9th March 2020

 

I’ve been doing some more reading and reflecting on the bloody, sweetened history of this glorious country and its industry. Abram Lyle was born on Thursday 14th December 1820 in Greenock to Abram and Mary. His father’s enterprises made barrels and casks, and Abram apprenticed with wooden vessels there. Eventually, he would own a fleet of giant versions of these coops, dozens of ships crowding the firth of Clyde. The ships would transport ‘goods’ up and down and back and forth across the Atlantic, profits, of course, accumulating in the process. Apparently devout to the point of zealousy, Abram chose to anoint his golden syrup product – his name’s great flagship – with half of Samson’s riddle to the Philistines of Timnah:

 

“Out of the eater came something to eat,

and out of the strong came something sweet” (Judges 14:14).

 

How they were supposed to solve this riddle is beyond me. The answer lay in an event that only Samson (and a lion) was party to:

“As they [Samson, mum, and dad] approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him [Samson, who is now, apparently, alone]. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done. … Some time later, … he turned aside to look at the lion’s carcass, and in it he saw a swarm of bees and some honey. He scooped out the honey with his hands and ate as he went along. When he rejoined his parents, he gave them some, and they too ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the lion’s carcass” (Judges 14:5-9).

So, anyway, Samson uses this rigged game to justify slaughtering a bunch of people he deems unworthy, which is a little ironic given the sugar industry’s reliance on enslaved bodies worked to death – sweetness pouring forth from defiled corpses. I wonder which part Abram felt he would play in this drama… Easton Lee offers a counter riddle in “Cane Piece Blues” (From Behind the Counter, 1998) in a land “with a myriad secret places” where “sweet sugar can turned sour vinegar | and my mother | old before her time … where now I sit to hide my swelling shame”. Neither tears nor the miracle of sweet life from violence “does not soften | the hard unforgiving earth”. Lee’s poetry stirs the rot and demands we all take a great whiff.

 

For all its lack of nutrients, Lyle’s golden syrup is certainly symbolically rich in this context – the ambrosial Manna of the pagan astral gods, refined after and fueling a great and terrible Exodus; from “powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines, smelling of semen all under the garden” – a potent brew, and one that made his fortune (after a while) after setting up shop in London town, much to the chagrin of Henry Tate – sugar merchant behemoth whose slave treasure laid the foundations for our celebrated museums and galleries which bear his name. Their bitter living rivalry was resolved in a posthumous merger, Tate & Lyle’s white gold bringing sweetness and, eventually, deep cavities to the Greenock docks in the jaws of the Clyde.

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