The Last Hill That Shows You All the Valley

[Annotation by Richard Bleksley]

 

       On the last hill that shows you all the valley
       Look back to see what littleís to be seen
       Burned books left over from the rally
       A worker-priest left bleeding in the alley
       And realise this place was never green

 

In the absence of any specific references to persons, places, or dates, any commentary on this first stanza is inevitably somewhat speculative, but the burned books and the injured worker-priest do seem to recall the early days of the Nazi party. Book burnings (usually of those by Jewish authors) were a feature of early Nazi rallies, as were the bully-boy tactics of the SA (Sturmabteilung), better known as the Storm-Troopers or Brown-Shirts, until the bloody purge of that organisationís leadership in the “Night of the Long Knives” (June 30 – July 1, 1934).

 

       On the last hill that shows you all your travel
       Look back to see your tepees disappear
       A team of army dump-trucks full of gravel
       Comes to fill the graves and tamp them level
       The buffalo will not return this year

 

The near-extermination in the nineteenth century of the vast herds of buffalo (more correctly, American bison) that once lived on the American prairies is well known. What is perhaps less well known is that this was not just another case of trigger-happy Americans shooting at anything that moved, but a deliberate policy. The plains Indians (sorry, Native Americans) were heavily dependent on the meat and leather they obtained by hunting these animals, and the bison bloodbath was intended as a means of destroying their livelihood and thereby forcing them off the open prairies and into the reservations, out of the way of the white people. Hence the disappearing tepees.

The graves may be a reference to any or all of the several massacres of Native Americans – Wounded Knee (December 29, 1890) was the last, and is the best known – by the U.S. Army.

 

       On the last hill that brands you as a dreamer
       Look back to see the dreams were always true
       The Persians went ashore at Iwo Jima
       Christ was in the gold mines at Kolyma
       Denounced because his mother was a Jew

 

The Persians are presumably the ancient Persians, the ones who had all those run-ins with the ancient Greeks, such as Thermopylae, Marathon and Salamis.

Iwo Jima is a Japanese island, part of the Ogasawara group of islands about 522 miles south of Tokyo. In February 1945 U.S. Marines landed on the island, and finally captured it from the Japanese garrison after a month of particularly bitter fighting. Both sides suffered heavy losses, the Japanese fighting almost to the last man. The Battle of Iwo Jima is famous for the photograph by Joe Rosenthal (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize) of American soldiers raising the Stars and Stripes, one of the most iconic of all war photographs, and for Sands of Iwo Jima, one of John Wayneís best-known films.

Kolyma is a region in the far north-east of Siberia. Its climate, said to be exceeded in ferocity only by that of Antarctica, its remote, isolated position, and the severity of the treatment meted out to prisoners all contributed to the fearsome reputation its “corrective labour” camps acquired during Stalinís regime. (The word “Gulag,” popularly applied to these camps, is never used in that sense in Russian, being actually an acronym for the organisation that administered the system.) “Kolyma means death” was a saying in the Soviet Union at the time; and as many as one million people may have died (the statistics are disputed) in the region, or in transit to it, between 1932 and 1954, when Krushchev began to dismantle Stalinís punitive slave labour system.

One of the less attractive aspects of life in the old Soviet Union was the encouragement given to denouncing (or, to put it bluntly, snitching on) oneís fellow citizens – a practice obviously wide open to abuse. A similar situation existed in China following Maoís Cultural Revolution.

Although many of the original Bolsheviks were Jewish, Jews were among the many ethnic groups persecuted in the Soviet Union under Stalin. There was an especially ferocious series of anti-Semitic purges between the end of World War II and Stalinís death in 1953.

 

       On the last hill that shows you all the battle
       Look back to everywhere you cried for joy
       The killer dogs run down your barren cattle
       Your kid Cassandra walks collecting metal
       And youíll see when those rows of dust-clouds settle
       There are helicopters on the walls of Troy

 

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam of Troy. Her beauty led the god Apollo to fall in love with her and to grant her the gift of prophecy, but when she did not return his love he laid upon her the curse that, though her prophecies would always be true, no-one would ever believe her. Not surprisingly, her subsequent life was marked by madness and tragedy. Her name has become a byword for people who give warnings that go unheeded.

It is probably Homerís Iliad (Ilium is another name for Troy) that has made the story of the Trojan War arguably the best known of all the ancient Greek legends. Nearly everyone knows the bare bones of the story: the abduction of Helen by the Trojan prince Paris; the siege of Troy by her husband Menelaus, King of Sparta, and a confederation of Greek allies; and the final capture of the city by means of the Trojan horse. It was once generally considered that the city of Troy was entirely mythical, until in the 1870s the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated a site in Anatolia (Asian Turkey), which is now called Troy. Further excavations have revealed the remains of at least nine cities built in succession on the same site. Which, if any, of them was actually Homerís Troy is still disputed.

 



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