A few hours before the attack on Westminster Bridge on 29 March 2017, I was far away in Oxford working with an international group of students at Saïd Business School. Halfway through a tutorial, sitting at a table next to the plate glass windows of the Club Room, I heard a sudden thump and looked up to see a female blackbird fall to the ground, killed instantly by flying full-tilt into the glass.
The speed of the transition between life and death was shocking and I was reminded of it when hearing the news later that day of the human lives that had been snuffed out by a terrorist driving his car at innocent tourists and stabbing PC Keith Palmer. Flying to Dusseldorf that evening I began writing this poem as a tribute to the fallen and finished it yesterday morning.
It was a small life, the blackbird’s,
a windborne incarnation,
plumed with joy and light.
Heedless of our heavy-footed need
to touch the earth below;
an arrow loosed in flight.
We, engrossed in earnest work,
startled by a single thud,
turned our heads around,
Looked up in time to see her fall,
a limp and lifeless thing,
perished on the ground.
Death had caught her unawares,
dashed her life-blood out
against the window pane,
Snuffed her like a candle flame
to sing her holy requiem
amongst the newly slain.
A few days ago, Hedda and I watched the recent sci-fi drama Arrival directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whittaker. The story has been echoing in my imagination ever since. What a joy it was to see a film that engages with “otherness” with such intelligence and depth of feeling.
At the heart of the film (without spoilers) is the challenge to communicate with a species whose minds and language are structured in such fundamentally different ways that they support an entirely different kind of consciousness and understanding of the physical universe.
It also seemed significant that we watched it on International Women’s Day because it’s a female character – linguist Dr Louise Banks, played brilliantly by Amy Adams – who cracks the code of the aliens’ language and solves the mystery of their appearance on Earth.
Ultimately the film is about the difficulties and the possibilities of connecting across difference. Fear is never far beneath the surface but we see that it does not have to prevail. Arrival is about as far from the ludicrous, war-mongering triumphalism of Independence Day as it is possible to get.
Like all great science fiction, the film speaks to real contemporary dilemmas. Fear of otherness, fanned by right-wing extremists and neo-Fascists in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere is perhaps the greatest threat we face to a humane and civilised way of life.
Building walls to keep us separate from others is easy but it preys on our fears and makes us smaller. Building bridges to connect with others nourishes our hopes and helps us grow; it calls for compassion, courage and magnanimity.
Thank you to the makers of Arrival for reminding us that we are capable of more than “kicking some serious alien ass.”
Captain Midnight here from Madame Archbold’s Salon.
I’ve decided that it’s about time to launch my memoir – a compendium of my wildly popular blogs. The only thing holding me back is finding a title that will do justice to my literary prowess. I have some possibilities (see below) but I could really do with your help. All ideas gratefully accepted.
Captain Midnight Rides Again
Lady Windermere’s Afghan
Confessions of a Cockerpoo
Raiders of the Lost Bark
The Beagle Has Landed
Les Pensées d’un Pooch
Lady Chihuahua’s Lover
In the Midnight Hour
The Lovely Bones
Publication imminent (when I find an agent… hint hint).