As the memory of two world wars and Hiroshima — great crimes against humanity on any, on every scale — slips into chapters of just more unbelievable history, it seems my generation, which has only known the voluntary expeditionary wars of our times, has decided to forge alone.
To uncover history — the dates, Acts of Parliament, the death tolls — we go to historians. To find out what it was like — how people thought, felt, behaved — we go to the artists. Not, usually, of the time we are in. The pages of the collection I am currently working on are haunted by warnings from Schopenhauer, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Yeats, Dali, Orwell, Auden, Solzhenitsyn, Hughes and Plath. I can't avoid them. They speak to me, insistently. These people were not trying to entertain or gain celebrity status: often not even interested in making money. They were 'seeing' for us, to help us 'see', often realising that the people of their own times were past 'seeing'. For me, these are the true masters of my universe.
People who 'read' art tend to be artists, themselves often marginalised in their own times, holders of the flame nevertheless. Which is why so much artistic output is universal, crossing boundaries of language, culture, place and time. I sometimes sense that artists — thinkers — are avatars of the projected imagination of the ancients. Where else could our human cultural wisdom come from?
To say "Margaret Thatcher was shit" is unacceptable in the reasonable, polite society within which we still exist. To say she "destroyed the decent fabric of a decent nation" would be more acceptable but liable to label you a nostalgic leftie, idealist or even (in the middle England where I grew up) an ageing hippy peace- and love-mongering divorcee from reality and therefore — the important point — only to be read or taken seriously by fellow pinko peaceniks. To write a convincing poem on anger, loss, loneliness, regret; or stubborn deafness, arrogant certainty — the one set of values occasioned by the other — is to my mind an effective way of expressing a view that can be understood by anyone, on more than one level, thereby transcending the party political, social, specific personality and time, thus drawing out evident, universal human truths.
It has a dark trailing shadow, of course: propaganda is learning its tricks. Which makes it more important that we constantly upskill ourselves in reading and 'seeing' what is going on, through the lens of what we have inherited from the ancients, the masters. And pass it on. No more sleepwalking into human disasters caused by ignorance of our historical mistakes. We can be enlightened and educated — not to mention inspired — by our artistic, human inheritance, a legacy to be passed on enhanced, brought up to date by our response to our times: warnings from our tribes through us to our children's children's children.
'Forging alone' are the first and last words of my poetry collection Transhumance. This is an existential statement or proposition that many think unassailable. We come into the world alone, we leave it alone and in between it's the survival of the fittest. I've heard it many times. I beg to differ. We come into this world at the bequest and connivance of others, are completely reliant on the co-operation and attentive care of those around us for daily survival. And when we are too old and knackered to look after ourselves others will do it — many, willingly. We are social creatures, we crave society — without it we live a solitary death. With the weight of the collection behind it, the last line of Transhumance is a refutation of this proposition and a warning for our strange community on a lonely planet: 'you can't be alone'.
For now the instructions written for Britons at the end of this act of the drama seem to be 'exit right'. Let's see what's waiting for us in the wings.
David Batten is the author of the poetry collection, Transhumance. A second collection, Untergang, will be published by Cinnamon in 2018.