Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Mussolini

Sea, sun and fascism

Having just tried it, I’m not sure I’d wholeheartedly recommend a cruise holiday. (Unless, of course, you like the idea of being imprisoned in a floating holiday camp with a couple of thousand Daily Mail readers.) But at least it took us to Athens, Crete and Rhodes, including the remarkable Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes aka of St John, aka Hospitallers. In the thirties under the Italian occupation, the palace was heavily repaired; the resulting mediaeval-deco “restoration” came across to me as highly staged – vast, uninterrupted, checked stone walls, baroque angels looted out of their context and isolated in bare niches, huge Japanese vases (gifts from an Axis ally), all punctuated by wrought iron chandeliers that only emphasised the empty hardness of the surfaces. With its gratuitously surplus uninhabited spaces, its alien aesthetic of impersonal, almost anti-human, tastefulness and order – anti-human both in scale and in texture – the whole interior felt still drenched in fascism, as if we were wandering through a set for some lost scene from Bertolucci’s Il Conformista.


Had the Greeks not seen fit to deconstruct and reclaim all this? How was the fascist period of the Italian occupation regarded now? We’d just been to the monastery at Filerimos, built likewise in the thirties with its Italian Way of the Cross, but also home to an ancient, inexpressibly dolorous and affecting icon of Mary; so how far had the occupation tolerated the Greek Orthodox church? I asked our tour guide.


I couldn’t actually make out her eyes behind her sunglasses, but I could tell that they hardened instantly. Her previously modulated voice became intense and emotional. It had been horrible for the people of Rhodes. Horrible. In 1922 they had replaced the old governor with a fascist. Most of the churches had been closed. Children had been forced to learn Italian in school. All opposition had been eliminated. Her mother, as a child, had seen people executed in the street. It had been a dreadful time for Rhodes. She gestured behind her to a large plaque in Italian, still prominent on an outside wall, crediting the palace restoration to Il Duce. My fellow Brits appeared bemused or indifferent.


High on one vast checked wall inside we saw carved between roses “Fert”, the motto of the House of Savoy. No one translated; looking it up now, I see that various unlikely acronyms have been suggested, but in simple Latin it can be read as “S/he suffers”. That seems appropriate enough. The next day we found ourselves at Arkadi monastery in Crete, besieged by the Ottoman army in the Cretan revolt of 1866, where a few hundred women and children, barricaded into the powder room, had blown themselves to pulp rather than be taken alive. The attached museum displayed a long hank of human hair, retrieved later from a roof top.

Back on the boat, having finished W G Sebald’s excellent but distressing Rings of Saturn (more journeys, more atrocities), I found myself in need of fresh reading material; the only half decent book on offer in the little shop turned out to be Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler, a fascinatingly repellent account of the forged Hitler diaries scandal of 1983. Following the revelation that Goering’s yacht was appropriated by the British royal family and rechristened the Prince Charles, I read that Hitler’s paintings are technically so poor as to be a doddle for the amateur forger, and so boring that in the final analysis no collector of them really cares whether what they have is faked or real. That evening the ship’s tannoy announced a poolside Last Night of the Proms-themed singalong, to “celebrate all that makes Britain great”. The holiday was not turning out quite as I’d expected.

There are plenty of images of the Grand Master’s Palace online but those above are mine. Click for enlarged slides. I haven’t linked to any image of the icon at Filerimos, as no reproduction or copy really looks like what we saw, nor gives any sense of the experience of being in its physical presence. For the first time, I’m prepared to credit an icon as being an effective and transmitting thing-in-itself. As being in some sense “alive”.

Set that against the deadening art of fascism!

A Draft of Unnumberable Cantos

pound“My dear old Ezra,” wrote Wyndham Lewis in 1946 to Ezra Pound, then incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for his wartime support for the Italian regime. “How are you, and what are you doing with yourself? … I am told that you believe yourself to be Napoleon – or is it Mussolini? What a pity you did not choose Buddha while you were about it …”

To T S Eliot, he commented: “Probably … it will be part of the duties of the attendant psychiatrists to read all his Cantos and to encourage him to discuss them.”

In contrast, much online comment on this phase of Pound’s life seems to be solemn hagiography hosted by Odinists, conspiracy theorists or New Righters (read: old fascists), and one hesitates to add to it; but then, his case is so instructive. So here’s a piece of verse concerned with our urge to reconstruct or re-enact the past, a project that must always fall short. It starts in a museum of military costume and ends at the Cannock Chase German war cemetery. Ezra makes a guest appearance along the way.

(Innumerable: too many to count. Unnumberable: resistant to numbering, defying the imposition of historical order.)

A Draft of Unnumberable Cantos

The past lies worn as a workhouse copper token,
surface smooth in generality
but detail slow to hint. We squint
and read it wrong. That captain’s museum hat
was fore and aft, not broadsides;
those lapels are buttoned all awry.
The temper of the times, you see, was finely tuned;
the moment’s mores made a subtle song.

At fifty paces we can clock a re-enactor,
something indefinable being out of true;
the face is similar through centuries
but only superficially,
for each face bears a shade, a twist, a cast,
a tic that tells its time.
An image of a previous thing
must shamefully betray the moment of its making.
In its texture, pose and colouring
its shamming history is softly written.

Meanwhile, anachronisms at our end
annoy the dead. The errant angle
of a buckle or the usage of a kerseymere
(or was it ‘cassimere’?) provokes resentment.
Ghosts are not amused by our uncaring parodies.
We lend them by our fancy dress
such forms of immortality
they find so less than flattering
that, mouthing and invisible
within their darkened abstract cells,
they gob their anger at our future features.

Darn mah hide! says Uncle Ezra,
chawing wad as he adopts a
proper transatlantic posture.
Yew all goffossayken Brits’ll sell
yer hi-toned and historrik former time
(a pause, he spits) fer ten yewzuriuss pence
an turn it into goddam panto.
Do fergive mah pree-zumchewuss rime,
but seems ter me a better bet by far
wd be ter giv it to yer Muse
to reinviggerate within a Canto.

But red is the rope where old Benito hangs
while his ingrate survivors pulp his head,
and narrow’s the cage where the broken poet clings
and scrabbles for a unity among his scraps of text,
and rambling hospital’s the home for him
hit full in the face by history,
who wrestled with the past and stumbled,
missed the date and paid the cost,
capsizing on his river of mysterious dead.

The tiny birds perch out of view.
We hear their sorry bleat, and peer but can’t identify.
Below, on rhododendroned lawns, the German boys
are slatted into lines of alien grey stone;
the dead are all and always very far from home.


© moi, 2013