Categories
Musings

From the Pages of a Soldier’s Diary…

By Mike Smith

My adoptive father was too old for military service when war broke out in 1939, but young enough by 1941 to be sent to India with the RAF (Royal Air Force), where he stayed until after that war’s end.

I’ve served, but not in an army, for five years under difficult circumstances, though nowhere near as difficult, and not half a world away from everything I knew about and had been led to believe. So, I have only an inkling of the stress he must have been under.

I have a couple of tiny diaries that he kept. Diaries were illegal for soldiers, I believe, which might explain their size. But they were sufficient for what he had to record, which by the second volume had reduced mostly to the chiselled capitals, day after day, of no mail.

I had, and to my regret, lost, a small pamphlet of Hindustani, issued to him by the Wild Woodbines cigarette brand. I can still count to ten – ek, doe, teen* and some more but probably not with good inflection. And phrases, the meanings of which have faded, can be brought to mind and tongue like fragments of old tunes. For a short time during my childhood, my father employed a man from the sub-continent, and he taught me a little more. I suspect he was badly treated, perhaps unknowingly, probably without conscious malice, by the other workers and left under circumstances that smacked, even to my child’s eye and ear, of dogs going to live on a farm.

His very presence, I think, must have owed something to my father’s experience of India. It had pervaded his consciousness and never left him. Neither did the malaria he had caught there. Throughout my childhood in the fifties, I was a chota wallah*, and slept in a charpoy, and was exhorted to jaldi jao*, not, I suspect, the politest way to summon or dismiss someone.

Quite co-incidentally I encountered an ‘old soldier’ of doubtful veracity, who plied me with British Army issue ration blocks dated to the 1940s, among which were ‘curry’, probably of the lamb or goat variety. To these, water was added, and the mush boiled. The smell was nice. I liked curry. But father would light a cigar, just as he did when our dog farted, and he’d reminisce about India, not fondly. The poverty and dirt had appalled him. He had misunderstood, or at least not become aware of the taboos on which hand did what. Yet he’d taken part in a failed distribution of tinned beef raided from the quartermaster’s stores, equally appalled at people literally dying in the streets of starvation, while the cinema reassured British troops of the vast food supplies kept for emergencies.

The Hindus had refused the meat, with a hostility that he never understood, but their refusal in the face of death both amazed him, and, I believe, destroyed his faith in the religion of his own country — he had a pious sister who, he told me, could never have made such a sacrifice for her faith. He had a brother-in-law too, who was a conscientious objector, and would never hear a word said against him. I think the Indian experience might have contributed to that. He told me also of a hut full of his comrades being ‘rescued’, from a harmless snake that was occupying the threshold, by one of the punka wallahs*, a man who never by word or smirk, he said, ever betrayed their moment of terror.

Sadly, my father died before I was old enough to have a really grown-up conversation with him about it.

So, India, though I’ve never been there, and though I’ve never talked to more than a handful of people who have lived there, has always been on the periphery of my life. My father had a camera with him and was far more of a photographer than he was a diarist. The black and white contact prints — from a Leica 35mm I believe — show jungles and deserts and temples and street scenes, even those streets with the dying upon them. They show servicemen in shorts and tropical kit, mostly standing in front of vehicles or planes. They show local workers on government service, which may or may not be the source of an acronym used in pay-books that has become tainted with misuse.

Since a short trip to China in the 1980s where a man dressed in military uniform welcomed us at Beijing airport with a smile (the smile seeming more fundamental than the uniform, I recognised he was just like me), I’ve believed we are all closer than we are distant, though we often stand or crouch on different sides of barricades erected in error and folly and for the benefit of those who would control us.

Recently I’ve had the good fortune to be rewarded with commendations and prizes in a series of flash fiction competitions run out of India, and to have the occasional piece taken for use in journals. For the years that I ran my BHDandMe blog, the 3rd largest group of readers was from India. Perhaps that drew me to reading writers whose names I don’t know how to pronounce and whose landscapes I have never seen except on a screen. And that’s been good for me, and in a strange way has brought me closer not only to them, but to the memory of my father.

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*ek, do, teen…: 1, 2,3… counting in Hindustani

*chota wallah: small man

*jaldi jao: Go fast

*punkah wallah: manual fan operators.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Slices from Life

Me and James Joyce in Trieste

By Mike Smith

I visited the city in the year of the Brexit vote, conscious that I might never set foot on the mainland of my own continent again. I always give Trieste that extra lift at the end: tree-est-ee. Some say it flat: tree-est. I wondered which was right and kept my ears open. I heard both but I like to think that as you read you pronounce it Trieste.

The buildings of Trieste are massive, solid, and looked recently restored, seeming too new to be as old as they are. This was once the only port for the whole of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its fourth largest city. One time naval officer, Baron Von Trapp, must have known it and his first father-in-law’s British torpedoes must have been deployed here. High, squared city blocks with rows of filing cabinet windows housed thousands of administrators, civil servants and shipping agents who ran the empire’s import and export trade.

Umberto Saba’s statue at Trieste

A cold wind blew through the square the afternoon that I was there, though the sky was sheer blue and the autumn sun harsh. That wind blows often, I suspect. The statue of Italian poet, Umberto Saba, outside the bookshop he used to run shows the hem of his long coat flapping, the collar turned up. I’d never heard of Saba, but the cafes around the city centre have his photograph and information panels as well as those for James Joyce.

James Joyce lived here briefly, writing Ulysses, and I wonder to what extent the city reminded him of Dublin. No Liffey sticking out its tongue, but the more formal Canal Grande, straight sided and stone lined, runs down from the Piazza Saint Antonio towards the sea, crossed by the bridge on which Joyce stands — loiters, one commentator says.

The statute seemed somehow smaller than life sized. Joyce seems dazed, hand in pocket, dreaming, perhaps, of Molly Bloom’s ‘melons melonous’, or recalling the windows of high class clothes shops in the city centre, filled with ladies’ lingerie, “wondrous gowns and costliest frillies. For him!”

Could it have been the shops here, rather than Brown Thomas on Dublin’s Grafton Street, that really inspired the scene in which Bloom himself gazes on silks and satins, and ‘mutely’ craves ‘to adore’? Leaning against a wall, high up above the city I recalled the wall against which Milo O’Shea leans in Joseph Strick’s film of the Ulysees. Were it not so clean and well tended, I might think Trieste reminiscent of ‘dear, dirty, Dublin’.

A friend had driven me the two thousand kilometres to see that Joycean statue and to be seen by it — in both senses of the phrase. A pointless piece of literary homage that we’d talked about making for a decade and more.

Trieste seemed a cold city, and not just because of that wind. The people here look you in the eye and weigh you up. They don’t fawn or fall over you with welcomes, but judge, perhaps rightly, that you have done wisely to visit them. It was late October, and though unseasonably sunny the sensible tourists, and perhaps all of the English save us, had gone. A few kilometres out of the city a grid of buoys floated, bereft of their summer moorings. Beyond the flat-calm, azure Adriatic, towards the west, the buildings of — could it be? –Venice, caught the autumn sun and glistened like sugar cubes.

 A broad, stone pier juts out into the water at the centre of the bay. Here large ships must once have landed their cargoes. Now the curious and the adventurous risk that biting wind and stroll out to take in, briefly, the view back across the city, which folds out on each side, and climbs in orange pan-tiles the hill behind the crust of square-set buildings to lose itself in the thick mixed woods of the hinterland.

 Abandoned cranes and the shells of warehouses stand beyond the railway station to the west, and to the east a skyline of newer warehouses and cranes shows. An old stone fortress sits dead centre among the rooftops.

Between the promenade and the city, Mercedes, BMWs, and Audis fill the main road. We crossed into the Piazza del ‘Unita Italia’, and considered briefly a table at Harry’s, but settled for a local pizzeria where we dined beneath a garish painting of Westminster Bridge.

 Just off that square a band of locals stood a folding table bearing leaflets of a Trieste independence party and the flags of America and the UK. We wandered over to find out more. Trieste had been ‘given’ to Italy after the First World War but after the Second it was made over to an Allied Commission. A friendly English speaker explained to us. Out-Brexiting the Brexiteers, this happy band saw themselves as citizens of a potential city state and why not, if those up-market shops were anything to go by? I can imagine London with its Home Counties going the same way one day. 

There were beggars, such as we had seen all the way across Europe – our sensitivity heightened by the refugee crisis, and a post-Brexit sense that we were seeing a continent that would not be the same, for us at least, ever again. The supplicants seemed mostly of Eastern origin and in the Piazza Saint Antonio, hidden entirely beneath an orange cloak, richly embroidered, was one especially chilling. She — for some reason, though I could see no face or body, I thought of it as a woman — had placed a plastic cup on the ground, and wore a black sheep’s head, curled horns as dark as the tight curls of wool that covered it. The lower jaw, with slow, un-rhythmic persistence, made a flat, un-resonant clack, clack, clack, clack, that haunted the streets around the square.

James Joyce’s Statue Via Roma, 34122 Trieste TS, Italien. Courtesy: Wiki

To fulfil my bucket-list desire, I would not merely see, but be photographed not noticing the statue of James Joyce. I took an ancient Sony Handycam. Just get me crossing the bridge and passing him by, I told my friend. It’s easy to use, I said. Hold it like a trumpet, and you can operate all the controls with the fingers of one hand.

When I returned my friend was holding the camera like a saxophone. I think I missed you, he said. Do you want to do it again?

The sheer Joycean comic irony of the situation was too good to undo.

It’ll be fine, I said, and we drove the two thousand kilometres home. 

Curthwaite- Worlington-Heidelberg-Venice-Trieste. October 2016

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

A Fresh Perspective: The Bull that Thought

By Mike Smith

I have an instinctive abhorrence for blood-sports. I can remember when many years ago Woman’s Hour on BBC’s Radio 4 misjudged its audience and promoted a female bullfighter in a spirit of misguided equality and was roundly condemned.

So, you might find it surprising that one of my favourite Kipling stories is about a bull-fight. ‘The Bull That Thought’, from the 1926 collection, Debits and Credits – home of several favourites, including the clever ‘The Eye of Allah’, and the poignant ‘The Gardener’ — is one of those Kipling stories that stands out, not merely from his own work but from just about anything else one might have read.

A framed story, like many Kipling stories, it is one of those told to its first person narrator, in this case in the presence of the reader, by one of those “men on steamers and trains” who Kipling reminds us in that much earlier tale Preface, which seems both tale and preface, is where stories come from The tale is told over a magnum (or probably larger) of fine old champagne, “between fawn and topaz, neither too sweet nor too dry”, by a Monsieur Voiron.

The eponymous bull is called Apis, and in Voiron’s youth was itself a calf. Voiron has been brought up on a cattle farm among herdsmen, and bulls, in The Crau and the Camargue regions of France. Retired after a life in the Colonial Service, and returned to his family farm, Voiron recounts the tale of Apis, who far from being a mindless beast has brought intelligence to the games of bull-fighting that were played in the yards and fields of his homeland.

In fact, Apis has shown himself to be an exceptional tactician, and a “natural murderer”  “almost indecent but infallibly significant”. The ownership of the bull passes into the hands of Christophe, a peasant herdsman on the estate, and he sells the bull to Spaniards, who fight their bulls, not with padded horns, but to death of either bull or matador. Voiron tells how he and Christophe travel across the border to see what must be Apis’ first and final fight.

Slightly more than half of this fourteen-page story is devoted to the description of that fight. All the tricks and turns that the bull has learned in his youth – leading to the death of horses and other bulls – is put to the test as Apis faces Villamarti, a local matador out to show his prowess. The bull destroys the forces sent against him, tricking them into errors, killing both horses and men, yet managing too, to convince the crowd, at least to begin with, that he is making merely clumsy mistakes, rather than clever ambushes. Finally, having destroyed Villamarti’s reputation, he is left in a bullring which, traditionally he cannot be allowed to leave alive. Already the Guardia Civile are handling their carbines.

Salvation comes in the shape of Christo, who like Christophe is a peasant herdsman at heart. He is also the oldest, wisest, and dullest of the matadors against whom the bulls have been pitted. He alone recognises the cleverness, and value of Apis, and the bull recognises him too. The two of them put on a marvellous display, edging nearer to the gate from which no bull has exited the arena under its own steam. Finally, Christo’s cloak thrown over the bull’s back, the old matador demands the gate be opened for him and his friend. Amazingly it is. The bull has spared him, and he has saved it. Both know the game they have played and won.

Finishing his tale, Voiron confesses that he and Christophe did not see the next bull – “an unthinking black Andalusian” — killed, for they were weeping like children. He ends the story by proposing a toast ‘to her’, and Kipling phrases it with just a hint of ambiguity as to just who that ‘her’ might be.

It’s not simply the story of the underdog winning that I like. Apis is hardly the underdog, even when outnumbered in the bullring! It’s what the story reminds me of about Kipling. Because of his enthusiasm for Empire, and the association of that Empire, despite its Britishness, with England, we can be fooled into thinking of Kipling as an English writer. But in reality, he was much broader than that.

His British soldiers, of the ‘Soldiers Three’ stories, are stereotypes of working-class voices from several regions of Britain, but none of them have Kipling’s voice. They seem as foreign to him as the Muslim and Hindu ayahs, servants and soldiers of his India, perhaps even more so.  And in the story ‘An Habitation Enforced’, it’s tempting to see the American and his wife who become nouveau Lords of the Manor in the English village to which they have moved as proxies for Kipling and his Sussex house, Batemans. In ‘The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat’, and They, Kipling’s narrators slip easily into the identity of the British Establishment, but the English are always seen from the outside by this writer.

The writer, any writer, is likely to be to some extent an outsider, an observer, even when his or her readers perceive them to be insiders, and Kipling seems to be at a similar distance, or proximity to most of his characters, even those whom he calls “mine own people”.

In The Bull That Thought, Kipling’s narrator is a car-owning, continental travelling ‘Englishman’, which puts him in a very tiny minority of the British population. But the story allows us to see another aspect of Kipling’s identity, for he was a lover of France, and can present his French raconteur with absolute credibility, perhaps even authenticity.

The tale within a tale is a common technique and was used by many storytellers. Coppard used it, and he is about as far as you can get from Kipling where English identities are concerned, and so did and so do many others. Sometimes, the primary narrator simply introduces the tale and lets the secondary narrator carry on. Sometimes the frame is completed with the outer narrator appearing at the end to tie things up. Here, Kipling keeps a conversation between the two going, his primary narrator intervening to remind us who is talking to whom, and that both of them are setting into that enormous champagne bottle! “Monsieur Voiron replenished our glasses…”

Occasionally, as if to drive the narrative on, he asks questions: “Why did you want to send him to Arles?”And once he even has to bring Voiron back to the subject in hand as the old man veers off onto another train of thought:

‘…Now, as compared with our recent war, Soult’s campaign and retreat across the Bidassoa–’

“‘But did you allow Christophe just to annex the bull?’ I demanded”

            The opening frame takes up more than a page of the story, as the narrator recalls his trip to “westward from a town by the Mouth of the Rhone’”and his plan to road test the speed of his motor car on “thirty kilometres as near as might be” of a road “mathematically straight”. Voiron, a guest at the same Hotel takes an interest, and after the event suggests the celebratory meal during which he will tell his story. Though we get a fairly full account of Voiron’s history, we also get a subtle nudge about the narrator’s, for he has with him a Mr Leggat “who had slipped out to make sure” and “reported that the road surface was unblemished”. Leggat is our traveller’s chauffeur/mechanic. The purpose of such a frame is to let us know what sort of person we are listening to, and by extension, how to judge those to whom he is talking, and who he will suffer to talk to us.   

And at the end, it is Voiron to whom he gives the closing words. That leaves us with Kipling’s narrator when the telling ends. There is no comment either from Kipling’s narrator or himself. We make of it what we make of it, and it’s more, I think, that what we might expect our narrator, or his storyteller, or the author himself to believe about the practice of bullfighting.

The nature of the fight that Apis wages against his tormentors, both as a young calf and as a full grown bull, and Voiron’s attitude to it, and to him, and to the outcome of that final battle, can be seen as an examination of attitudes to war and violent conflict in the wider sense. Voiron has “supervised Chinese woodcutters who, with axe and dynamite, deforested the centre of France for trench-props”, and he drifts into talking about Soult’s Napoleonic War campaign in Spain. In short stories, and especially in ones by masters of the genre as Kipling was, there are no drifts into irrelevancy, only the illusion of them. Voiron draws a specific parallel just after he has described Apis as a “natural murderer”: “One knows the type among beasts as well as among men.”

 The date of publication, of 1926, falls well within the deep and long shadow thrown by the first ‘Great’ war of the twentieth century, and Kipling knew well the cost of it. In the stories ‘Mary Postgate’ and ‘The Gardener’ which bracket, by publication this one, he confronts directly both the private and the public grief, but here, might there be an oblique critique as well?  Yet not of the cleverness of the tactics as shown by Apis, so much as the attitude of those who live to tell the tale and of the outcome they long for. That “type among beasts” and men, Voiron asserts, “possesses a curious truculent mirth”.

Does the calculated brutality of the bull, and its sense of honour and of humour echo qualities that Kipling observed in those who fought in the trenches for which Voiron’s Chinese workers “deforested France”?      

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com