It's hard to know what to say or do at times like these. The overwhelming emotion is one of powerlessness: that in the face of bigotry and fear and hate there is nothing anyone can do.
But over the past two days, words have come to me – oddly enough, from poets and authors I haven't read since I was a teenager. Recent events dislodged them in my mind, they rose to the surface, and the memory of them was compelling enough for me to seek them out.
I'm following pure instinct here, but I like to think that there's a smidgeon of fate at work: despite not having read these words in so many years, I was able to effortlessly find them again (a random scroll down through a PDF document landed on the exact passage I was searching for; almost as if it wanted to be found).
Though they may seem somewhat irrelevant, they've brought me some comfort; hopefully they will for you too.
The first is from a children's book called The River at Green Knowe by Lucy Boston, in which two refugee children are brought to an English estate thanks to The Society for the Promotion of Summer Holidays for Displaced children. One of them is Oskar, whose parents were murdered for political reasons.
"My father used to say," said Oskar, gazing far away at the sun, which was shooting out rays like cartwheel strokes, "that there isn't anything real except thoughts. Nothing is there at all unless somebody's thinking it. He said thoughts were more real than guns. He got shot by the Russians for saying that. But the thought wasn't shot, because I'm thinking it now."
The second is from Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a children's fantasy book in which a young boy uncovers a terrible plot to destroy all the stories of the world by poisoning the Ocean of Stories. As the villain Khattam-Shad puts it:
"We must make a great many poisons, because each and every story in the Ocean needs to be ruined in a different way. To ruin a happy story, you must make it sad. To ruin an action drama, you must make it move too slowly. To ruin a mystery, you must make the criminal's identity obvious even to the most stupid audience. To ruin a love story, you must turn it into a tale of hate. To ruin a tragedy you must make it capable of inducing helpless laughter."
"But why do you hate stories so much?" Haroun blurted, feeling stunned. "Stories are fun."
"The world, however, is not for Fun," Khattam-Shad replied. "The world is for Controlling."
"Which world?" Haroun made himself ask.
"Your world, my world, all worlds," came the reply. "They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, instead every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why."
Next is from Philip Pullman's The Tin Princess, in which a group of revolutionaries shed blood, sweat and tears to retain a small country's independence, only to be betrayed and defeated in the end. Yet in the aftermath, this conversation takes place:
"You did everything that courage and wit and imagination could, but force wins. Enough force always does."
"For ever? There's no hope for anything except force?"
"Not for ever. For a while. Then cracks appear, and the centre loses its grip, and people remember what they once were and feel that they want to take charge of their own destiny again. Life's not static, you see. Life's dynamic. Everything changes. That's the beauty of it..."
Finally, this is a poem called A Rope for Harry Fat, written by James K. Baxter, one of New Zealand's most seminal poets. In 1955 a young Maori man by the name of Edward Thomas Te Whiu was executed for murder – having grown up in abject poverty, he broke into a house at the age of twenty in search of food and money, was discovered by the elderly owner, and killed her in the ensuing panic.
However, his trial and execution gave impetus to the campaign to abolish capital punishment, with many believing he was too young and too underprivileged to be held fully responsible for the hopeless circumstances that led to his crime. The Committee for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was established in October 1955, and the death penalty for murder was abolished in a free vote of Parliament in 1961.
It was almost as though the spirit of my country knew it had taken a step too far; that there was no justice in what it had done in taking Te Whiu's life. No one has been executed in New Zealand since.
This poem was written by Baxter in protest of Te Whiu's sentence; and as you can see it's oozing with contempt of "Harry Fat", the scornful nickname Baxter bestowed upon a corrupt government and the capital justice system.
A Rope for Harry Fat
Oh some have killed in angry love
And some have killed in hate,
And some have killed in foreign lands
To serve the business state.
The hangman's hands are abstract hands
Though sudden death they bring --
"The hangman keeps our country pure,"
Says Harry Fat the king.
Young love will kick the chairs about
And like a rush fire burn,
Desiring what it cannot have,
A true love in return.
Who knows what rage and darkness fall
When lovers' thoughts grow cold?
"Whoever kills must pay the price,"
Says Harry Fat the old.
With violent hands a young man tried
To mend the shape of life.
This one used a shotgun
And that one used a knife.
And who can see our issues plain
That vex our groaning dust?
"The law is greater than the man,"
Says Harry Fat the just.
Te Whiu was too young to vote,
The prison records show.
Some thought he was too young to hang;
Legality said No.
Who knows what fear the raupo hides
Or where the wild duck flies?
"A trapdoor and a rope is best,"
Says Harry Fat the wise.
Though many a time he rolled his coat
And on the bare boards lay,
He lies in heavy concrete now
Until the Reckoning Day.
In linen sheet or granite aisle
Sleep Ministers of State.
"We cannot help the idle poor,"
Says Harry Fat the great.
Mercy stirred like a summer wind
The wigs and polished boots
And the long Jehovah faces
Above their Sunday suits.
The jury was uncertain;
The judge debated long.
"Let justice take her natural course,"
Said Harry Fat the strong.
The butcher boy and the baker boy
Were whistling in the street
When the hangman bound Te Whiu's eyes
And strapped his hands and feet,
Who stole to buy a bicycle
And killed in panic blood.
"The parson won his soul at length,"
Said Harry Fat the good.
Oh some will kill in rage and fear
And some will kill in hate.
And some will kill in foreign lands
To serve the master State.
Justice walks heavy in the land,
She bears a rope and shroud.
"We will not change our policy,"
Says Harry Fat the proud.
This isn't a political blog; it never has been. If anything's it's a story blog, and it will remain one as long as I keep adding posts. Living in New Zealand, I often feel distant and safe from the turmoil going on in other countries, to the point where I'm not sure I have any right to speak on such issues at all. But from this faraway vantage point, and after going through a dark patch earlier in the year, I am certain of several things: that words are powerful, that time marches on, that stories can save us, and that this too shall pass. It'll pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.