“Conflict” – Explaining The Scale

I am sitting in a comfortable pub beer gardenalongside the gentle but briskly flowing river of Hay-on-Wye, the sky is grey but clear, there are the usual countryside sounds of twittering birds, children are playing, running around, being loud, as they do. Despite the lack of sun, there is an overall sense that Summer is coming and in these peaceful eclipses, nothing seems altogether wrong with the world.

But I am caught thinking through a perennial problem that faces many writers, both creative and journalistic; the demand to write meaningfully about foreign countries, international situations and distant wars I have never experienced or been directly affected by. Do domestic commentators, artists and even the common reader, have any right to pass judgement or hold sway over situations with deep worldwide political and humanitarian repercussions they have not seen with their own eyes, or talked to the people living through them, this schism informs the heart of what I was trying to say in writing The Scale.

I should offer some background around what I’ve written in the poem and why I chose to write it, particularly in the form of a long poem, which is often seen as the most pretentious and esoteric manner, but in fact, when done correctly, is one of most direct and deep responses to human situations, as it cannot be said in any other way than itself. In keeping with that mode, I that hope more questions are raised than answers are expected. I should also acknowledge an aesthetic debt towards Carol Ann Duffy, having studied her poem, The War Photographer, in school, where “tears pricked at eyes before the pre-lunch beers”, for me, this line remains as salient as it ever was.

I started writing The Scale after the American journalist, Marie Colvin, was killed alongside French photographer, Remi Ochlik in Syria, 2012. When their deaths were reported, I felt a strong sense of injustice that someone should be killed in trying to report the truth, perhaps because they tried to expose the cruelty and injustices committed against others, part of an international communities that on a bad day can sometimes seem driven towards self-destruction/absorption and ethical indifference. My resentment was deepened by the reported suspicion that the building she and her colleague occupied was actively targeted by soldiers loyal to the Assad regime, proving the point that people are most often silenced or censored when they are trying to tell the truth, especially when it is deemed inconvenient or uncomfortable by prevailing powers; in this case the ritual killing of civilians by Assad’s regime.

I do not want to suggest that Colvin and others like her are “heroes” in any sense, but that their actions demonstrated a heroic commitment to the ideals behind the better part of their trade , and acknowledgement of self-sacrifice, which Colvin must have been keenly aware of, having lost an eye reporting in Sri Lanka, 2001.

In an interview of 2011, Colvin said that journalism should always be carried out “with accuracy and without prejudice”. The sense of scale, balance and ultimately its sense of fair-play, justice as a central component of any civilisation, informed the whole poem, through the hidden architecture of broken buildings and sleeping bodies, the linguistic challenge of reporting “conflicts” defining acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing happening today, against the weight of posthumous events, the active tense against passive resignation and the longing gaze towards history.

Many of the ways in which we choose “sides” and frame debates around modern warfare rely upon binary definitions between Us and Them; suspected terrorists, as opposed to proven; and a resonant debate within my GCSE history exam on the friction between one nation’s terrorists and a people’s freedom fighters. For every new “great war for civilisation” (see Robert Fisk’s introduction to his book of that name) there are undiscovered acts of state-level coercion, murder or corruption trickling down to street level.

I hope that current generations of journalists will continue to follow the legacy of passion and commitment demonstrated by the life and work of Marie Colvin and others, such as the French photojournalist, Camille Lepage, 26, recently killed in the Central African Republic, to seek out new truths and redress the balance between fact and fiction.