Friday, May 18, 2007

Forgotten Soldiers

The end of April marked the anniversary of the fall of Vietnam. 30th April 1975 and the last helicopters lifted from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

Yet it was not just Americans, or Vietnamese, fighting in that war. There were others. People who have suffered since, unacknowledged. The Montagnards, the indigenous people of central Vietnam, have suffered extensively since the conflict (many had sided with the American forces).

In addition, friends of mine were caught up in that war. Friends like Mike, a former Special Forces sergeant with the Australian army, but originally a British emigré. Now dead, Mike's words bear the stark reality of war - and a warning for politicians who beat the hot-headed drums of conflict. Here are Mike's words:

“The one thing that sticks in my mind, even 28 years after the event, is the very first time I killed somebody. And that person was a 14-year-old girl.”

“OK, she was trying to kill me at the time, but after it was all over, and I’d put about 60 rounds into her, everything – my schooling, my religious beliefs, and all the beliefs my step parents had tried to instil in me – went down the drain. Because I’d committed in my mind, as a human being, the ultimate sin – taking someone else’s life.”

“I never ever thought it would happen that quick. It shouldn’t have happened that quick, because we weren’t in an ‘operational’ situation. We were supposed to be on an ‘acclimatisation’ patrol. And we were in the wrong place at the wrong time and so were those people...and she was trying to kill me.”

“I just let rip and at that stage thought I was opening fire on a soldier. But then you see something roll down in front of you and you realise what you’ve done.”

“First comes the stillness. You’ve been moving at an incredible rate, even though it seems like slow motion, and then nothing , but nothing, is said for about two or three seconds. Suddenly, you get up. With that, two things happen – you’re ecstatic that you survived; then you walk up to what you’ve done – the incredible destruction you’ve visited on another human being – and emotionally, you’re dead.”

“You look down upon this ‘thing’, the body, as a lump of meat or an object. Until you have to touch it. Then you see something. Like with this girl. When I rolled her over her long hair came down. And then all of a sudden the feelings start coming in and you cannot help but think ‘what have I done...what have I done?’ Then you think ‘Christ, are they really the enemy or just innocent people going through?’”

“Then you look for the weapon and you find it, and there’s a great sigh of relief. After that, you think – because of your upbringing – ‘this person had a family and friends’ and you have now stopped that. Then it hits you and you start shaking...it took me a long time to get over it. I was shaking and howling like a baby for weeks afterwards.”

“Why? Because it was a girl for a start; a kid secondly; thirdly and most importantly, everything that I had been taught in my life, morally, just went down the drain. Totally. In one instant. The whole thing lasted maybe 20 – 25 seconds. And that 25 seconds changed my life completely.”

“They shouldn’t have been there. But they were, it happened, and what more can you say? After the first time, you don’t shake anymore.”


***

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Back to Jack

Something I'm working on now, non-fiction...

Back to Jack

I thought of them all – the old Jews I had met, the villains, the gangsters, the grime boys, the hijabis, George's folk, the street preachers, even the homeless I had served in the shelters.

I thought of George Orwell, and the street "toms"; the sounds and smells creeping through the thin walls of the bedsit I shared with Kuwaitis and Pakistanis. That creeping sense of surrealism as I sat drinking in a bar opposite a masjid or listening to the whispers of Kaddish [prayer for the dead] in one of the last remaining shuls [synagogues], nestled down the road from The Blind Beggar, where gangster George Cornell was shot by the Krays.

It was here that I had smoked shishe [water pipe] with once-feared men turned-holy, watching old Tower House, "that notorious doss house" – in which both Jack London and Orwell, Stalin and Trotsky had spent nights in rope beds – now turning from crack den into glorious apartments.

And like Jack those many moons ago, I smiled.

After all, this was Limehouse. The renovated wharves and riverside townhouses hid horrors, ancient and modern, which the polite "west" of town had ever tried to ignore. Bustling Banglatown and Monica Ali were but a mile or two away, but there were worlds which the rich and comfortable barely sensed, places which made them quicken their pace for a few steps, after which they would shake their heads and slow again, laughing at their own fears.

Conrad's "adventurers and the settlers; kings' ships and the ships of men on 'Change; captains, admirals, the dark "interlopers" of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned "generals" of East India fleets" may have been long gone and money had certainly poured into their wake. The glass and steel on the waterfront alone spoke of that; the German-made cars in underground garages and the sight of expensive waterside bistros overlooking each other testament to some change at least.

The Prospect of Whitby where he once drank was just down the road at Wapping, but the rest of Dickens' world seemed to have disappeared, too. In Our Mutual Friend, Limehouse was a "squalid maze of streets and alleys of miserable houses let out into single rooms." Most of the East Enders were sharks: the gabbling alcoholic Mr Dolls, the predatory Rogue Riderhood, the cunning Silas Wegg. Now I could stroll from here and look at adverts for million-pound townhouses and one-bed apartments trading for a cool quarter of a million each.

Of course, it wasn't always like this. Not so long ago, in the fevered imagination of the early 20th century tabloids, this was where Fu Manchu had roamed, sparked by rumours of a shadowy underworld figure, the Brilliant Chang:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government--which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.


Back in "the war to end all wars", relations between Chinese men and white women in the East End fast became an issue of national concern. The Chinese round here were scapegoats: their lack of integration represented the breakdown of social order, whilst as a bachelor community they posed a sexual and racial threat. Anxiety about the "inscrutable Chinamen" who dwelt at the hub of Britain's empire fed the myth of an Oriental criminal conspiracy operating from within the capital.

Yet Sax Rohmer and Jack London's "yellow peril" had long-since departed for Soho. This was Chinatown no more, and had not been for many years. Surely the lascars and opium dens which had once welcomed Dorian Gray and Sherlock Holmes had gone, too? And surely modern Britain had learned not to demonise a foreign community again, with its different skin and different religion, during a time of terrorism and confusion...?

I sat there and this time I laughed. I laughed at the old Christian lady, telling me Islam was a wicked faith. At the proud whites four miles down the road in Barking, who talked of Africans getting fifty grand for housing in Essex. And at the earnest, middle-aged women I saw lapping up tales of mythic Brick Lane, whilst young hedonists strolled its length and proclaimed their new ownership, oblivious to curry-house touts quietly dealing under their noses.

This was a now a place of wealth and opportunity, sitting astride the largest sporting event ever to grace the planet: the 2012 Olympics. Not the terrible, gin- and opium-ridden abyss of the 19th century, as Oscar Wilde had written not far from where I now smoked and drank by the river:

The hideous hunger for opium began to gnaw at him. His throat burned and his delicate hands twitched nervously together. He struck at the horse madly with his stick...

The door opened quietly, and he went in without saying a word to the squat misshapen figure that flattened itself into the shadow as he passed. At the end of the hall hung a tattered green curtain that swayed and shook in the gusty wind which had followed him in from the street.

He dragged it aside and entered a long low room which looked as if it had once been a third-rate dancing-saloon. Shrill flaring gas-jets, dulled and distorted in the fly-blown mirrors that faced them, were ranged round the walls. Greasy reflectors of ribbed tin backed them, making quivering disks of light.

The floor was covered with ochre-coloured sawdust, trampled here and there into mud, and stained with dark rings of spilled liquor. Some Malays were crouching by a little charcoal stove, playing with bone counters and showing their white teeth as they chattered.

In one corner, with his head buried in his arms, a sailor sprawled over a table, and by the tawdrily painted bar that ran across one complete side stood two haggard women, mocking an old man who was brushing the sleeves of his coat with an expression of disgust.

"He thinks he's got red ants on him," laughed one of them, as Dorian passed by. The man looked at her in terror and began to whimper.


But I had seen all this, and worse. And I had seen it here.

*

Outland

Another snippet of fantasy fiction...

*

They said that you came to Outland to forget. That there, in its ancient memories and horrors, you could lose yourself. A world of promise they called it. But it held terrors… and secrets, too.

The long, keening lament carried over the valley. A single figure leant against a charred post. Bent and twisted shapes lay about her. Many had been burned. The sweet smell of pork lifted over the charnel house nightmare. The old lady was wracked with sobs.

“My only son, my only son….” she crooned, over and over, hugging herself.

The dust cloud hung in the distance. The stamp of many feet had torn the ground, and crops, around. It was said you came here to forget - but how could you forget that which took all from you and left you so little…?


Slavers.

*

The gleam from his gold tusks was muted in the shadow, and flame, reflected from outside the Slave Pens. The brooding officer of the Theatre licked his lips, and counted… no, not enough, not enough by half! Heads would roll if the wiseguys didn’t bring in more next month: even a madeguy like himself wasn’t immune to the powers of the Clan.

“Carruthers!” he shouted at a stout, cigar-smoking goblin overseer, busy cracking his whip over struggling near-naked and chained gnomes. “Get out that abacus o’ yers and work aat ‘ow many we need fer the big shipment next moon! An’ make it sharpish.”

He pondered: now, where would they choose…? One of the neutral cities, most likely… Ratchet? Booty Bay? Even here on his shattered homeland? This would take careful planning…

*

A thousand rumours had hit the continent. A mercenary army - of demons they said! - had swept all before it. Worse, it was capturing and enslaving each settlement it overran. The livestock had been violated, the womenfolk eaten, and the kids put out to pasture… or was it the other way around? The fog of war confused all…

Talk of a travelling troupe of players… death and pestilence… and the feared Dance of Death… would anyone provide salvation?


*

The squeals from tiny mouths. The whimpering of the females. The cringing kids snivelling under the blows of the whip… ah, gnomes, always his favourite transport.

The overseer checked his papers. Yup, everything in order. Now just wait for transport through to Thrallmar, then out the portal and back home. Badlands a walk in the park compared to the nightmares of Outland. And from there Booty Bay and Ratchet - beer, babes and bargains to be had! No more demonic kin to deal with. Well, apart from the boss…

“Right, yer wiseguys, start earnin’ yer keep. Move out!”

Two-Smile springs a trap

This is just a little sample of the fantasy work. It was based around a little incident in World of Warcraft, where the character Opathu (Orc slaver) captured and killed a human character who had tried to set him up:

The fisherman sat, as he had always done. He raised his head. The lick of salt on his face; the sun drying his skin; the flying fish skimming the wavetops, jumping for life from unseen hunters. Fire season, and Azeroth itself boiled. He took a swig from his bottle, wiped his neck. He nodded to the boy, who flicked the nets out to sea again.

Seconds later, the boy began gibbering, pointing. The poor mute, dumb since birth, was staring towards the ocean. Where land met water, out beyond the pontoon, something was emerging.

The old man set the bottle down slowly. He lifted his hand to brow, shielding his eyes. Figures… great hulking shapes, shadows. The glint of sunlight on cutlass, leathers dark from the water. Tauren, orc, Sin’dorei, trolls, all emerging, grinning, wading towards the shallows... yet silent. Just the call of the gulls, the gentle lash of waves upon the sand.

He signalled the mute to retreat. Gathering his fishing gear, he turned towards the port. Nothing good ever came of days like this. Best for the honest to make their way to huts and inns. Leave trouble to the heroes.

Fantasy writings

This may sound a touch bizarre to those of you that know me, or my work, but I have a secret: for many years now, I have been a roleplayer. That is, one who adopts a "role", a "character", rather like an actor in a play or film. Only this was an interest which began with pen and paper roleplaying games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, back when I was a teenager (many moons ago).

Roleplaying is something I've dabbled in, on and off, for years now. I no longer do that much of it, but like many others I've found myself ensared by the mighty World of Warcraft. There I throw my cares and stresses to the wind, playing a variety of weird and wonderful creatures. I've even found it easier to overcome my writers block on "serious" subjects (my non-fiction work) by writing small snippets of fantasy fiction. These snippets revolve around my character, Opathu, a comical Orcish slaver and "wiseguy" gangster. Very Terry Pratchett, basically, with an adult humour attached. Perhaps I shall use Opathu as a vehicle for some future Pratchett-like writings...

So yes, whilst I have travelled to wars, met gangs, religious extremists and seen ugly reality, close up, I enjoy nothing better than relaxing by throwing off my own identity for a couple of hours, supping a fine malt whisky and leading Opathu and friends into all sorts of bizarre adventures.

Strange life, ain't it?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Will she or won't she?

This fascinating piece on the BBC website looks at the furore surrounding the new French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his possibly estranged wife, Cecillia.

"Other nations have soap operas to keep them entertained. France has its own real-life political drama, which has so far kept millions tuned in - from the gripping episodes during the long-term feud between Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, and his former mentor, the outgoing President Jacques Chirac, to the recent cliff-hanger of the sporadic absences of Cecilia from her ambitious husband's side."

..."the couple had a well-publicised split when Cecilia left Mr Sarkozy in May 2005 for several months for the international communications consultant, Richard Attias, confiding to friends that she had had enough of being treated like "part of the furniture".

The rumours flew on the internet, and among Paris-based journalists. But when Paris Match published a series of photos of Cecilia with her lover in New York, it was a step too far.

The editor of the magazine, Alain Genestar, lost his job - the result, most believe, of severe pressure from above. France's new president has been known to ring editors personally in fury when upset by coverage, and is said to have a long memory for journalistic slights.

Happily for relations between the French media and their new president, Cecilia returned to Mr Sarkozy's side a few months after the split, in January 2006. Only a few newspapers had reported his affair - during her absence - with a French political journalist.

Over the past month, there has been little coverage in the French media of Cecilia's on-off presence. Mr Sarkozy is a close friend of many of France's media barons."


All this is rather different to the puritanical frothing, in the USA, over Monica Lewinsky's "smoking" of a certain "cigar" in Bill Clinton's company back in 1995/6...