rather than the park itself – to reflect a melancholy tone on the park and its sorry inhabitant, from the outside work. At ‘dark’ the park disappears from view and the hunchback is left with nothing but his dreams. It remains his ‘end’, every time it occurs.
                The only use of the first person narrator occurs in stanza two: where ‘I sailed my ship’. Thomas appears to be implying some link to his childhood, in which he references the past through a series of linked clauses, giving the sense of entanglement between past and present, between memory and reality. The narrator themselves appears to make reference to their own connection to the park, and how it has experienced little change. As the poem continues the focus on the decrepit and physically incapable hunchback increases: he is ‘hunchbacked in mockery’, but by whom; has this adjective been assigned to him by the children, by himself or by the narrator?
                Yet more sad is the manner in which mentally the hunchback appears to have given up the vestiges of hope. He runs ‘on out of sound’, rather than sight, a subversion of the idiom perhaps suggesting he is unable to truly cast away the images of his tormentors, or rather, those young, free and ‘innocent’, which remind him of his past and the innocence he will never hold again. In a strange way, he is trapped by the park – the only place where he can find solace and is largely safe from societal abuse; and yet he can not leave, trapped by his memories; he is not ‘chained up’, because he is a prisoner by his memories and life, not by some tangible ‘chain’ that would restrict a dog.
                In stanza five there is outstanding imagery: the ‘tigers jumped out of their eyes’ and the ‘groves were blue with sailors.’ We might imagine that if the boys are no longer here, all day, tormenting the ‘sleeper’, then some vestige of the presence lingers, along with his sense of surreality: the ‘sailors’ link to the narrator’s line earlier in the poem, and add a tranquil but melancholy tone, evinced by the ‘blue.’ What is interesting here is how the poem has progressed: from very real, harsh and crisp images of the hunchback, to these mystical and ambiguous transformations.
                And finally there is strong synopticity and poignancy in the final two stanzas. The hunchback ‘makes a figure all day’ – in his mind, it is implied – but to have such mental power and focus on an entity of perfection appears to suggest he continues to have something worth living for. And finally, whilst he has been neglected, forgotten, is sneered upon even by the truant boys, in a sense, the world does not exist without the hunchback. For when he closes his eyes, his memories – and in a sense, the world around him – follow him, timeless into his kennel. The park and the world are just as much a part of him as he is of them. The listing structure and lack of punctuation enhances our belief in this. The park keeper closes our view on to this world with the ‘locks and chains’. But whilst it never truly existed outside of the hunchback’s mind, the image will last for a long time in ours.

I really enjoyed this poem due to its reflections on humanity, life, memory and person. The sense of loss and weariness as well as an uncertain grasp on reality and dreams, often broken, is strong throughout. Subtle literary devices such as punctuation, use of metaphorical or figurative language, and the enjambment, should be picked out by a student of Thomas in order to accrue the highest marks, and my analyses are by no means synthesized throughout the text, or explored to their fullest extent. But I can offer my own interpretation, held within my head, which may yet shape, refute, or be dismissed by yours. The beauty of poetry is that it gives us all something a little different in the space between our eyes without having ever existed.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Germany's impossible choice

Germany is the enigma of Europe. A great, central power, economically dominant in the continent. Striding forward with its ‘modern’ economic plans, with a hint of I-told-you-so sneer at the catastrophic borrowing policies enacted by the Southern European countries, Germany could be seen to have never been so great since the time of you-know-who. And yet, humbled by its turbulent past role in Europe’s affairs, Germany also seems reluctant to flaunt its wealth, instead choosing a path of peace and prosperity with the EU. In contrast, Britain, the so-called ‘defender of Europe’, has been plagued by anti-Europe referenda and the rise of the UKIP party amid nationalistic fervor in recent years. Sounds hypocritical to me.
           However, Germany’s adoption of a friendly Europe, in which it is nonetheless the dominant power, has left it in a pickle. The German transition in Europe’s hierarchy of power and economic wealth in recent years is known only too well by the ennui-burdened politicians of the continent. And it is this transition, from the ‘sick man of Europe’, which forces Germany now to act responsibly in accordance with the EU it so rigorously upholds. Germany’s current position under Angela Merkel: force the debt-ridden governments to enact brutal austerity measures, in exchange for the writing off of debt. But this is not a tenable solution. Undemocratic governments, loathed by the peoples of Greece and Spain, will collapse. Further debts will default. The people certainly have the right to be angry – after all, they did not manage their economies in such a way which left them facing disaster – but nevertheless, the looming pension crisis will create further critical debt which threatens to ‘undevelop’ the entire region. The current generation will not – cannot – compromise; and the next will bear the brunt.                          
           Whether or not there is irony in these fatal economic processes occurring against the backdrop of a successful, mega-rich international economic organization (the EU) is not the point that Germany must consider. For the real quagmire in which the country is trapped is far more severe. Ending European hegemony over each nation, with countries returning to their original currencies, is out of the question. Not to mention the extreme devastation this would likely cause to reliant PIIGS economies, as well as the huge damage to trade if the Euro were to collapse, it is simply an impossible position for Germany to occupy, as it is the glue sticking the Eurozone together.         But neither can Germany sit tight and hope for the best. Austerity until debt is no longer a feature of life, is simply not possible. If just one country rejects this state-of-affairs, the whole economic region will be brought down. And so, what is Germany to do?
            The fact is, there isn’t an easy option. That is why, certainly from a British or Cameron perspective, Germany and Merkel are so frustratingly idle. Of course Cameron wants a rebate on Britain’s position on the EU! He sees it as an organization in terminal decline. And perhaps he will be right. Unless Germany adopts a third way; a light for the rest of Europe to follow. A complete reform of the European; the global financial system to allow stable economies. What this reform will entail, and how it will be achieved, remains unclear. But certainly it seems a better prospect than Germany’s current options – sitting on its current, doomed austerity trajectory, or the unthinkable – breaking up the single currency.

Thucydides - out.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Right now, the NHS is not being privatized – that’s the beauty of the long game

The left, the unions, ‘Red Len’, even senior medical professionals – all have been warning of a health apocalypse ever since this government took to power in May 2010. The impending doom of the N.H.S. is an unfathomable, if often seemingly far-fetched, prospect. Our hard-fought social and welfare structures created in a war-torn post-imperial state make Britain after 1948 a unique and proud country. Thus, if the very entity that binds us all together, the power of our universal, free health service, was to be destroyed, we have every right to be up in arms, and should expect others to act in the same way.
            And that’s exactly the point. This is what the unions and all those on the left have been missing. The government may be despised for its blatant ideology-focused policies, and derided for its incompetence, but they are certainly not stupid. Their ideological focus is in fact what drives them on to succeed. They know that however nonplussed or frustrated the British people are with Labour’s management of the economy, bringing down the public service of the N.H.S. would bring down the walls of Jericho with it. Such a fundamental change, altering Britain’s place in the world and one of its few positions of moral ‘high ground’ over its superpower ally, the U.S., would be catastrophic. The people would not stand for it. The equivalent of Cameron’s impeachment would happen – almost immediately. So this is not what the Conservatives will do. Their plan is far subtler and far nastier. Gradually, more and more contracts will be sold – to the likes of Serco and G4S. Remember that name from anywhere? I wonder perhaps, the difference between public frustration at inefficient security arrangements, and the public’s reaction to negligent mismanagement, perhaps leading to ‘profits’ getting in the way of people, a poor standard of care and even (I speculate here) a higher mortality rate as a result. Whether or not this is valid speculation, what is certainly true is that gradually chunks of the NHS – still free at the moment – are being put up for sale for the highest bidder. The government claims that they are fiercely legislating to protect high standards, and somehow suggest that companies with a purpose of profit will improve standards – yes, people will still be put first. But the fundamental point is that this is being done slowly and carefully. The Tories are relying on a majority in 2015 to enact these changes to their full potential. But they will certainly be enacted. Whether that will mean eventually paying for appointments to the doctor, as was favored by 52% of GPs in a recent survey, cannot be predicted. But a stand cannot be taken to protect the N.H.S. when – thus far – it is fundamentally as strong as it was before this government took power.
            There are, hence two objectives which the British public can take to prevent long-term damage to our proudest institution. Firstly, block any further reform after 2015 by kicking the Conservatives out of power. And secondly, maintain our political activism as with any other issue. Keep an eye out at your local hospital for ‘changes to improve efficiency’ or similar wishy-washy changes. Read or access a news source such as the Guardian, perhaps the best for championing the anti-privatization movement and alerting the public to undesirable changes. Then, when they go too far, we will know about it – and be in a position to strike.