The Jubilee Transmissions
Strange thing: one day as we were watching the early evening news, the screen suddenly went herringbone, and then there was something new: very out of focus at first, a sea-mist with figures, grainy, tumbling, breaking into snow, reforming and then settling into a different picture. Ever since then, about the same time every night, the old scenes and faces have fallen into chaos and given way to images of another world.
At first we fiddled with tracking and tuning, and once I thumped the top of the set. But after that we left it alone, because it was so different, so much better than anything we'd seen on the box for as long as we could remember.
For quite a long time, as in the early days of television, we just watched everything that happened to be showing. We didn't actually dress up for our evening's viewing as our parents used to do, but we would have an early meal and be ready in time. Then, in the middle of Tony Blair's latest speech on the social services, or the latest threat to our hearths and homes from Arab bad-men, virus mutations or Frankenstein tomatoes, the mackerel screen would appear, and our evening would begin. We loved the drama series The Dark President. He was out to dominate the world; his droids were everywhere, behind their ears the cryptic letters: C-I-A. It wasn't Batman or a Jedi knight that saw him off, it was millions of wondermen and wonderwomen who sussed him out and foiled his wicked schemes.
Even the news is unmissable: news never found on any other channel, news of lands not found on any map: the cameras stationed at the farthest reaches of humanity, striking new angles, facing different ways. Not long ago, the top of the news was a story about the Innu people of Nitassinan, the land we would have called (in our old geography) Labrador. They were walking in the snow across country in protest against warplanes flying low over their homeland. We followed them every day for more than a week. The person who talked most often to camera, a young woman called Vivianne Descent, always seemed positive and humorous, never down. None of the talk was false, neither hers nor anyone else's. We missed her after her last appearance, and talked about her long afterwards. We began to feel that London and Washington, from this sort of angle, were hearts of darkness.
Then there are the regular shows called 'Leaves of Grass'. At the beginning of each episode, the voice-over says: 'Through me many long dumb voices, voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves, voices of the diseased and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs...' And always it's an episode from the real history of the world…or the history of the real world. There was the story of the lovers John Gwin and Margaret Kerry, and all the 'motley crew' who used to gather in Hughson's tavern in Manhattan in the early 1740s, plotting though they had as little power as wealth the overthrow of the slaveholders and of the British tyranny. Jubilee was the buzzword then: on the Day of Jubilee, the poor would reclaim their share of the world's resources and its joy. Hughson's was something else too: a waterfront proletarian exchange where Irishmen and Negroes, sailors, longshoremen and domestic servants traded in stolen goods, keeping body and soul together and reclaiming a meagre portion of the life their masters had stolen from them. On St Patrick's Day, 1741, Fort George was burned. Later that summer along with thirty-two others John Gwin and Peg Kerry were put to death, their love ended and their child orphaned.
It still occurs to me, though after so long it seems strange that it should be so, that many people would find all this very tedious. It is like early television in many ways, amateurish and naive, uncommercial, nothing sexed up. But soon you no longer miss the old bill of fare, and when the herringbone screen appears again around ten o'clock (give or take a few minutes) you're sorry to see whatever vacuous sitcom or Wife Swap happens to sidle back into place.
It must be hard for others to imagine how upside-down it seemed at first. Famous people seemed to be treated as if they were nobody, and obscure people as if they were somebody. The story of Maria Rimkus, who in 1942 saved the life of a pregnant Jewish slave-worker in Nazi Berlin, was told not as a little gem rescued from obscurity, but as the life of Queen Victoria might have been told on the old channels: as if we had already heard of her. It was confusing at first because the voice-over assumed so much. The Polly Baker story was the same. Polly Baker was a woman who was brought to court in Connecticut five times in her life for having bastard children. On her fifth appearance, in 1747, she made a speech. 'We practically know it by heart,' one of the contributors said apologetically. 'But it's still worth repeating.' 'I cannot conceive what the nature of the offence is. I have brought five fine children into the world. I have maintained them well by my own industry, without burthening the township, and would have done it better, if it had not been for the heavy charges and fines I have paid. I therefore ought, in my humble opinion, instead of a whipping, to have a statue erected in my memory.' These two women were already stars, and in the world beyond the herringbone screen the dates of their acts of courage were like 1492 or 1789.
I suppose too that I've given the impression that it's all history and not much entertainment, and I don't mean to give that impression, but it's the history that we specially love. Kings and dictators and mediocre Excellencies, the many men and the few women who have been the wearers of power-clothes, are airbrushed out of this history, except as the remote originators of poverty and injustice and sometimes short-lived progress. Instead we celebrate men and women whose acts were heroic, tragic, whimsical, irresponsible, lots of crazy stuff as well as serious. Their lives are all somehow detached from (or not attachable to) the power-lines of the history we once accepted: time-lines that transmit through the ages those currents of power which, when they enter the souls of princes and presidents, charge them to guide and marshal and play upon and murder their fellow human beings.
And then, one day I'll never forget, there was a film about the life of Daniel Graham. At first I thought, I wonder who that was? He has the same name as my father. But almost as soon as the film began, I knew it was my father. There were many others like him, the voice-over was saying, and not all of them could be celebrated - and yet there were no others like him, for he was unique. It said he was a man who should be remembered for many things, but above all for his courage and patience in labouring all his life, from the age of eight when he left elementary school until the age of seventy-six, never under any illusion that a single working day or its achievement belonged to him. I learned things about him that I had never known. As far as I can recall, he was never very sure himself exactly where he had been born; his father was a farm labourer and the family moved quite often within the same district. Yet the film showed the exact place where he was born, in the county of Derry, Northern Ireland. An old man of the village remembered two of the Graham brothers, and said he knew of Danny but never met him, as Danny had 'gone away' when he was still just a boy. How did they know where he was born? Who were they? Oddly enough, these questions didn't trouble me for long. The shock of sitting down every evening and seeing the world turned upside-down, had already all but gone; now it vanished altogether. This was our television, my television. It was only at first that its reality had seemed strange. It was the old media that were unreal, still churning out their products, their manufactured celebrities, their ornamented fictions, their elevation of buying and selling instead of thought and pleasure, all in some thirteenth dimension that was supposed to be reality but had become, as it seemed to me, more fantastic than Middle Earth.
When my father was fifteen, his father died, and his mother took him to Scotland, to Glasgow. There she worked in a rope-factory, and he got work as a garbage-collector's boy, going round the back-alleys with horse and cart at six in the morning. At seventeen he went to work in the Parkhead Forge, a great ironworks in the style of Satan and Henry Ford. And every day, as he sweated to make the great iron shafts and cylinders they were stolen from him, and he was cast out at the end of every week with a pittance that, added to his mother's pittance, was just enough to house and feed them. In his fourth year of labouring at the forge his mother died, and in his fifth year of labouring he was sacked for helping to organise a union branch.
One day he saw in the newspaper a notice saying that a labourer was wanted to look after a country estate with stables and a walled garden. Weary of the city, and his young wife-to-be as sick of it as he was and wanting to start afresh, he went there. For the rest of his life (he never retired) the dry-stone walls around the fields and paddocks were written in his hand, and the tight barbed fences finished in his style. Every year he trimmed a mile of hawthorn hedge, and at its corners fashioned topiary chickens and peacocks. The estate was an exhibition of his work.
He was shown dismembering a tree fallen in the October gales, working single-handed at one end of a two-handed saw, loading the short timbers on to a pony-cart. (The actor was so like him! the same long face, the strong jaw, the broad hands. How did they know what he looked like? It was something to wonder at, but not at all unsettling.)
They showed him at the age of seventy-five, less than a year before his death, still starting work at seven-thirty on six mornings in every week, feeding the chickens, collecting eggs, hosing down the Rolls-Royce. For all my father's devotion to this piece of earth he husbanded, until the day of his death he was always merely the hired man. The horses and stables, the iron engine that generated power for the mansion house and the labourers' cottages, the river and its trout, the chestnut trees and the dark abundant chestnut loam and its harvest - strictly forbidden to unwelcome schoolboys - all this belonged to a totter-up of rents: an owner of grey streets, a renter of cold rooms and common stairs. This man had been a mine-owner until the mines were nationalised by those Stalinist fellow-travellers, the postwar Labour government; after that, he lived richly on his compensation, his investments, and his rents.
My father worked alone, in company with sun-pools in the woods, or shivering birch-leaves, or the early snowfall, apparitions of his freedom, enticements to his folded self. It is easy to say that in some poetic sense all this somehow belonged to him. Perhaps it was better that it didn't, if owning it produced a man like his boss: tense, irascible, neurotic about his property, a fascist in his politics. Perhaps it was because he did not own them that my father was able to love the birch-woods and the tall, sleek foxhunting horses.
It's true, as I've already said, that almost at once the whole thing began to seem perfectly natural. That someone else in another house might be watching his or her own father's or grandmother's story instead of mine, did not seem in the least absurd. Nor has it seemed odd that there are no ads or trailers, or that in all this time we've never seen a channel identification. We have no idea where in the world it comes from, but it doesn't matter because in every image and every story it tells, it is the world.
Our lives or perhaps I should say, our inner lives are changed by it. Those who laboured for purposes not their own, whose meticulous craft or husbandry or mere physical labour were listed with trees and fences and animals in the inventory of another's property; those harassed and beaten and driven on to the open road; those born into the world and buried in earth without ever sharing in its abundance: these seem to us now the protagonists of the ages. Their unconsummated history has become true history, their thieving and their resistance virtuous acts, and their preachers of jubilee our great men and women. We have learned to turn our faces towards this new world and away from the world we once inhabited - even though this Middle Earth is still all around us.
Or rather, the two worlds shift and interchange.
One day we thought for an anxious moment there was something wrong with our channel. Just before the herringbone shift we were seeing soldiers, a great mass of soldiers, that grotesque parody of a dance troupe, men all dressed the same, marching and turning always in straight lines, stamping their feet in response to great bellowing shouts, and gripping and slapping their rifles and heaving them on to their shoulders. It cut to a march-past, all the left feet going forward and then all the right feet, all the faces turned towards some famous man, His Excellency the Most Serene and Impeccable Prince Who-He. At last the soldiers dissolved into mist and the picture tumbled and began to reform. But this time there seemed to be no change at all. They were still there, the same soldiers, the same puppet feet and faces. We looked at each other in dismay. And then 'Oh, but look!' my wife said. Sure enough, the picture was changing. Suddenly one man, just one, was wearing a white rose. Then another had lost his uniform jacket and was wearing a loud shirt, sky-blue with a palm-tree. A third had lost his shouldered rifle and was carrying instead a cartoon vagabond's bundle, a red kerchief spotted white, knotted on to the end of a gnarled stick. And presently they were all different, there were bush hats and fur hats and back-to-front baseball caps, brogues, sandals and sneakers, a dozen or so orange-and-white-cloaked Burundian drummers and dancers, two clowns and a carnival devil. The synchronised left feet and right feet were all this time becoming random, until nobody was marching, all just easily and loosely walking.
So at last, though some mornings we wake and go off to tour the supermarket, past the clucking hens on tape and the machine that makes fresh bakery smells, choosing coloured boxes of brown mush, and hard fruit arrayed under soft lights, and Jubilee seems very distant, we have come to understand that the life around us and the life we see through the little window in our television set are not separate. Even as we pick up the newspapers and see children dead and maimed and sick in one country after another, and the makers of these afflictions rewarded and justified, we know that the two worlds are one and the same, folded each inside the other. This is our Earth, where the march can always become a motley walk.
James Graham was born in 1939 in Ayrshire, Scotland, in a cottage out of an illustration to Grimm's Fairy Tales. He was a schoolteacher for thirty years, writing poetry spasmodically during all that time, and publishing occasionally in small magazines most of which no longer exist. Since retirement, however, he has written and published more. His work has appeared in anthologies published by Edinburgh University Press, the Glasgow Centre for Contemporary Arts, the Ragged Raven Press, and others. He has been published a number of times by The Dark Horse, the poetry review edited by Gerry Cambridge and Dana Gioia. In 2000, the National Poetry Foundation (of England) brought out his first collection, When Certain Fruits were Ripe. His second collection is now under way. He is currently a 'site expert' on http://writewords.org.uk, a fast-growing internet writers' community, and a tutor in verse-writing with Word School, the community's internet education service.