Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

On the #Brussels attack, and our miserable silence.

John Pollock
10 min readMar 22, 2016


ACT 3, SCENE I. France. Before Harfleur.

Alarum. Enter KING HENRY, EXETER, BEDFORD, GLOUCESTER, and Soldiers, with scaling-ladders


Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect

We are not at peace. I am not at peace.

This morning, in Brussels, people quite literally had their heads blown off.

A place I could fly to in 65 minutes, or drive to in an afternoon.

Yet, having just scrolled through several dozen posts on Facebook, if I didn’t follow Hussein Aboubakr , Julie Burchill, @spikedonline, @robbietravers @Spectator , @MsJulieLenarz, Rashad Ali or the Muslim Reform Movement, and were confined to Facebook, I would be no wiser.

Yes, Facebook isn’t Twitter. And yes, in many ways quite sensibly, when my parents were both in uniform and eating in The Mess - way back in the day - a big sign saying “No Religion or Politics” hung on the wall, forbidding contentious talk. And yes, too, I have become, I am sure, a bore on this subject at times.

Because I read a lot about this stuff, often but not exclusively written by those of Muslim heritage — women, the reform-minded, apostates, the secular, the liberal, the outsiders, the other — and I took to sharing it, and often. But Facebook’s algorithms stick us in filter bubbles, and life, blissfully, passes by in a series of meals and smiles, holidays and cats.

And yet, and yet, while “It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity: Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.”

“What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the wither’d field where the farmer ploughs for bread in vain

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun
And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted
To speak the laws of prudence to the homeless wanderer
To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill’d with wine and with the marrow of lambs

It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughterhouse moan;
To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast
To hear sounds of love in the thunderstorm that destroys our enemies’ house;
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field and the sickness that cuts off his children
While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door and our children bring fruits and flowers

Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten and the slave grinding at the mill
And the captive in chains and the poor in the prison and the soldier in the field
When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead
It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:
Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.”

William Blake (Sir Van the Man does a great version of this on “Let the Slave”, by the by).

So, boring of myself, of social media, of the world — ‘The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers’ — I pondered retreat. Quite seriously: I dialled down the Facebook and, to a lesser extent, the Twittering. I seriously considered revisiting a period of my life in which I, rigorously, only read antiquities — books over a thousand years old. I did that once for about eighteen months: it was curiously calming and enhancing.

But people are having their heads blown off nearby.

Far away is event more gruesome but — be honest — for all our global digital and technological proximity, these are quarrels, as Chamberlain infamously said, “in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

I really don’t want to argue about any of this stuff, but I find myself doing so nonetheless. Perhaps a period of penance among the classics has become overdue.

I’ll leave you with this, though. Yesterday, this piece on The Daoud Affair was widely shared on the interwebs. I found it via @owolade14 (for which thanks, Tom).

The Algerian novelist and journalist Kamel Daoud, for the uninitiated, is one of the most exciting and important voices to emerge in recent years. His not untypical experience went as follows:

“A writer with liberal ideas emerges from a background in the Muslim countries, or perhaps lives there now. The writer proposes criticisms of Islam as it is practiced, or of sexual repression under Islamic domination (a major theme), or of the Islamist movement. The criticisms seem blasphemous to the Islamists and the reactionary imams, who respond in their characteristic fashion. In the Western countries, intellectuals who mostly think of themselves as progressive make their own inquiry into the writer and his or her ideas. They hope to find oblique and reticent criticisms of a sort that they themselves produce. But they find something else — criticisms that are angrier and more vehement, or more sweeping, or more direct.

The Western intellectuals, some of them, recoil in consternation. And, as if liberated from their reticence, they issue their own condemnation of the offending writer, not on grounds of blasphemy but on grounds that purport to be left-wing. The Western intellectuals accuse the liberal from the Muslim world of being a racist against Muslims, or an Islamophobe, or a “native informant” and a tool of imperialism. Sometimes they accuse the liberal from the Muslim world of stupidity, too, or lack of talent. This was Salman Rushdie’s experience in the years after he came out with The Satanic Verses, back in 1988, which he has described in his memoir Joseph Anton. The experience of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, originally from Somalia, offers probably the most widely discussed example after Rushdie’s. But the pattern of Western condemnation can be observed in many other cases as well, directed at liberal writers of different kinds and views — the authors of political essays, memoirs, literary criticism, journalism, and novels, from backgrounds in countries as diverse as Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Kamel Daoud’s Algerian colleague, the novelist Boualem Sansal, last year’s winner of a prize from the French Academy, has come under this kind of condemnation. And now the pattern has reemerged in regard to Daoud himself.

Daoud stands high on the world scene because of his novel, The Meursault Investigation, which adds a philosophical dimension to the affair. The book is an homage to Albert Camus, and a rebuke. In 1942 Camus published a novel titled The Stranger, which tells the story of a French Algerian named Meursault, who gratuitously murders a nameless and silent Arab on the beach. Daoud in The Meursault Investigation tells the story of the murdered man’s younger brother, who contemplates what it means to be rendered nameless and silent by one’s oppressor.”

‘Intellectuals who mostly think of themselves as progressive…hope to find oblique and reticent criticisms of a sort that they themselves produce. But they find something else — criticisms that are angrier and more vehement, or more sweeping, or more direct.’

I was recently admonished, in similar terms, by a close friend who I love. It stung.

I, too, am angrier, more vehement, more sweeping and direct than that which is regarded as polite in current society. For many reasons — not least a sense of urgency, and a belief that the tribe of the progressive left, with which I have felt an affinity since my teens, had abandoned consideration of its moral duty in this sphere. And worse, had allied itself with the most regressive and fascist factions within the many and diverse Muslim communities inhabiting our planet. People who have taken to indulging in a childishly inadequate analysis of Israel and Palestine — and all too often in a sick, barely cloaked, anti-Semitism.

It’s wearisome.

Meanwhile life goes on — water is quite literally seeping into the ribs of the walls, the very bones, of the elderly boat on which I live. Homelessness can seem just a single cataleptic log away — floating down the river at speed and suddenly deciding to hit my hull at the wrong angle. Meanwhile death stalks, as it does all us who have reached ‘a certain age’, like a game of grandma’s footsteps.

Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Giving A Lecture at the Orrery, c. 1765, oil on canvas, 147 x 203 cm (Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England)

And yet, and yet… I rage, rage against the dying of the light. For it feels as if that is the way the Enlightenment is going: Reason, Liberty, Tolerance, Fraternity, ending the abuses of Religion and State — the eighteenth century values I have cleaved to since I started trying to think like an adult seem to have been replaced by shrill idiocies, virtue signalling, indolence, and a slew of indifferent shrugs.

By Zibiline Rouillon (on Facebook)

And cat videos, obvs.

So I tire. And drink, and smoke, and gaze on the waters. And yet, and yet…

People had their heads blown off this morning in a modern, bright, chocolate-and-mayonnaise-on-chips First World airport.

I find myself drafting essays on this stuff in my head as I shower. I have little to contribute to the serious, grown-up conversation — being held by far fewer people than you might imagine — and am also, it is true, too congenitally idle and inclined to drink to do that PhD, attend that conference, write that policy paper, or put the work into a remarkably essential book like What’s Left? by Nick Cohen. I confess: I am too lazy to do the hard work of forensically dissecting this particular concatenation of philosophical and political scum, even as it slowly chokes to death the waters of freedom, as it cuts off the oxygen and turns our collective way of life into something that stinks, is stagnant.

But people are having their heads blown off while waiting for planes.

(Obiter dicta: where are the aircraft being created by those walking and polluted wetware who are so infected with old and corrupt software that they would take us back to what we would characterize as the early Dark Ages? Or, indeed, where is any other significant contribution, of any use whatsoever, they have made to humanity in the modern age?)

But these are not “oblique and reticent criticisms”, not fit for the table, for polite discourse, for conversations among peers. No: instead they have been relegated to the private, hushed — and sometimes ashamed — “discourse” of ordinary people. People made angry — think Frustration-Aggression Complex –by being told that their thoughts, their opinions, their considerations, are of no moment: that they are vulgar, incontinent, and probably bigoted.

From “Father Ted

The clever, the educated, the privileged — they, in the lordly fashion to which we have become used, have made it quite clear, on numerous occasions, that “this sort of thing” is de trop. Unwanted and rather smelly. Likely to lead to ‘Islamophobia’, or to betray that fundamental, irreducible sin: being racist.

As a xenophile I resent that.

As a moderately well-educated and free-ish thinking human being I despise it.

What to do? What to do? ‘So it goes’ as Vonnegut kept saying.

This, and perhaps this alone, is all I have to offer by way of advice and exhortation: feed, succour, nourish and share the voices of those — not infrequently of Muslim heritage — who know a damn sight more about this than you or I. They’ve often grown up in it, lived it, suffered it — and their brave and remarkable voices are, it seems to me, pleading with the left, the liberals, the progressive, the supposedly decent mofos on the side of the good, to just get on side. To step the fuck up.

As an outsider, I perceive a kind of civil war, not a million miles from that of Spain, happening in Islam: and the fascists have been given free rein. In this civil war, the International Brigades seem to have wilfully absented themselves in what can only be described as a morally cowardly fashion. Far braver people than us have already taken to the field: the least we can do is add our voice to their fight.