Wednesday, 24 December 2008

To whom it may concern

I heard Adrian Mitchell perform only once, back in the 1970s. Then it was his poem about Victor Jara (later set to music) that made an impression.

I'm hesitant about political conviction as I am about religious conviction. Both have the capacity for evil as well as good and justified anger can lead swiftly to the cruelties of hate and vengeance. But Adrian Mitchell's poem for Victor Jara didn't call for vengeance. It simply insisted that we listen to what had done. Victor Jara was a folk singer who had supported the socialist President Allende. In the wake of the CIA-backed coup (on September 11, 1973) that toppled Allende and installed the dictator Pinochet, Jara was one of thousands taken to the Chile Stadium. His captors tortured him before they killed him; the broke his hands to make sure that he could never play the guitar again. Sometimes it's the details of cruelty that appal - it's easy to let the wealth of statistics sweep over me. But I couldn't forget about Victor Jara's hands.

These days, like most people, I've become infected by a kind of cynical helplessness. There is more I could do to oppose injustice, cruelty and so forth, but it's hard to believe it will do any good. But when I heard that Adrian Mitchell had died, I sought out his most famous poem, "To whom it may concern," and found a youtube video of his performance at the Albert Hall for the Poetry International. When Adrian Mitchell performed in 1965, he seemed like the voice of an angry hope for the future. The huge audience included Alan Ginsberg. The Vietnam war is long over but the there are still wars and safe, convenient, public lies. Adrian Mitchell went on campaigning and writing, though the audiences were smaller. But something seems to have vanished from the world since the campaign against the Vietnam War. Perhaps it was lost when our government refused to listen to the people who marched against war in Iraq. These days the innocence of hope is almost dead.

The world is a poorer place for the loss of Adrian Mitchell.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the introduction to Victor Jara and Adrian Mitchell, neither of whom I had known about.
I thought you might like this talk by Muhammad Yunus. It isn't on the same topic, or indeed about any of the topics you usually write about, but it is something of an antidote to the feelings of cynical helplessness. It's deceptively low-key, but gradually we get a sense that even while this man lives one day at a time, he is thinking in generations.

quakerdave said...

Have a happy holiday.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff - thanks. As always an education. Best wishes for the season, kllrchrd.

Alan Baker said...

Adrian Mitchell was one of the few poets, possibly the only one, who made an impact on my childhood. I remember delighting in his poem 'Nothingmas Day' and seeing his unforgettable performance of 'To Whom it May Concern' (tell me lies about Vietnam...) on TV in the 1960s. I saw him perform live here at Beeston once... A sad loss.

Kathz said...

Thanks for the comments. I didn't see Adrian Mitchell at Beeston. I assume it was one of the Beeston Library readings - they were wonderful and are still missed.