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Archive for July, 2011

Black Sea Bolters

A short story set in the Crimean War. I can’t really decide where or why to submit it, so decided to publish it here. I thought it might be worthwhile trying my hand at an historical piece. Apologies to Steve Kilbey and Marty Wilson-Piper of The Church. I initially used their names as temporary place-holders, but got so used to them, I couldn’t imagine any alternatives.

 

“Quietly,” said Piper.

Kilbey took his hands off the boat and looked straight at Piper.

“I am bloody well bein’ quiet,” he hissed. “Keep your own noise down.”

“Push slowly,” said Piper, “so it don’t rasp on the gravel so much.”

Kilbey put his hands back to the boat. If there was one thing he knew, it was how to be quiet. It was, after all, he who had gotten them out of camp. Still, Kilbey didn’t mind. Piper was just a nervous lad who got wound up about everything. He’d been blubbering all week. He was afraid, but who wasn’t, and Kilbey liked him all the same. He was a good lad – a couple of years younger – and he seemed to think the world of Kilbey.

“There we go,” breathed Kilbey, as the stern of the rowboat took float.

The two young men were at the base of the cliffs just a few hundred yards outside the British camp at Balaclava, on the eastern side of the harbour. For the last half hour they’d picked their way through their own lines, surprised by the ease of it all. Keeping low on the slopes that rose steeply from the narrow inlet, they had worked their way down to the sea.

“You ever rowed a boat before?” asked Kilbey.

“It can’t be too hard,” said Piper.

“Lucky for you it isn’t.”

Kilbey held the boat by the prow and motioned to Piper to get in. Piper climbed aboard then Kilbey ran it out the rest of the way and hopped over.

“You keep your head down and I’ll get us out.”

Piper did as he was told and ducked down into the stern where they’d placed the rifles. Kilbey took up the oars and turned the boat so it faced west. With measured strokes he rowed away from the cliffs. About a hundred yards out he turned to follow the coast.

“Do you really reckon we can get a proper boat up Sevastopol way?” asked Piper, sitting up when the shore was no longer so near.

“Like I told you, there’s plenty of ‘em. Skiffs, yachts, fishers, the lot. Some of ‘em come just to watch poor bastards like you and me dying. Plus, there’s plenty others mooring up full of wares. If we keep our heads screwed on right, we can nick ourselves a nice little number and make off for warmer seas.”

“South, you reckon?”

“Yep. South.”

“But where?”

“I dunno. South is where ducks go, innit? South is where it’s warmer. It don’t matter where exactly, we just keep going, down into the south.”

“But what’ll we do when we get there?”

“Try to stay alive, that’s what.”

“But where?”

Kilbey took a deep breath. They’d already been over this several times. He was like a child sometimes, Piper: why this, why that, what now? Still, Kilbey was so pleased to have made it this far that he was willing to humour him. As his shoulders spread wide with the strokes of the oars, he felt warmer and looser than he had for weeks.

“Well,” he said, “like I told you, I hear old Greece is down there somewhere. Greece and all them islands. Once we got ourselves a proper boat, we head south and find a nice spot.”

“Then what?”

“We live off the land and sea, I suppose. See if anyone needs a spare pair of hands. I know all about fishing, and it ain’t that hard to pick fruit. Two years from now you’ll be speaking the lingo, drinking wine and lying in the sun with your blooming missus like all them other lazy bastards.”

Kilbey forced out a laugh. Piper said nothing, but turned his eyes into the wake of the boat. He wanted more than anything to believe Kilbey’s optimism wasn’t misplaced. He needed to believe it, if only for the sake of believing something, yet recent events had shaken all belief from his system.

“We can go anywhere we like,” said Kilbey. “Now get up here and lend us a hand.”

Piper moved up beside Kilbey and took the oar from him. It took him a few strokes to get the hang of it, but soon he was matching Kilbey for pace and strength. He was, for the most part, a well-built young man. Despite having gone half-hungry for the last two weeks, his constitution remained strong.

Kilbey fell silent for a while and Piper watched him from the corner of his eye. There was a restrained urgency beneath Kilbey’s stroking. He looked to Piper like he was holding something big inside; something he was trying to leave behind. “It’s like a rope of terror coiled up in his breast,” thought Piper; “a rope tethered at Balaclava and slowly paying out. He’s just as scared as I am, but he’s gaining strength from his fear. He doesn’t show he’s afraid, but he acts on it, acts with it. He’s more decisive; he’s made a choice and he’ll stick to it, believe in it, no matter what.”

It occurred to Piper that only something truly awful could make a man so decisive. “Perhaps I’m right to be this scared,” he mused. “Things really must be that bad after all. I’ve got to turn the fear into strength; eat it all up like food.”

A sweat now broke on Piper’s brow. He felt his armpits flooding. Already his spirits were lifted by the rowing. His thinking was clearer, more rational, without the clouds of panic.

“If you’d seen what I’ve seen,” said Kilbey, after a long silence, “you wouldn’t give a tinker’s cuss for where we’re going. Just so long as it’s away from this place.”

Piper nodded as he pulled back on the oar.

“I guess,” he replied. “I reckon I’ve already seen enough myself.”

The past month had been a long and traumatic one for both young men. Just over two weeks ago, on the fifth of November, Kilbey had fought at the Battle of Inkerman. He didn’t like to talk about it and he liked to think about it even less, yet he couldn’t stop thinking about it most of the time and sometimes that got him talking. It was when things slowed down that his mind went back there, when he didn’t have much to do. At night, when he should have been sleeping, pictures flashed up that would tense his hands; memories that made his eyes twitch.

Inkerman was a bloody nightmare. The officers had been expecting a Russian attack for days, but no one thought it would come on a Sunday morning. Shortly before dawn all the bells of Sevastopol rang out. It was the most beautiful cacophony Kilbey had ever heard. He thought it must be a festival day; the feast for some Orthodox saint. He was up in the trenches, in the front lines, lying half asleep and half frozen in his dug out. As his mind echoed with the metal harmonies, his heart was carried off to the luxury of cities. The mud and mess and frost resolved itself into a peacetime urban morning. The stones of a street, the tilt of a hill and a wide vista of chimneys stacked before the sea. He heard amidst it all the ring of a shop bell; thought of glass and wrapping, of horses, carts, straw and stale ale; the footfalls of churchgoers. He could have lain listening like that for hours on end, seeing a different coloured gleam in every chime. Those were the last fine thoughts he remembered having. Shortly afterwards the day erupted with hot and bloody action.

Kilbey had nothing to be ashamed of. He’d fought like a demon, bracing and stabbing and fending with his bayonet. They were calling it a soldier’s battle; a battle decided by the bravery and steadfastness of men. In the gloomy fog and swirling showers they had fought their own fights, unaware of how things stood about them. Kilbey only knew that they were outnumbered, beset all day by poor brave devils with ancient muskets. They came on in the old-fashioned way and he and his comrades threw them back in the old-fashioned way. It was a day of seemingly endless duels; the slashing witchery of melee with all its freakish luck. Kilbey had seen how hard it was for the wounded. He’d seen men lying in the squalor of the battlefield – messes of men; muddied, bloodied and mostly come a cropper.

When it was over, in the late afternoon, victory found him so exhausted as to be nigh incapable of reflection. The need to stay alive had insulated him against the worst of it. He closed up and shut down and felt a great sleep settling on his shoulders; a sleep of forgetting, of disbelief, of abnegation. He hoped things might stay forgotten in the future just as easily as they were forgotten that very day. Yet later, when he was rested and had the energy, his mind called back all the terror. When he did speak of it, it was difficult to miss the quaver that entered Kilbey’s voice. Piper had certainly noticed it; the little quake in his throat, the way his eyes looked away then came back, creased with the intensity one sees before tears. Yet, he never cried.

“I saw what happens to people,” said Kilbey, in a whisper. “I saw how it’s going to end for us all.”

Even before being shipped across to Balaclava, Piper had been hearing such stories. They had not done him any good; denting his morale and feeding his fears. He was only twenty and had never been brave as such; more naïvely willing. Like so many others he took the King’s shilling because he was down on his luck, but also because he believed there might truly be something noble in it. He did not think that anything could be as degrading as poverty, yet from the start the army had proved to be an ugly experience. He was not callous enough to condone the bullying and could not stomach the bluff indifference of so many to open cruelty. It was a harsh environment and his sentimentality did him no favours. Yet, despite his many misgivings, it would never have occurred to him to desert. If not for the hurricane, that is, for it was the hurricane that broke him.

Like everyone else who lived through it, Piper would never forget the awful air of apocalypse that cursed that entire day. It had begun eerily enough: the moon was still up when the sun rose flanked by bright red clouds. Woken by a draft of chilly air, Piper left his tent to urinate. He stood by the ditch in the steam of his piss, watching as the sky thickened into black thunderheads. It had rained the night before, rained for nearly a week. Everything was damp and miserable in the camp, with little solace to be had from shortened rations. Piper took one last look at the fading red cloud bank, drinking up the rare, warm colours, then crept back to his tent.

A quarter of an hour later the rain began its drumming. All around the camp men were woken by the roaring of the canvas. The rain gathered quickly into rivulets and soon the ground was laden with water, spitting with heavy drops. As the fall grew heavier, so the wind grew more fierce; flapping and whipping and howling so loudly that voices were lost in the din. Then, as though some magician had pulled the lever on a great weather machine, the hurricane struck in full.

Tents were torn from the ground and blown away like tissue. Tins and bottles flew through the air like leaves. Rocks were picked up and hurled like sling stones, cutting and bruising the men. Heavy barrels and boxes skipped across the ground. Horses broke their tethers to run panicked through the camp; wagons rolled free and crushed men in their wake. Many of the men were caught undressed and lost not only their shelter but their clothes. Barely able to stay on their feet, bent double in their underwear, they chased their possessions on the plateau.

In the harbour the devastation was even more pronounced. Pots and pans, crates of medical supplies, sacks of flour, boxes of ammunition were smashed and strewn about; driven into piles at the base of walls, stacked in heaps behind wind-blown ridges of mud. The sea was a mess of splintered wood and rope, full of dead and drowning men and beasts. Several ships went down in the heaving waters – the Resolute, the Wanderer, the Mary Anne, the Marquis, the Rip van Winkle among them; splintered on the rocks and reefs. Many rescues were attempted, many rescues failed, many of the rescuers themselves were lost to the sea.

Though he lost his tent, Piper was at least fortunate in having dressed. His uniform, sodden and filthy as it was, protected him from the lacerating wind. He staggered through that day in terror, silenced by the screaming gusts. In the chaos it was every man for himself. They took shelter where they could; backs against the walls of the few buildings in the harbour, crouched in ditches, curled up behind rocks. For some there was simply nowhere to hide; they wrapped themselves in their blankets and lay in the driving rain and wind. The hospital tents collapsed to leave the sick and dying exposed. Officers, weak with dysentery, lay in pools of frozen water. Ghastly, ghoulish figures, clawing their way through the mud.

It was not until the middle of the afternoon that the winds slackened. The troops tried to put things in order, without knowing where to begin. Most looked first to the recovery of their tents. Like many other men, Piper, who spent most of the storm huddled in a freezing, shallow trench, went all day without food. In the early evening the coffee ration was distributed; a handful each of raw, green beans, with no means to roast or grind it. Some threw the beans away in disgust while others chewed them in resignation. Piper put his in his sodden pocket then went back to picking through the mud. Shortly after five o’clock the heavy rain turned to snow.

In the days that followed his despair quickly deepened. Piper was not alone in fearing that the Russians would come and throw them back into the sea. They did their best to put things to rights, but the camp remained a scene of complaint and exhaustion; full of injured, broken men. The dead were carted off to shallow graves; their bodies heaped in wait.

It was in this bleak aftermath that Piper found himself bedding down with Kilbey. They found camaraderie in their despondency. For Kilbey, with the acrid glory, the intense savagery of Inkerman still ringing in his blood, the foetid filth of Balaclava seemed far, far worse. The apparent pitilessness, the hunger, the cold and the sickness, hung in his chest like a carcass. It was then that he made his mind up to escape. When he confessed to Piper his plans to desert, he found a willing accomplice. So sure was Piper that he would die if he stayed in Balaclava – if not in battle, then of sickness, cold or malnutrition – and so incapable had he become of seeing any future for himself in the bleakness, that the very suggestion of an alternative opened a door in his mind. It did not matter what sort of future Kilbey was offering; the mere fact that there might be one at all was enough for Piper to count himself in.

They rowed steadily, with unhurried rhythm. Both men steamed in the mild, still air. Kilbey estimated that it might take them a good three hours to reach the Bay of Sevastopol. After an hour and a quarter, however, he realised he had no way of judging the distance. Their hands began to grow raw upon the oars.

“It’s a bloody long way,” said Piper, as they stopped to sip from their canteens.

“Not much choice now,” said Kilbey. “It can’t be too much longer. Maybe another hour.”

“Isn’t there some other way?”

“Well, if you got strength to row for god knows how many weeks and you’ve got food and money and all else, then let me know and off we go with what we got. Otherwise, I’m telling you, it’s up that way we’ll get a decent boat. There’s boats like big old larders up there.”

Kilbey nudged him with his elbow. “Some of ‘em even have their women on board.”

Piper whistled. It was a long time since he’d been with a woman, and even then it was just three times over a couple of scented days. In his lowest moments the only woman he’d been able to think of was his mother. He did not believe Kilbey about the women. He wasn’t sure he believed Kilbey about anything much any more.

“What makes you think it’ll be so easy getting a boat?”

“I didn’t say it was going to be easy. I just said it’s our best hope of getting away.”

Piper frowned.

“All I know,” said Kilbey, “is I saw loads of ‘em anchored out there from where we were dug in. Boats of all different shapes and sizes.”

Piper shook his head, his sore hands resting on the oar. He wondered what he was doing. Now that he was away from the camp, out here on the water, warmed up and sweaty with work, he felt strength in his mind and body. The quiet, flat sea and the queer broad light of the moon filled him with a calm sense of freedom. For the first time in weeks he was in control of his destiny. His head was clear at last. The more he thought about Kilbey’s plan, the more it struck him as an utterly mad idea. What could they possibly hope to do even if they did get hold of a boat? Sail to Greece? He wondered how on earth he had ever agreed to this madness. Would he ever see England again?

“Come on,” said Kilbey. “Let’s get going.”

Piper took up the oar and began to row. At least it was better to take action than to do nothing. He should have realised that once they escaped there would be a new set of obstacles. Still, he couldn’t exactly go back now. Or could he? He thought about this a moment, but soon ruled it out on account of Kilbey. Kilbey would never go back; he was as mad as his bloody plan. Piper had just better keep going forward and hoping.

They continued around the coast. In places the cliffs slumped into beaches, yet mostly they stood straight and square. Kilbey, who had thought it a simple matter of rowing a few miles up the coast, was beginning to have doubts himself. He knew he was going the right way, but was surprised by how long it was taking. He had figured on the distance between Balaclava and Sevastopol as being around six miles, whereas in fact it was closer to eleven. He also hadn’t reckoned on the triangular shape of the promontory, which practically doubled the distance by sea. Little did he know that they were less than a tenth of the way there. Kilbey, who had never seen a map of the area, was working from inaccurate observations.

Then he spotted something.

“There,” he whispered. “Look at that.”

Piper turned to look forward over his shoulder. Ahead of them, perhaps only a couple of hundred yards off, anchored in a small rocky bay, was a boat.

“Look at that,” said Kilbey, emitting a whistle. “That’ll do nicely, I reckon.”

“Bloomin’ hell,” said Piper. “There’s a bloody boat alright.”

The boat was Turkish; a two-masted Gulet, around forty-odd feet in length. At the sight of it Piper’s blood raced. He never expected they’d find a single, isolated boat like this. The way Kilbey had described things, he’d imagined sliding quietly in amongst a whole flotilla of boats. It was the other boats that had worried him; that they’d all be looking out for each other. If anything went wrong, the alarm would go round and they’d be sitting ducks, out on the sea, to be caught and shot or worse. This boat was a real chance. It was waiting there like a prize.

Kilbey felt fate congealing around him. Two years before, after the tragic drowning of his father, he had walked away from the coastal village where he was born. There his fate as a fisherman would have been sealed, yet a dispute with his uncle had brought forth his latent stubbornness. It was a long process of protest and denial, combined with his hatred of navy types that led him to the army. It was not something he had ever imagined himself doing, but as with so many others, finding himself short of coin he had taken the shilling. Once he was in, his skill and vitality served him well. His ready wit and jocularity made his an easier ride than that of many others, yet his heart would forever remain on the glittering sea. Despite Piper’s protestations, Kilbey had never doubted himself enough to feel vindicated on finding a boat such as this. It seemed to him instead to be the resumption of a lost destiny.

Both men lay low in the rowboat, peering over the side. They edged slowly closer; the water was flat and still.

“So,” said Piper, “how do we do it?”

“Firstly,” said Kilbey, “I’m going up front.”

He reached down into the stern and picked up his rifle, then edged up against the prow.

“Right,” he said. “You row us in, nice and quiet. Easy strokes, mind. Don’t drop the oars in the water. We don’t want no splashing. When we get close, you hold the boat off the hull and I’ll try go up the side. As soon as I’m up, take your rifle and get ready to shoot any bastard who shows his face. Any bastard who isn’t me.”

Piper swallowed. He didn’t like the idea of shooting anyone.

“How am I supposed to aim right with this thing bobbing up and down?”

“Just do your bloomin’ best.”

“I hope it’s as easy as you say.”

“It’ll be as easy as you like. It’s all about surprise.”

Kilbey lay down in the front of the boat, while Piper sat hunched at the oars. He took a last look at where he was heading. He could see only the outlines and none of the detail. The danger was always in the detail. A cliff is one thing, but a cliff with a man hidden on it was something else. Same with a boat. How was he supposed to know there wasn’t a man on deck? He felt exposed sitting there on the thwart, his back to the land. He was afraid of being shot.

They soon pulled in close. The boat had taken a battering in the storm; the rigging was a mess and the gunwale bruised and splintered. How and where it had weathered the recent hurricane was anyone’s guess. Still, it was afloat and the masts looked intact. Kilbey found it just to his liking and he spat on his palms. His blood was up. He felt the energy in his hands; the nervy quickness that had come when he was fighting. At Inkerman his hands had been strong all day, holding tight his rifle; locked to it like clamps. Now, warm and red with rowing, fuelled by fear and excitement, they felt once again like tools.

Piper slid the oars in, then he and Kilbey leaned out to stop the boat thudding against the hull. Piper held the boat away from the side while Kilbey reached up for the gunwale. It was a low gunwale and he reached it easily. Once his right hand had a grip, he steadied himself then flung up his left arm as the rowboat slid out from under him. He pushed off with his feet and got his elbows up on the deck, his body bouncing lightly against the hull. With both arms up, he rested on his elbows a moment, gathering his strength. Then, working himself into a swing, he threw his leg up and over. He balanced a moment on the edge, adjusted his holds, then pulled himself up onto the deck.

Once Kilbey was up, he leaned back over the side and Piper passed up his rifle. Piper sat down again and pushed the boat away a little, taking hold of his own Minié rifle. He sat back down on the thwart and propped it against his shoulder, ready to fire if need be. He knew he wasn’t much good with it, but, despite what they were doing, it had never occurred to him that he might actually use it. He watched intently as Kilbey crouched on the deck.

Holding his rifle, Kilbey crept towards the cabin entrance. Until this point he hadn’t felt any fear of what was to come. Buoyed by his own positive assertions to Piper and the surprise of actually finding a boat out here, his confidence had held. Yet now, standing before the door and knowing how close and quick things would be inside, he was afraid to go ahead. He crouched and examined the door in detail; the grain of the wood, the hinges, the jamb. He told himself that he was searching for how best to deal with the lock, if it was indeed locked, but really he was staring at the wood. He hovered a moment longer, waiting and expecting his body to move, yet it did not move, and he continued to hover. Now he began to wonder if he had made too much noise coming over the side; if the rocking of the boat had alerted anyone who might be on board. He was sure there must be someone on board.

He tried the small knob on the door. It turned easily, quietly, but the door would not open. He pushed gently against it, but it did not budge. It must be bolted on the other side. He grew nervous now, knowing that he would have to do it all in a rush; get the door open and plunge straight in before they could pull themselves together. He could only take one shot, so he’d have to make sure he got it right and do the rest with his bayonet. He thought of getting Piper up on deck, but in truth he didn’t think much of Piper’s ability. He was a good lad, but he was lily-livered and he wasn’t sure he could trust him in a fight.

Kilbey’s bayonet was fixed. He took a deep, sharp breath, braced himself and turned his rifle around. He held the butt just above the door handle where he suspected the bolt might be, then rammed it against the wood. The door flew open with a loud crash and Kilbey charged down the stairs, eyes scanning the darkness ahead. He couldn’t hear a thing beyond his own breathing and clatter, but he thought he could make out two bunks to his left and right. His rifle was ready, his bayonet sharp and deadly, and with his arms primed for a thrust, he charged at the bunk and plunged his bayonet into the dimness. In the second in which his bayonet made contact there was a loud bang and a flash behind him and Kilbey was sent sprawling on the floor.

“Jesus,” was all he managed to say. The flesh of his breast was open and hot; he felt as though a burning lance was thrust right through him. A moment later something heavy and wooden began to clobber into him. A blow struck him across the back of the head and he blacked out. With the next blow, Kilbey was dead.

When Piper heard the shot, he jumped so much he nearly fell over backwards. In a flurry he stood up, half lost his balance, sat down then tried to stand again. He was shaking so badly he could not steady himself and, sitting down once more, he picked up the oars and began to stroke hard, away from the boat. Kilbey, Kilbey, Kilbey, he thought, then, rowing a few strokes more, he let go the oars. He stared at the boat ahead, feeling vulnerable in the filtered moonlight. Where was Kilbey? Was there a fight going on? Why hadn’t he emerged yet?

Piper remained seated, slowly drifting, peering through the hazy light. In the cold air, he flushed with prickly heat, knowing he must act immediately, but uncertain of what to do. Every second that he failed to make a decision his anxiety and his helplessness grew. Kilbey still had not emerged. Something was terribly wrong; awfully wrong. It could only be the very worst, thought Piper, surely only the worst.

Christ, how he couldn’t stand not knowing!

Piper waited on. He figured almost a minute must have passed since the gunshot. He sat, fretting on the thwart, clutching his rifle. The boat had continued drifting and now lay some thirty feet from the Gulet. He could hear nothing at all. Why had Kilbey not yet come back on deck?

“Kilbey!” he cried. “Kilbey!” His voice took him by surprise in the stillness. That muffled gunshot was still echoing in his mind, yet save from the odd plash against the side he could hear nothing else.

“Kilbey!” he called.

He put his rifle between his legs and picked up the oars, determined that he must row across and find out for himself. It was then that he saw a man, running up onto the deck, a quick rush of silhouette; the outline of a man with a rifle.

“Kilbey!” shouted Piper. He tried to stand up, yet again his legs were shaking so badly he could not get to his feet. He fell back heavily onto his bottom, just as the silhouette on the deck reached the gunwale and took aim with Kilbey’s rifle.

“Kilbey,” he called one more time. But now he knew the silhouette’s shape was wrong.

Before he could duck the gun went off. Piper saw the flash and flew backwards into the belly of the boat. The lightning touch of the bullet struck a spark behind his eyes, and it was this light that shone through the arc of his fall. When his head struck the stern sheets it sparked again like a bolt of hot glass, then he felt a stifling blankness and a strange smell of static, as when once he was punched in the nose; the stench of biff. For a while afterwards there was nothing. The boat drifted slowly away and the cloud overhead, which was already thinning, grew thinner.

When Piper opened his eyes again he was lying in the dip of the tub, his legs hanging over the thwart. He flinched and blinked, for the hazy moonlight was very bright. His head was throbbing all over. He reached up and rubbed at it. There was a lump just above the base of his skull that hurt dreadfully. Touching it, he recalled the flash; the twin sparks of glass and heat, but not quite anything else. He felt his forehead. There was a stinging welt that ran a short distance from his hairline. He rubbed at this and it hurt, god it hurt.

Piper turned on his side, reached over and dipped his hand in the water, then brought it up and washed his face. He reached again, this time throwing the water across his eyes, massaging the damp hand into his forehead, then into the back of his head. He lay a moment with his eyes closed, breathing steadily and trying to stay relaxed. When he shook his head he felt the thickness of his lump, but otherwise, he felt strangely rested.

Piper let his eyes search the sky. It looked to him as it had before. The moon seemed hardly to have moved. That was one thing he remembered, the moon and the stars. He lifted himself slowly on his elbows and peered down the length of the boat. He could see nothing beyond his feet. He sat up again, looking to the left and right, but before he could see a thing, it all came back to him. He ducked down in fright.

Kilbey! he thought. Blooming Kilbey.

Slowly Piper began to lift his head by inches, peering left and right. He could see nothing at all, just open sea and the cloudy sky. He lifted his head higher still, but in a bolt of paranoia pulled it straight back, afraid of something behind him. He cursed and pulled his legs down off the seat, curling up in the base of the boat. Then, lifting himself into a half-crouch, he looked out over the stern.

At last he spotted the cliffs and the shoreline; directly behind where he had lain. He held the side of the boat with both hands and studied the scene carefully. There was no sign of the Gulet, nor the small bay where it was anchored. The boat must have drifted away as he lay unconscious.

Piper breathed a sigh of relief. Thank Christ he was still alive. He pushed himself back up onto the thwart and rubbed his head and shoulders. He was surprised to find himself so intact. The pain in his head was dull and constant, but it was not more than he could bear. His shoulders and back felt very stiff.

Kilbey, thought Piper, poor bloody Kilbey. He was sure he must be dead.

Piper sat with his lips pursed, blinking. He wondered why he wasn’t crying. In the tent with Kilbey, at the height of his terror, he’d kept the worst of his despair to himself, yet now that there was no one to see him and make him feel ashamed, and now that he had more reason than ever to feel desperate, he felt no inclination to cry. Perhaps it was the bang on the head, or perhaps it was the pointlessness of despair in these circumstances, but when he failed to cry, he knew that the fear had been shaken from him. He was beyond being scared.

Piper washed his face again, then took up the oars and began to row. He steered the boat towards the cliffs. There was little wind and the sea was still. He felt no impediment and he made smooth progress. He rowed on across the easy still water, clear in his decision. There was, after all, only one place to which he could now go.

Two hours later, exhausted, his hands wrapped in his socks to keep them proof against blisters, Piper ran the boat up against the rocks just outside Balaclava. Following the route that Kilbey had picked so carefully, he snuck his way back around the harbour, up onto the plateau and into the camp.

The sky was beginning to lighten in the east as Piper pulled back the flap of Kilbey’s dishevelled tent. He no longer felt afraid of anything. Whatever the Russians or the very earth itself might throw at him, all he needed was a rest now. He had his own plan for staying alive. The lump on his head would explain his lack of complicity in Kilbey’s desertion. He pulled together the two filthy blankets and lay down to rest at last. He soon fell into a deep sleep.

With help from: Christopher Hibbert, The Destruction of Lord Raglan; a tragedy of the Crimean War, 1854-55, Longmans, 1961.

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This is a short assignment written in 2004 as part of my Masters in Creative Writing, for the compulsory unit in Culture and Writing. The aim was to take an anthropological approach to a personal experience in which one had been made to feel marginalised either deliberately or inadvertantly by a dominant narrative.

This brief essay is essentially an examination of the effects of assumed complicity in a form of mass identity and the difficulty in asserting an alternative voice in such a context. By assumed complicity, I refer to a situation where it is assumed by others that I share their identity and as a consequence am understood to share the same values and ideas. I wish to illustrate what I consider to be a tribal phenomenon with three examples. The first of these is an example of my assumed complicity in a shared masculine identity; the second my assumed complicity in a combined masculine and national identity, and the final example, by way of contrast, is a brief examination of the silencing of the masculine narrative and liberation from its identity constraints. I wish in all instances to highlight the difficulty or awkwardness in voicing an alternative attitude when confronted with a narrative that is strongly asserted by a group in a way that assumes my complicity and agreement with its basic tenets.

1. Assumed complicity in Rejection of the “Feminine.”

 

One such occasion was when I had reluctantly agreed to attend a double bill of the extended versions of the first two Lord of the Rings movies. I say reluctantly because I knew it would be an arduously lengthy experience at just over eight hours, but had decided to come on the grounds that I rarely had the opportunity to see two of my oldest friends whose idea it was that we should go. There were six of us in total, including three people I had not met before who were friends of my friend Mike. Having already purchased our tickets, we were queuing to enter the cinema itself when, pointing to a poster advertising the then upcoming release of Love Actually, Richard Curtis’ new film, one of these guys proceeded to remark: “By the people who brought you Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary, as if anyone’s going to want to see that.”

My hackles rose instantly and I made no comment whatsoever. I had seen all three of these films and enjoyed them immensely, and as the other men chuckled around me in agreement, I turned away and pretended to be distracted by something else altogether. I was greatly angered that in making this comment, this chap expected my automatic complicity. I was also highly annoyed that my two old friends, who I had previously thought to be less prone to stereotypically negative masculine knee-jerk responses to romantic themes, were more than happy to share in this group derision.

I was about to speak and voice my dissent publicly when I realised that I honestly did not wish to engage in conversation with these other three guys I did not know, whom, in all likelihood, I would never see again. Not usually one to allow my opinion to go unheard, at the first opportunity I voiced my enthusiasm for these films separately to my friend Mike, and made clear my intention of seeing Love Actually, yet publicly I felt silenced by this aggressive masculine derision, however casually and playfully it was initially voiced.

As a consequence of my annoyance at having this narrative imposed upon me, the rest of the crowd seemed to take on a more menacing form. Here suddenly were devotees of the action movie genre, not people with a romantic imagining of Tolkien’s books as they might possibly have been only a few moments ago. As a consequence, I ended up leaving after the first film, feeling out of place in this group and no longer wishing to participate in this popular event.

2. Assumed Complicity in a Muscular National Identity

It was the opening night of the Rugby World Cup and Australia was playing Argentina. I had originally made plans to see a film that evening, but soon after arranging this I received a phone call from a friend urging me to go and watch the match at the Nelson Hotel in Bondi Junction. I pointed out that I already had plans and was going to a movie, and was then subjected to playful derision over my priorities. “Mate, you’ve gotta be joking, it’s the first night of the world cup and Australia’s playing. You can see a film any time.” This conversation continued for some time, and in the end I reluctantly agreed to go to the pub. I was not averse to watching rugby, but rather my reluctance stemmed from the desire to avoid large groups of drunk blokes shouting at a television and engaging in mind-numbing forms of chanting. Having worked in a pub for three years in England, I had been shocked by the zeal of sports fans and what I considered to be the rude and barbarous behaviour they exhibited. It had filled me with a strong distaste for English sports fans, and yet, in a sense, it was not as confronting as seeing my own countrymen behave in the same way, for in the latter instance, they were likely to assume my complicity in their behaviour.

Upon entering the pub, I was instantly plunged into an environment in which the hegemonic narrative was nationalism, and the sub-plot, jovially aggressive masculinity. I was not in any way afraid of the environment, I simply had a distaste for its lack of sophistication – a consequence of my own pretension. Here was a tribal environment, mostly white males wearing Australian colours and already boisterous. I was not out of place, and it was in fact partly for this reason that I felt disappointed, for I did not want to be included in the tribe. I considered myself to be a disinterested observer of a contest, and may the best team win.

It was hardly surprising therefore when, once the game was under way, all decisions by the referee that went against Australia were greeted with mass, loud shouts of protest, however reasonable the decision. I felt as though my reason had been silenced by this tribal identity in which I was expected to be complicit, because, with the exception of two Argentineans, no one wanted to hear me state that the decision was in fact fair and reasonable. By the time the game was over, I had had more than enough of this type of asserted mass identity and was quite determined that it would be a very long time before I again attended an event in which national fervour was paraded at the expense of reason and in which I was expected, by my presence, to share values and interests with people I felt I had nothing in common with at all and did not wish to associate with.

My internal reaction within this setting was a consequence of my own prejudice and I was aware that my distaste for this type of behaviour was unfair. It was a common enough, often entirely harmless celebration of unity, and as much an act as anything else. It was an opportunity to perform as a part of a common narrative with a recognisable structure, yet it was a narrative in which the protagonists were stereotypes and caricatures; the product of self-imposed reduction. It was unreasonable to turn up and expect otherwise, but the singularity of purpose and degree to which people took the matter seriously astonished me. In the end I had little choice but to participate passively, for the simple fact that no one really wanted to talk about anything else.

3. The Silencing of the Masculine Narrative: A Liberation.

The final example is particularly close to home, but one that struck me as worth some discussion; namely, the phenomenon of my being the only male in my particular class for this course.

I had not realised the scale of the gender imbalance until I sat down and the lady sitting next to me stated, “gee, you’re a bit outnumbered here.” At this I took a good look around the room and realised that I was in fact the only male present. Four more students entered after this point and they were also all female. When later I came to think about the class composition in more detail, I realised that my reaction to this situation was complex and occurred on many different levels, almost all of which were positive.

At a most basic level, it was titillating to be the only man in a room full of women, and the absence of other males ensured precisely the sort of monopoly I was genetically programmed to desire! Yet I was also marginalised in a way that gave me a heightened awareness of my gender. Whilst everyone proved open and welcoming, there was still a sense initially of being an outsider and I was concerned that I might feel isolated should the debate concern gender issues and I were to find myself at odds with general opinion. This was not something I expected, and fortunately did not prove to be the case. Instead, in assessing my position in the class it became clear that I was, in fact, made more comfortable by the absence of other males.

There were a number of reasons for this, the most prominent of which was the absence of another individual that I might be expected to bond with at the level of gender. Not having any natural ally in this sense made it more much more difficult to adopt a masculine attitude. There was no one whose natural agreement I might seek, or who equally might seek mine.

Viewed from another angle, however, as the only man present there was a certain pressure to appear representative, either broadly, or typically. This was another form of imposition whereby it might be assumed that I was a party to the extant masculine narrative. Yet, the significant difference was that I had more freedom to undermine and circumvent that identity, for here there was not so much a direct assumption of complicity, but rather a sort of challenge to prove a lack of complicity. Without the cacophony of an imposed masculine identity and its attendant necessary exchanges, I felt more at ease to project a masculinity with which I was comfortable.

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I began writing this article in 2000, whilst still researching my PhD at Cambridge. It was largely finished, but with significant holes which I have finally decided to fill in. I originally intended to research it more intensively and submit it for publication to an academic journal, but ultimately the style seemed more journalistic and its prohibitive length ruled out any hope of publication in a newspaper or magazine. So, after all these years, here it is!

Gladiator

The recent release of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator has once again sparked interest in a genre that seemed doomed never to be revived. Prohibitive costs and questionable appeal were the enduring memories after the hugely expensive and unsuccessful Cleopatra and the ponderous The Fall of the Roman Empire. After 1964, no one was either rich enough or stupid enough to invest in a project of this scale.

Cleopatra

Gladiator, the first Roman epic for almost forty years, whilst receiving mixed reviews from critics, has proven very popular with cinema-goers the world over. The story of Maximus’ fall from the slippery heights of power as a conquering Roman general, to his being sold as a slave and his evolution as a great gladiator, certainly makes for great matinee entertainment. The exotic locations, vast battles, splendid sets, and epic scenes are true to form of the “sword and sandal” epic, and with the assistance of modern technology and greater attention to close detail, Gladiator sets a new benchmark for a raw and “realistic” evocation of the Roman world. Yet what is so frustrating about Gladiator is its lack of contextual historical accuracy.

The fall of the roman empire

The genre to which Gladiator belongs has always been a flawed one. Roman epics have attracted criticism for both their historical accuracy and dramatic qualities. Roman epics aren’t so much historical films, as vehicles for other, often anachronistic moral or ideological themes; Italian nationalism and fascism, for example. Otherwise they have tended towards ponderous, opulent romance.

Gladiator is an interesting product in the context of film history, for it picks up almost directly where the Roman epic left off. Gone are the moralising voice-overs which introduce the historical context; gone is the typical demonisation of the Roman Empire; gone is the anachronistic emphasis on modern Christian concepts of ethics and morality. In their place we have a secularised film which does not seem to carry any message whatsoever. This absence of any clear moral purpose behind Gladiator is, in part, what makes it a better Roman epic than many of its predecessors.

Historical films can also have a very powerful effect on an audience, imaginatively and emotionally, but often very particularly on account of national identity. This is especially the case when the film depicts the actions of a national group, and particularly in the context of an international conflict. The film Braveheart, for example, generated very heated debate about its depiction not just of certain historical personalities, but also ofEngland’s relationship toScotland. It was not at all well received by the English.

Braveheart

It seems extraordinary that a cinematic interpretation of events which took place almost seven centuries ago could cause such rancour, yet such they did. Some film-makers might therefore be wary about alienating potential audiences, which raises the question as to whether or not historical accuracy in the cinema depends upon the degree to which there is a risk of upsetting members of any social group which could identify with the characters and events of the film. Inevitably, where national identities are concerned, someone is bound to be upset, and the director or author of the screenplay are likely to find themselves forced to justify the reasons for their portrayal.

The Roman epic, however, occupies a special place in the broad spectrum of historical films. This is because the period it depicts is sufficiently distant in time to avoid arousing the ire of any political or ethnic group by an historically unfair or inaccurate portrayal; thus neutralising any possible social antagonism such as that generated by films such as Braveheart. This might go some way towards explaining the flights of fantasy into which Roman epics are capable of delving. The recent and appalling television production of Cleopatra was a perfect example of the quite extraordinary degree to which history can be manipulated.

Gladiator is another production in which there is very little historical truth. It need only be pointed out that Maximus did not exist, that Commodus was already co-opted as co-emperor in 177, three years before the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, and that he ruled until 193 when he was strangled to death by a professional wrestler as he lay in a drunken sleep, to illustrate the quite ridiculous historical inaccuracy of the film. Can Gladiator therefore rightly be called an historical film?

Gladiator, mounted

On some levels, namely those of costuming and interior design, the makers of Gladiator have made an impressive effort to achieve historical accuracy. It is perhaps counter-productive to quibble about the exact appearance of the Roman urban landscape at the time; which facades loomed, which statues stood where, which aqueducts had been completed, and about the decoration of the interior of the senatorial curia. That neo-classical facades were shot, cut and pasted to create the backdrop of the city of Rome should not trouble us too greatly, for the effect is at least successful in conveying an impression of the scale, and, it might be said, the  “modernity” of Roman development at the height of the Empire’s power. Perhaps more importantly, the attention to detail in military hardware, costumes, furniture, personal effects, and so on, is a considerable advance on previous cinematic depictions of theRoman Empire.

Another positive of the film is that it attempts to create a less anachronistic intellectual, social and cultural context. Often, due to the need to acquaint the audience with the historical context, period films tend to be packed with informative dialogue and exposition, which at times stumbles uncomfortably from the lips of the protagonists. Gladiator is somewhat more successful in contextualising this background and making it incidental to the film.

Still, it is reasonable to wonder why so much effort has been put into minute detail, when the broader context in which all the detail is conveyed is almost completely fictional?

Director Ridley Scott provides the best answer to this question. When asked what attracted him to the film, he described his first encounter with the producer Walter Parkes, in which Parkes simply threw down a rolled-up print of Jean Leon Gerome’s famous painting of a gladiator in the Colosseum. “That’s what got me,” said Scott, “It was a totally visceral reaction to the painting.”

Gladiator by Jean Leon Gerome

Gladiator is probably best described as a visceral experience. Rather than being an historical film, Gladiator is a “human” film in a fictive historical context, whose historicity is supported by a careful reconstruction of the appearance of the world being represented. If we were to try to define Gladiator further, then it would be as the story of an individual’s struggle against injustice, and of loyalty to a threatened ideal of enlightened despotism or republican government.

It is tempting, however, to be more cynical and say that considering the lack of regard for the historical narrative, it is essentially a vehicle for great special effects and innovative action sequences. After all, the project began with only the arena in mind. The script, which needed a great deal of work, ran to a mere thirty-five pages and underwent a number of transformations throughout the shoot. Perhaps as a consequence of the simplicity of its original conception, it is difficult to find any serious message in Gladiator. If one were to look for a historical message in it, all one really finds is that Marcus Aurelius was a good man, Commodus was a bad man, life was hard and tenuous, and that Roman Republican government, namely rule by the Senate, was a cherished ideal.

commodus-is-bored

It could also be misconstrued that the principle message of the film is to reveal the horrors of gladiatorial combat, for Gladiator depicts gladiatorial contests with very startling realism, although what we see is as nothing to the vast and elaborate slaughter which often took place in the Colosseum and other arenas around the Empire. The horrors of slavery and the staging of fights to the death, resonates strongly with our modern outrage at such “entertainments.” The assertion of the humanity of the slaves and gladiators is deeply moving to us who so greatly value freedom and human life. Yet this is not really the concern of Gladiator. Indeed, if one looks at the web-site, it becomes quite clear that the film is more concerned with glorifying the arena than anything else.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is less of an anachronism. Indeed, one of the problems with the film Spartacus is that it makes too much of the slave revolt as a type of ideological movement against an oppressive and evil empire, and establishes Spartacus as a sort of proto-communist revolutionary. We cannot ignore that slavery was something almost irrevocably intrinsic to the ancient world; the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, all had slave-based economies, and it would be difficult to say that any of these civilisations were more inclusive, more tolerant, or provided a better system of social infrastructure than did Rome. Though we are appalled by slavery, to vilify theRoman Empire for employing it is rather like vilifying a child for adopting the habits of its parents, and of society at large.

Spartacus

Yet whilst Spartacus might be too redolent with Marxist overtones it is one of the few Roman epic films which attempts to remain true to the understood historical narrative of what it depicts, with the exception of its fabricated conclusion.  (Spartacus’ body was never recovered from the battlefield.) It is an excellent, humane, and deeply moving film, which has a greater “historicity” than many of its predecessors.

When asked why he thought Roman epics had vanished for forty years, Ridley Scott said that: “They reached a saturation point and then they simply went away because every story seemed to have been exhausted.”

This response might go some way to explaining why Gladiator is essentially fiction. Yet, at the same time, it might be the very thing which will allow the Roman epic to re-emerge as a genre. No one had ever heard of Maximus before, and the vast majority of the audience will never have heard of Commodus either. This has in no way hindered Gladiator’s success. Not many people outside of the United Kingdom, and probably only a limited number within it would have ever heard of William Wallace before the release of Braveheart. Roman history is so rich that countless stories could be artfully extracted without much need to change the context. Rather than turning to fiction, the time is now ripe for screen-writers to plough deeply the very rich and extensive soil of Roman history for future epics. Apart from all the smaller, human stories of individuals caught up in the events of Roman history, there is vast scope for movies on a grander scale. The late Roman empire in particular begs attention. Why is there no epic about Constantine, or of Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410? What of Attila’s failed invasion of the ailing western empire in 451 and, in particular the epic battle of the Catalaunian Plains?

The release of Gladiator is a very exciting and important event in film history. It has the potential to bring about a rebirth of a dead genre and to set a new direction for that genre. For, one of the most promising aspects of Gladiator is that it avoids the polemics against Roman rule which were characteristic of so many of its predecessors. It empathises much more successfully with the period in offering a fairer cross-section of Roman society and ideas. In the opening battle scene, Maximus’ Tribune Quintus says with derision; “People should know when they’re conquered.” To which Maximus replies, “Would you Quintus, would I?” In conversation with Marcus Aurelius, Maximus acknowledges that the world outside of Rome is dark and forbidding; “Rome is the light,” he says sincerely. The means by which the greater complexity of the Roman world is conveyed is more subtle than many other epics of this genre and less dominated by modern political, religious and ideological concerns.

Cabiria

The earliest Roman films were often rooted in a strong ideological agenda. , The 1914 Italian film Cabiria, set during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), was produced by the ultra nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio and was released shortly after the Italo-Turkish war, in which Italy conquered the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica in North Africa. Similarly, the 1937 film Scipione l’africano, depicting the life of Scipio Africanus, Rome’s most successful general during the Second Punic War, followed in the wake of Mussolini’s Ethiopian conquest.

Scipione l’Africano

The 1964 Hollywoodfilm, The Fall of the Roman Empire, reads like a positivist moral essay; striving to put across a more explicit historical argument. Starring Alec Guiness as Marcus Aurelius, and Christopher Plummer as Commodus, it has many parallels with Gladiator in that it too focuses on the accession and reign of Commodus. It essentially argues that the reign of Commodus and what took place immediately afterwards, namely the auction of the Empire to the highest bidder (it ignores the brief reign of Pertinax) was the beginning of the decline which was to lead to the Empire’s eventual “fall”, though this did not happen in the west for another two hundred and fifty years. This particular interpretation of the narrative of Roman history dates back to Gibbon, who first identified the reign of Commodus as a significant turning point after the more enlightened rule of Marcus Aurelius.

One of the central themes of The Fall of the Roman Empire, namely the social experiment of settling barbarians as farmers in Roman territory, was a massive oversimplification of an issue which, in fact, was dealt with at a painstakingly academic and philosophical level in the late Roman Empire, the consequences of which were central to the gradual devolution of Roman power in the west in the fifth century.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

It is inevitable that political and social complexities have to be glossed over in an historical film – no audience is going to sit through a film which depicts with arduous detail the mind-boggling intricacy of Roman bureaucracy – yet such complexity can be hinted at through thought-provoking ambiguity, rather than being arduously explicit. Ideally, the Roman context should be incidental to the film and less explicit, especially where long-established clichés are otherwise the only resort. Typically the Roman Empirehas been portrayed as a vicious, cruel organisation, run by ruthless madmen. Gladiator at least went some way towards suggesting that Commodus was just an example of a very cruel, weak, and over ambitious megalomaniac in a world of otherwise sane human beings with complex identities.

The 1951 MGM film Quo Vadis, however, opens with a startling and lengthy diatribe against the nature of Roman power, based entirely upon modern, Christian concepts of ethics and morality, and which is to put it mildly, anachronistic in the Empire of the 1st Century AD. Such criticisms of Roman power as did exist in the 1st century, rarely focussed on the immorality and inhumanity of gladiatorial contests or slavery, rather upon an antique perception of freedom and self-determination, which, sadly, often translated as the freedom of another aristocracy or religious oligarchy to run its own exclusive autocratic regime.

Indeed, the degree to which the Roman state is vilified in the cinema is probably only paralleled by post-war portrayals of Nazi Germany. Certainly the Roman Empire was a physically coercive entity which encouraged practices we find abhorrent, but considering the context from which it emerged, it was the paragon of ancient civilised states of the Mediterraneanand near Eastern world. The Roman Empire was an inclusive, not an exclusive system which encouraged religious freedom, (with the exception of certain troublesome dissidents who worshiped a dead carpenter), which provided immense and sophisticated public services, sanitation, education and security, which championed free trade, and which, under the pax Romana, also championed peace.

The great eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon once wrote:

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. (AD96-180).”

During Gibbon’s lifetime such an observation had much greater currency, especially when we consider that theBritish Empirehad not as yet abolished slavery by the time of his death. Clearly there is no excusing slavery in any context, but this is a modern sensibility. Even the much vaunted Athenian democracy was heavily dependent on slave-labour, and they did not offer to extend their citizenship to outsiders as the Romans did.

It is largely for this reason that Gladiator makes a departure from its predecessors. Rather than critiquing theRoman Empire as an entity, it highlights the folly and wickedness of certain individuals. It marks a turning point in the portrayal of Roman history and offers, without being especially cerebral or historically accurate, a less explicitly moralising theme and context. If its success results in the making of further such historical epics, then there might be something of a rebirth of the genre. Either way, and perhaps most importantly, enrolments in ancient history courses both at high school and university have risen dramatically in its wake. If the cinema can still inspire students to take an interest in the very distant history that underlies the culture, identity and institutions of modern western society, then this is surely a positive.

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Dirk thanked the man for the soup. He picked up the spoon, stirred the soup, then took a sip. It was hot, it was sour. It tasted like a real hot and sour soup.

Loud voices came from across to Dirk’s right. There was a table of five young locals, slightly obscured in a back corner of the restaurant. All Dirk could see was the backs of two men. They sounded drunk, but seemed to be having a good time. Fair enough, he thought. The people around here worked very hard. He was glad they got a chance to unwind.

Dirk stirred the soup and let go the spoon. It was very hot, so he turned his attention to his chai. He’d been spoiled for chai in Darjeeling, and this one was OK, but nothing special. There was too much milk and it tasted disappointingly bland. The chai in Darjeeling, along with the street food, had been the best he’d found in India. He picked up the soup spoon again. The dumplings hadn’t arrived yet. All in good time.

Outside the rapid sunset was in its final phase. The touristy streets of McLeod Ganj were already a good deal colder. The day had been quite remarkable; a blazing morning then an afternoon sun-shower, followed by a double rainbow from the valley to the snowcaps. Once the rainbows had gone, Dirk had stayed to watch the play of light and dark clouds, stretched across the rocky peaks. The altitude of the view, the contrast of the green grassed hills before the grey, snow-dusted strata of the peaks had erased his inner disquiet. Before such natural drama he could not but feel reassuringly small. He had come here to work on his patience; to get back his concentration. Not one for meditation or yoga, he was teaching himself to sit and watch.

Dirk sat and watched the drunk Tibetans. In India, people always stared at him and often approached him, but he was inclined to watch much more cautiously; sidelong glances, subtle flicks. Apart from wanting to avoid attracting attention, he was wary of offending anyone.

Two more customers entered the restaurant; a pair of Tibetan monks. They wore the deep maroon robes so prevalent in this home away from home for the Dalai Lama. Dirk felt reassured about his choice of restaurant. The new arrivals stayed in the front entrance area, near the counter, with two small wooden tables. The wooden chairs honked on the tiles as they sat down. Dirk watched them surreptitiously. He was fascinated by the local people; Tibetans, Nepalese and Ghorkas, Indians of the Himachal region, darker skinned migrants from the great Gangetic plain, all here, in the cool, clean mountains. How vast and diverse India was!

The voices of the drunken group grew louder. One of the men was clearly angry about something and banged his fist on the table, rattling the plates. They were more drunk than Dirk had originally suspected. Something was up with someone, and their mood had an urgent air.

Dirk turned away, took a sip of his soup and heard a great shout, accompanied by a crash. One of the young men was on his feet, swinging wildly, and suddenly all the others were engaged. The angry man’s chair flew back on the floor as he lunged across the table at his companions. A glass hit the deck and smashed across the tiles. The table jostled as the men all surged to defend themselves.

The angry young man – the most handsome of the bunch – tall, black-haired and with fine features now distorted by rage, threw a wild punch across the table that was dodged by his would-be victim. Another man grabbed the lunging arm and held it firm, helped a moment later by the target. The angry man was shouting loudly now; a drunken voice full of wild, impassioned rage. He was livid and convulsed with violence. The two other men got hold of his other arm, and, resisting, he thrashed about in their midst, held awkwardly across the table.

The salt cellar now hit the floor and smashed, and a moment later, another glass. The restaurant owners rushed around the corner, having been slow to react at the first crash. They saw as clearly as Dirk did how dangerous the situation was, and did not venture in, but stood watching. Dirk stood up in his chair and moved closer to the wall. He pulled the chair across in front of him and placed his back against the cold plaster. He picked up his soup and continued to sip it, watching the struggle unfold.

All the men were shouting, insisting that the man stop fighting. For a moment it seemed he might do so, and slackened slightly in their grip. Then, after a few seconds’ pause, he erupted again, thrashing his body to break free. It was a clumsy situation, with two men on one side of the table holding his right arm, and two men opposite holding his left. The angry man bent his body forward and rammed his head into the table in protest. Sweeping it from side to side, he managed not only to cut himself, but to send the remaining condiments to the floor.

Slicked now as it was with soy sauce, his feet slid on the tiles and he went down kicking, held up by the other four men. The restaurant owners were saying nothing. They must have seen how little could be done. It was simply a matter of getting the man outside without further harm to the restaurant. Yet, he was strong as an ox, and even with four men holding him, the slippery floor, the table and chairs all about made him difficult to control. They tried now to drag him towards the door, moving thus in Dirk’s direction. Dirk put his soup down and placed his hands firmly on the chair in front of him. If trouble should come his way, he wanted to be ready to defend himself. He tried to keep his face as impassive as possible; looking neither shocked nor curious. The last thing he wanted was to provoke this fellow in anyway.

Again the man tried to thrash his way out of the grasp of the four men. His eyes were red with anger and alcohol, his mouth contorted and chin hung with spittle, blood lined the crease of his frowns. He went down again, sliding to his knees, and this time took one of his minders with him. Another chair went down, and the table next to where they had been seated took a hit, sending another glass soy-sauce container to the floor. It too smashed, adding to the shards and the slipperiness. The man who had fallen cut himself on the glass and shouted angrily. He picked himself up and looked at his hand, then slammed his shoulder into the source of his woes.

The wild-man took the hit in the ribs and seemed to lose his wind momentarily. The other men holding him were talking all the while; angry and soothing, panicked and surprised. Clearly nothing they said was working, for his anger did not diminish.

They now had a good hold of him again, and were keeping him on his feet. They shifted him forward, legs kicking out at the tables. Soon they were onto dry floor, away from the tangle of chairs and tables. The angry man looked ahead at Dirk, whom he was now approaching. He stared straight into his eyes, his rage seemingly magnified, and shouted:

“Foreign devil!”

Dirk stood flat and square against the wall and let no emotion cross his face. He did not want eye-contact with the man, but he needed to know exactly what he was doing and was compelled to watch him closely. Finally his captors got him past Dirk’s table and into the entrance area. The Tibetan monks had vanished; having slipped out whilst Dirk’s eyes were elsewhere. The owners of the restaurant, three local men, stood calmly shaking their heads. They seemed more disappointed than anything else; clearly they were wise to human nature.

The group of drunken men now spilled out onto the street. The shouts continued for a moment longer, accompanied by scuffles, then vanished into the quickly cooling night. Perhaps the air would work to heal their tempers. Dirk wondered about the offence and scale of regret.

He looked at the owners and shrugged. He felt sorry for them and had a strange desire to apologise, but merely smiled in sympathy, shaking his head. The demon drink, he thought. The demon drink. He had witnessed such rages before, and had some years ago given up on alcohol as the source of too many woes. Having worked for several years as a barman, he had seen too much folly and bravado to have any time for alcoholics.

The owners moved in to begin the clean up. They worked slowly, almost timidly, still shaken by the incident. No one returned to offer recompense, nor assist with the mess. Dirk stepped forward to offer his help, but one of the men waved him back to his chair.

“Your soup is cold,” was all he said. “This is our problem.”

Dirk hovered a moment, then bent to pick up a chair and straighten a table. The man smiled at him and shook his head, before another man appeared with his dumplings.

“Eat,” said the man. “Eat.”

Cold air blew in from the doorway as the Tibetan monks returned. Dirk felt the wind go right through him, to the sadness he had been trying to fill with majesty. In the night, with the view now invisible, he must instead fill the hole with food.

He sat down and began once more to eat.

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This is really a fragment of a rant against the damage being caused by rampant economic growth around the planet. I began writing it whilst in India last year and have fleshed it out ever so slightly. It has no real beginning or ending, but I cannot quite see where it could begin and end, as it treats a subject too vast for detail. I figured that rather than agonising over what to do with it, I ought to just get it out there… So, here it is!

I see a future black with carbon smoke. Everywhere I look, I see carbon rising into the atmosphere. From factories, kitchens, chimneys, cars, bonfires and barbecues; there is a lot of burning taking place. I too am making my contribution; every time I fly or charge my phone; every time I eat, every time I turn on a light to read, even now as I type on my computer I’m emitting carbon into the atmosphere. The world is rapidly being overwhelmed by the stuff; and it’s certainly not just carbon dioxide. Methane, a gas twenty times more effective at warming the planet, is bubbling out of the melting permafrost and sea floor of far eastern Russia, and from the warming seabed of the Arctic. Already our warming has kick-started other environmental mechanisms and feedbacks; already we have reached a tipping point where a certain amount of warming is now inevitable. There has been much talk at an international level, but the biggest dent put in emissions in the last decades did not come from policy or effort, but simply from the Global Financial Crisis reducing demand. As we return slowly but surely to business as usual, the Earth continues to be threatened not by a mild warming effect, but instead by its worst-case scenario.

Such is the strength of our influence on the atmosphere already, that scientists have signalled the end of the Holocene epoch and are pushing for the present to mark the beginning of a new geological epoch dubbed the Anthropocene. It may be some time before such a designation is recognised, for one question still to be answered is just how long will the Anthropocene last? Will it last long enough to warrant being labelled as a new geological epoch? In truth, humans have already been altering the planet significantly since they first migrated out of Africa, wiped out the remaining megafauna and took up agriculture and animal husbandry. It is estimated that even as little as 8000 years ago, with a population of just 10 million, humans had altered one fifth of the Earth’s ice-free land, mostly through burning and clearing of forest. The widespread nature of the alteration derives from early practices of clearing, exhausting, then moving on to another location. Much of the land was thus in a state of recovery after being transformed by humans. In the present, the scale of transformation is staggering, and even if some catastrophic event caused a large scale reduction in the use of land, our efforts would still leave an indelible record on the environment, particularly when we consider the ongoing mass extinction of species and the unnaturally high levels of carbon in the atmosphere.

So it is that we are burning, clearing, cutting and tearing up the earth on a scale and with an impact that equates to the natural geological climate shifts the earth has undergone in its four-billion year history. All around me, here in India, the burning is just getting underway. It is happening everywhere. In 2009, I saw the countless fires burning in Bali. Even there, where much forest still remained, above everything a haze of smoke hung. From the hills near Munduk, one could see all the carbon; not black, but white, diaphanous coils of carbon dissolving into a wide flat smog across the land. Hundreds of fires, in every home, in every village. Burning off, cooking fires, fires for the amusement of children. It seemed that soon enough all the fires would join and there would no longer be forest in between. No more would the hills be clothed with trees but tamed and terraced, or stripped to rock and dirt.

Yet, Bali was still a paradise of sorts. Java, however, the most populated island on Earth was, environmentally, sinking like an overloaded ferry. What if anything, would be left in fifty years? Leonard Cohen’s lyric came to mind:

Take the only tree that’s left and stuff it up the hole in your culture.

And what was that hole? It was a general, almost endemic absence of environmental awareness, the great hole in the culture of the entire planet. Because, the simple truth is, we’re all as guilty as sin. In America, it’s mass overconsumption, rampant emissions, car dependence, land-stripping and thousands upon thousands of domestic flights. Europe likes to think they’re moving forward, yet half of what they buy is made elsewhere in unsound conditions. The developing world might pollute at will, but it’s not just domestic demand building those coal-fired power stations and dirty factories nor are they all domestic companies.

Australia, perhaps the most guilty country of all, likes to think any guilt is offset by the economics of scale. Being the fattest, greediest, laziest and most self-indulgent population on the planet, living in the largest houses is nothing to be proud of. It doesn’t matter that there are only twenty-one million of us. It is not a valid excuse.

The Australian economy grew at nearly five percent for fifteen years, with barely a hiccup. But what is the goal of this growth? What’s the point of it all? We’ve long since passed the target of general wealth. Sure, not everyone owns a house and has three cars, but there are very few genuinely poor people, and many many massively fat, greedy people living in houses with far more toilets than necessary. Is it this that we have all been striving for? Cocooning ourselves in layers of flab, lounging in unnecessarily large houses and only shaking a fist when interest rates rise and the mortgage becomes more of a burden? There is no real politics in the Australian mainstream anymore. Or rather, it is all politics and no ethics, morality, philosophy or responsibility. Of course, this is an exaggeration; there are many very committed people who are careful about how they use power, careful about where they shop and what they buy, who are sympathetic to the plight of the unfortunate, yet the bulk of the population seem to be rather selfishly indifferent. I myself could do a good deal more.

The relative indifference to the environment, as epitomised by an unwillingness to act or support government initiatives on this front, is mirrored by the selfish attitudes to refugees. In Australia, attitudes to asylum seekers have been hardening rather than softening. Do we not have enough here to share with other people? I’d consider an enviro-ecological argument against increasing the population in the country, though that rarely gets a look in in the “debate” about refugees, asylum seekers and boat people. And anyway, compassion for those who are vulnerable and in need of help will always trump it in my case. Instead, it’s always the old paradigm; refugees have it too good, they’re taking our jobs and costing us precious tax dollars. Well, the truth is that everyone in Australia could afford to give a little more, not just from their wallets but from their hearts. Two cars, three bathrooms and no fucking heart. We do very little suffering here, but around the world there are millions in a tragic limbo. Not to feel compassion for these people strikes me as a very odd thing indeed.

The Australian public has a terribly disproportionate set of values. It has been said that we are no longer living in a society, but rather, an economy. At election time, the one truly humanitarian issue on the agenda was boat people, which is odd considering that, the total number who have come to Australia in the last thirty-odd years is less than 30000, equivalent to roughly 0.14% of the population. There was no public debate about how to help these people, but only how we could stop them coming in the first place. At the election, voting intention will be dictated by financial concerns, fear and paranoia, not a moral or ethical concern about what is right or wrong. It seems that anything tantamount to making a sacrifice is off the agenda in Australia. The debate about the carbon tax is further evidence of this. Whilst there are legitimate questions about its implementation and effectiveness, the public and media response has been hugely negative, simply on account of its being a tax, irrespective of its goals or intended outcomes.

Meanwhile, here, in India, the fires are burning everywhere. The middle class, now swollen to above three-hundred million, will soon own two cars each and live in India-ready air-conditioned houses. The future is a fat and pampered world of skin-whitening products, dandruff-free hair, big fridges, filtered drinking water, cheap domestic flights, and cricket, cricket, cricket! – the bhang of the masses.

Everywhere the fires are burning. The roadsides are rubbish-heaps. There are few if any garbage bins, and most people don’t use them anyway. The West preaches incessantly, and with immense hypocrisy, yet there is no question, what is happening in India does not look like sustainable development. India will swallow itself whole; the people will cut and burn all they can, they will eat up everything, except the cows who graze the rubbish-heaps, chewing their way through plastic and cardboard. What is dumped is picked over by the poor. Thus, to some degree, recycling is an active, ongoing process. But most of what is dumped is heaped into piles, which are then set alight. One cannot even begin to calculate the sheer amount of carbon that is going into the atmosphere from this source alone. Nor is it any surprise that so many Indians have respiratory problems. The burning rubbish, mixed with human excrement, is, more often than not, plastic waste. How much longer can people go on breathing in burning plastic in the cities?

The roads are already choking with motor vehicles, and whilst many of these, by virtue of their small motors, are, relatively speaking, low emission, they will soon be joined by millions more cars with larger engines and power-hungry air-con. In both India and China the land is drying up. Not only have there been problems with failing rainfall, but the water tables and aquifers have been tapped to such a point that soon there will be no ground water to rely upon as backup. China this year has faced the worst ever drought in its long history, and if the rains fail again and the aquifers are gone, how will they eat but by importing even more food from abroad, thus raising the already skyrocketing price of food.

How anyone could pull a rabbit out of this hat, is a mystery to me. I want to be hopeful, but my inclination is to despair. A respected science fiction author, whose name escapes me, when asked what the Earth might be like at the end of this century, stated, in so many words, “I can’t see over the vast pile of corpses.” I hope to goodness that we can avoid the worst of the harm that is already being done, but the reality seems to be one of putting things off until tomorrow. The only problem is that tomorrow is already yesterday.

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I have recently been through an awful personal moral and ethical crisis over something I ought to have sorted out a good deal earlier in my life. Having been challenged on my use of the word “retarded” as a synonym for “stupid” and having initially defended the use of the word, I have, after much anguished consideration, made  a pledge not to use this word ever again.

The noun “retard,” and the adjective “retarded” are certainly common enough in local parlance. Indeed, they are widespread in the language of people in most English-speaking countries, and are especially common in the UK, Australia and the United States. I first came to use these words in high school, along with other unpleasantries such as “spaz”, and at the time thought little of it. It’s fair to say that, as a teenager in a boys’ high school, it was difficult to avoid hearing these words, and there was little discouragement from peers regarding their use.

In retrospect it seems like a habit one ought to have grown out of, especially considering there was no intended animosity towards people with intellectual or physical disabilities. My parents would have whacked me if I’d ever expressed prejudice against such people and my father was particularly tough about the matter as his sister had spent her life in care, having had a severe Autism Spectrum Disorder. My father had been left in charge of her by the untimely death of his parents when he was in his early teens and he was fiercely dedicated to ensuring that she was well looked after.

I used to enjoy visiting Diana in the home where she resided, despite her almost complete inability to communicate verbally. I was quite young at the time and all I remember of her was her love of bananas and how much they excited her whenever they were produced. My father had explained to me that, in effect, her brain had not developed beyond the age of three, though it was, of course, just a layman’s explanation for a young child. It was certainly a confusing and uncomfortable experience for me at that age, but most children are capable of a most unconditional black and white morality, and my attitude towards her, and to people who were equally disadvantaged, was entirely sympathetic.

It thus surprises me when I consider, in retrospect, the disconnect between this emotional response and the use of words such as “spaz” and “retard” in high school and beyond. Our teachers certainly did not condone it, although some were prone to call us half-wits, morons and idiots when riled. I guess I must have understood the link between the words and the people about whom they had originally been used, but their use was so commonplace, I simply came to regard them as another type of insult or derogatory adjective.

When recently challenged on my use of the words “retard” and “retarded”, my response was not exactly co-operative. I argued, as I have in the past, that I bore no malice whatsoever to physically or intellectually disabled people and that in fact the use of the words was perfectly legitimate as they had, in my mind, become detached from their original use. The origin of the word dates back to the term “mental retardation”, which was used in a very general sense to describe people with an Intelligence Quota below 70. It was not initially intended to be a pejorative, but certainly came to be used as such shortly after its deployment to describe a certain type of intellectual disability. Indeed, in some states in the US it is still used in an official capacity, despite widespread opposition to this.

Though I am not here to defend myself, it is worth pointing out that several other very common words, which many people find pejorative, but not particularly offensive to disabled people, had precisely the same origins.

In 19th and early 20th century medicine and psychology, an “idiot” was a person with a very severe mental retardation. In the early 1900s, Dr. Henry H. Goddard proposed a classification system for mental retardation based on the Binet-Simon concept of mental age. Individuals with the lowest mental age level (less than three years) were identified as idiots; imbeciles had a mental age of three to 7 years, and morons had a mental age of seven to ten years.

These words have lost their medical definition to a very great degree, and have thus been neutralised into mere general insults. The same, no doubt, will ultimately happen with the word “retarded”. Yet, having been told by my significant other that she found the words “retard” and “retarded” offensive, and knowing that they have had a more recent association with intellectual disability, I ought to have given it more consideration.  Despite this, in my at times annoyingly obstructive manner, I continued to defend the use of these words as a commonplace, unrelated to disability, partly because I had used them for so long and did not feel them to be necessarily discriminatory or offensive, but also because I have often argued that no word really should be taboo.

Political correctness has long been a hot topic on the left of politics, as well as the right, where opposition to it has been strong. I have always been a strong advocate of non-sexist language, at least since I developed more intellectually and personally in my mid to late twenties, when I first really became aware of the issue through gender studies and Labor party initiatives. I felt quite strongly that non-sexist and non gender specific language, should be used both officially and at a personal level. Indeed, I  once had an awful argument with an ex-girlfriend’s father about the matter. In the aftermath of that heated argument, I came away wondering about whether or not one really could restrict the language people used, whether or not this would constitute an appropriate form of legislation, or a too intrusive level of oversight. My attitude became more ambivalent, at a personal level, but not at the official level. I was certainly not about to ditch my opposition to the use of sexist language, yet, to a degree, I began to believe that language ought to be contextual. As a friend once said, “Life is not PC.” As a writer, one ought to be free to use language as one wishes, appropriate to character and context. Of course, if one were to use a word like “retard” in the presence of someone with an intellectual disability, however unwittingly, it would no doubt cause immense offence.

As was rightly pointed out to me recently, however, the use of the word is not appropriate in any context. What I failed to realise, and what I now deeply regret not seeing at the time, is that using a word like “retarded” is not merely wrong contextually, but it is just plain wrong. There are simply too many people in society to whom it might cause offence; too many people who may have been subjected to the word as a form of discrimination against their disability. I was grudgingly willing to concede that I would not use the term in the presence of the lovely person who had upbraided me about it, but I still felt I had a right to use it as I saw fit in other situations.

What now astonishes me, having seen how my ignorance has caused potentially irreparable harm to a beautiful relationship, is that I actually felt the freedom to use these words was worth defending. Some freedoms, certainly, are worth fighting for, and in some countries, where words of opposition and revolution are repressed, there is every reason to fight for semantic freedom. Yet why on earth would anyone choose to defend the use of a word like “retard”? What is the objective?

What I failed to see, probably in part because I’ve heard the word so often in every workplace I’ve ever been in, is that using such a word has the potential to do immense harm to one’s reputation and character. I was blind to this, like a total and utter fool, and in due course, the consequences have been, to say the least, devastating on a personal level. It is not only someone I care very deeply about that I have upset, but I have upset myself over this matter and it has precipitated a personal crisis of great magnitude about what sort of person I actually am.

I have long considered myself to be someone with good ethics, who took the time to find out what was happening to people in the world and try, where possible to inform others. I was never very active politically, but in social circles, particularly during my later years at university, I had a reputation as a firebrand who railed against oppression, discrimination and injustice. I have never been afraid to take people on and have, on one occasion, been thrown out of a party for causing a disturbance when someone started complaining about asylum seekers and proved to be intransigent on the matter. And yet, all the while, there I was using a word like “retard”, giving next to no thought to just how much offence this could potentially cause.

We all make mistakes, and there are things about which we can be very wrong indeed. At times I know I can be arrogant, I can be inflexible, I can be stubborn to the point of stupidity, but I can admit that I was wrong. Sometimes this comes too late, and the damage cannot be undone, but I am willing to put it on the record that I was very very wrong indeed on this matter. There is no context in which it is OK to use a word like “retard” or “retarded”. There is no situation where it is appropriate, unless, of course, one is writing the words of a character in a literary composition of some sort – and even then, it should be discouraged unless one wishes to make that character out to be an intellectually careless or unpleasant person. I, however, have three degrees and should know a hell of a lot better.

I should also like to extend this embargo to the word “gay”. It too is very commonly used, and by no means necessarily in a manner designed to be offensive to gay people. Indeed, I have worked with gay people who have continually said “Oh, that’s so gay.” In retrospect, however, whilst it might be appropriate for gay people to use a word like “gay” in such a sense, just as many African Americans feel comfortable using the word “nigger” with people of their colour, it is not at all appropriate for me to use it. Not only does it send all the wrong signals, suggesting a prejudice I do not hold, but it could, if used before gay people, cause immense offence.

I shall not be using these words in future, and I would encourage others not to do so either. It is careless, potentially offensive, and might cause harm to one’s reputation to do so. I would strongly advise against it and regret any harm that I may have caused in the past through my own carelessness on this front. Sometimes in life, we have to admit that we are wrong. Just because one has shown an ethical correctness in many areas, does not mean one cannot still be ignorant and wrong about others. It is best to listen and learn from those whose arguments show a superior degree of consideration on moral or ethical questions, especially when their argument is not based on a religious principle, but rather sound reason. I cannot dispute that these words are capable of causing offence. Indeed, I did know it already, but failed to correct myself out of the misguided belief that my use of it was inoffensive in its intention. Well, I certainly offended someone, and now I’m paying the price. I hope that I never again allow recalcitrance to get in the way of learning to be a better person.

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