Rabindranath Tagore spells different things to different people: National Anthems; the Nobel, Rabindra Sangeet, a veiled woman, Sriniketan or Santiniketan. A cineaste might think of Charulata or Kabuliwala, Chokher Bali (Best Friend) or Kadambari. But the subject ‘Tagore and Cinema’ would mean talking of Tagore’s exposure to cinema, his interest in the medium, the fate of his involvement with celluloid, the films based on stories penned by him, their interpretation in a world that is so far removed from his, in historical, economical, and cultural terms… In other words, it would mean talking of what about Tagore endures — and why it reaches out to the wide world of humanity.
To me, it is Tagore’s awesome, inspiring humanism that offers us immense scope to transcreate, reinterpret, relocate the socially relevant developments and rooted characters again and again onscreen. Like Shakespeare, his works are universal in terms of age, geophysical location, terrain of the mind and tugs of emotions…
Rabindranath was almost seventy when he exhibited his paintings that were so radically different from the style associated with the Tagore family artists, Abanindranath, Gaganendranath, Sunayani Devi, or Nandalal Bose. For, if the Bengal School looked East and sought inspiration in delicate miniatures, Chinese watercolours or the sparseness of Japanese zen, Tagore absorbed the boldness of German expressionism and created a unique style. It’s impossible for someone so open to avant garde trends to take no interest in cinema, the 20th century art form that was silently taking its juvenile steps in India when Tagore won the Nobel.
When he visited Russia, he watched Battleship Potemkin, the classic ‘handbook for editors’ (to quote Phalke winner Hrishikesh Mukherjee) that influenced a long line of filmmakers in India too. By 1931, the year when Alam Ara (Hindi) and Jamai Shasti’(Bengali) turned ‘movie’ into ‘talkie’, Tagore was in the last decade of his life. So, when he directed Natir Puja (The Dancing Girl’s Worship) at New Theatres, he was substantially assisted by Premankur Atorthi, who was the first to direct a film based on a Tagore composition. This was the only time when the Renaissance personality directly interacted with the celluloid medium. His nephew Dinendra wrote the screenplay, albeit under Tagore’s guidance, and students of Santiniketan acted in it. More importantly, Tagore himself essayed an important role in the dance-drama which was shot with a static camera over four days. However, the result was more a staged play than cinema. A greater tragedy is that the reels perished within 10 years, when a fire ravished the New Theatres Studio in 1941.
Atarthi’s own direction of Chirakumar Sabha (1932) set off a tradition that received a robust boost, first in the 100th year of the poet’s birth, and again in 2011, when he turned 150 and further. If literary treasures like Gora (1938) and Chokher Bali (1938) were adapted onscreen by Naresh Mitra and Satu Sen, they were remade and reinterpreted by Rituparno Ghosh who veered towards Tagore rather than Saratchandra, the more popular litterateur of Bengal who was a staple of Tollygunge for years. In fact all major names of Tollygunge, from Nitin Bose, Agradoot, Tapan Sinha, to Purnendu Pattrea, Partha Pratim Chowdhury and Rituparno Ghosh have announced their coming of age in cinema with a film based on a Tagore composition.
It is interesting to note that when Tagore visited Russia in September of 1930 members of the Cinema Board who had a conversation with him regarding his “new film stories” were deeply impressed by the short versions of the stories (as narrated) by the Poet, and they met him at his hotel to discuss in detail the possibilities of filming them. Tagore himself had enough interest in cinema to visit the Amalgamated Cinema Union, where he was received by its president M Rutin and was shown Eisentein’s Battleship Potemkin and portions of Old and New, we learn from his Letters from Russia.
Although evoking the Bengal of his time in divergent hues, Tagore’s stories continue to inspire man to go beyond divisions of nation, religion, caste or gender, perhaps because they explore how society shapes our love and relationships. This essay dwells on films that highlight the pervading themes of feminism, humanism and universalism in Tagore’s literary works.
Not Slave, Nor Goddess
The champion of women tells us to enunciate aami nari, I am a woman … with pride, because a woman is not a slave nor needs to be the other extreme, a goddess. That it is right for a woman, whether young, maiden, or widowed, to be a person of flesh and blood. That Tagore empathised so deeply with his women characters that today’s social historians are talking of an androgynous strain in the humanist.
* When Satyajit Ray filmed Ghare Bairey (The Home and the World), we got a glimpse of the regressive practices that ailed even the wealthy and educated households. However the most symbolic scene was the one where Bimala is inspired by Nikhilesh to step out of the inner quarters of the zamindar’s household. Even Sandip, the false god, hails it as a ‘social revolution’. Tagore the author goes on to criticise the pseudo rebel but at no point does he criticise Bimala — not even when her sister-in-law cautions Nikhilesh about the freedom his wife is abusing. We find a repeat of this theme in Char Adhyay (Four Chapters) – but we’ll come to that later.
* Chokher Bali, first filmed in 1938, turned the spotlight on the deprivations young widows were subjected to even after the reformist crusades of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Very sympathetically, and most aesthetically, it held a brief for their sensuality — even sexual needs, especially when Rituparno Ghosh filmed it in 2003. But even here, before Mahendra’s mother dies, she urges that in her memory he should host a feast for widows — “people feed Brahmins, beggars, even animals, but never for the unfortunate widows,” he underscores.
* Nitin Bose’s bilingual Noukadubi was probably the first to take Tagore to Hindi cine-goers. Incidentally Rituparno and Subhash Ghai’s Noukadubi were also bilingual. In 1944, Milan afforded Dilip Kumar opportunity to mature as an actor, for here Ramesh upholds the flag of humanism. After being boat wrecked he comes home with Kamala, the ‘bride’ he has not deigned to look at, and realises that she is in fact someone else’s wife. The gentleman in him decides to take her to a convent and give her not just protection (from a par purush, stranger) but also proper education — even at the cost of his own spotless reputation and his chances of finding happiness with his beloved, Hem Nalini.
* In Charulata (1964), although Satyajit Ray continues to unfold her story from Amal’s point of view, his sympathy without reservation lies with the lonely wife. For half a century and more viewers have no doubt that Charu was an alter ego for Tagore’s Natun Bouthan – his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, who took her own life. This story has inspired Bandana Mukherjee’s Srimati Hey and Suman Ghosh’s Kadambari (2015). Ray underscores this aspiration aspect in the film when Charu writes, gleaning from her experiences, and her writings are published in a magazine. This was unthinkable in the 19th century — and only a deeply humane soul could understand that a woman too needed to express her intellectual and creative self. (This aspect is completely missing in Charulata of 2011, directed by Agnideb Chatterjee, although it unfolds from the woman’s perspective and unabashedly speaks of her physical intimacy with Amal.)
* For Tagore, perhaps the stifling of this intellectual self was as great a tragedy as the ‘burying’ of her potentials within the walls of domesticity. In the poem ‘Sadharan Meye’ (Ordinary Girl), he urges his contemporary Sarat Babu to write a novel where the protagonist — a scorned woman — goes on to study, travel abroad, re-valued by several admirers, including the man who ditched her for being an ‘ordinary’ woman. The core thought of this poem had inspired a script by Nabendu Ghosh, an altered (and unacknowledged) version of which was made by Hrishikesh Mukherjee as ‘Pyar Ka Sapna’ (Dream of Love, 1969). In recent times the theme has been most successfully revisited in Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2014).
* In Megh O Roudro (Clouds and Sunshine), Rabindranath’s short story creates a protagonist whose struggle to affirm her dignity in the British ruled 19th century prompts her to read and write under the tutorship of a stubborn law student who is jailed for constantly challenging the discriminatory ways of the imperialists. By the time he is released, she is a prosperous widow who courteously acknowledges his role in her achieving self-confidence. In 1969, Arundhuti Debi, herself raised in Tagore’s ethos at Santiniketan, chose this for her second outing after Chhuti (Holiday) and her lyrical treatment brought her recognition as a director of substance.
* But what happens when a woman cannot fulfill her destiny, as in Streer Patra (A wife’s Letter, 1972)? How did Rabi Babu want his Mejo Bou — haus frau — to behave when the acutely male dominated household turns a blind eye to the injustice of marrying off the hapless orphan Bindu to a lunatic? Not drown her woes in the vast ocean at Puri but to slough off, in a moment of illumination, the shell of ‘Mejo Bou’ and become Mrinal, a woman with .her own soul and individual identity Why must she end her life like his Natun Bouthan — “Meera Bai didn’t,” he points out. And to us, even by today’s standards, it is the ultimate expression of feminism.
* Perhaps because of the class she belonged to, and with the support of a rebellious brother, Mrinal could do what Chandara couldn’t in Shasti (Punishment, 1970). Tagore knew that neither his ‘Notun Bouthan’ nor his own wife Mrinalini got the opportunities enjoyed by his ICS brother’s wife. Far from it: Chandara’s husband Chhidam places the burden of his Boudi’s death at the hands of his elder brother on his wife. In the prevailing patriarchal society it wasn’t unthinkable: a wife was expendable because you could get another, but not a brother. But the unlettered Chandara has her own estimation of the sanctity that is the conjugal bond. When her husband comes to meet the wife condemned to hang, she denies him the right of visitation by disdainfully uttering a single word: “Maran!” How should we read it today? Go, drop dead or go hang yourself!
* Jogajog (Connection) was written in 1929 in a society where there were caste/ class distinctions even amongst zamindars. Tagore had first-hand experience of this within his family. His crude protagonist is a johnny-come-lately who seeks revenge by marrying the educated and cultured Kumudini. He cannot stand any expression of respect for her brother and feels belittled at the slightest hint of will in his wife. Matters go so far that in the 2015 film, director Sekhar Das can effortlessly trace moments of marital rape in their conjugal discord.
* Chitrangada had poised the question: where lies a woman’s true beauty – in her outward appearance or her inner worth? Should the princess, raised to be as good as a prince, deny her essential self to please a man? Or is she wrong to sacrifice her being for one she loves? In 2008, Rituparno Ghosh gave a whole new androgynous reading of the dance drama, with Madan/ Cupid becoming a psychoanalyst.
Child — The Father and Mother of Man
Robi, who immortalised his childhood in Chhelebela (Boyhood), could never forget the restrictions imposed by adults and the suffocating effect it had on an imaginative soul. Therefore in Ichhapuran (Wish Fulfillment,1970), directed by Mrinal Sen for the Children’s Film Society of India, he effected a role reversal whereby their bodies get swapped. The naughty child Sushil becomes the father and the senior who covets the youthfulness becomes the free spirited son.
The comical confusion this ensues in the village leads both to realise the importance of their individual positions in life. They get back to their original self with the profound lesson for humanity – that each one of us has a place in the world no one else can ever fulfill.
* Of course the best known child in Rabindra Rachanabali (Creations of Tagore) is Amal. Essentially Dakghar (Post Office) was a testimonial against the crushing of childhood Tagore suffered. In the recent past actors Chaiti Ghoshal and Kaushik Sen have proved the enduring appeal of Dakghar — she in the form of a recorded audio play (CD); he on stage. Chaiti Ghoshal interprets the protagonist she had played with Shambhu and Tripti Mitra not as a Rabindrik character but as any child today, familiar with cricket and computer. Manipur’s Kanhailal has used elements of dance and drama to reinforce this message of freedom beyond frontiers. And, following the 2007 police firing in Nandigram (that killed 14 persons who were opposing state officials on land acquisition drive), Kaushik Sen had interpreted Amal’s desire to send a letter as a message to every household to raise awareness.
Sen’s Dakghar, then, was not about death but about liberation from life in bondage. “Perhaps that’s why, a day before Paris was stormed during WWII, Radio France had broadcast Andre Gide’s French translation of the play,” Kaushik had said while staging the play. “Around the same time, in a Polish ghetto, Janus Kocak had enacted the play with Jewish kids who were gassed to death soon after.” After such multi-layered readings of the text, Dakghar as filmed by Anmol Vellani in 1961 remains a simplistic viewing — perhaps because it was made for the Children’s Film Society.
* In The Postmaster the child – an illiterate village girl in this instance – metaphorically becomes a mother and a priya , or beloved, of the pedantic city boy who is stirred by beauty of the moon but can’t wait to go back. When he falls critically ill she dutifully serves him and cares for him like a wife. When he is set to depart by simply tipping her with silver coins, the child with a maturity beyond her years refuses to say goodbye. Rejection doesn’t need words: she can negate his very existence by her silence.
* Samapti (Finale) the concluding story of Teen Kanya (1965) remade by Sudhendu Roy as Upahaar ( The Gift, 1975), builds on the flowering of a woman in an unconventional girl child. Mrinmoyee is certainly not a Lakkhi Meye…a good girl , she’s a scandal in rural Bengal of 100 years ago. She escapes her wedding night by climbing down a tree, she spends the night on her favourite swing on the riverbank, she snatches marbles from her friend, a boy… When they try to tame her by locking her up in a room she throws things at Amulya. But when he returns to Calcutta and she’s sent back to her mother’s, she realises grown up love for the man she’s married to, and sneaks into his room by climbing the same tree!
* Buddhadev Dasgupta had woven Shey from Tagore’s late novel written for his granddaughter, and then scripted a feature based on 13 poems by the bard. When we read a poem, certain images arise before our mind’s eye. The director interprets Tagorean poetry through such images and experiences. “It is about how a poet responds to another poet,” he explains.
Of Zamindars and Servants
Robi, the ‘good for nothing’ youngest son of Debendranath, had to prove himself in his father’s eyes by successfully performing the job he was entrusted with – that of collecting taxes, ‘khajna’, from the ‘prajas’, subjects, no matter how impoverished they were. We all know that in doing the job he came across a vast cross section of people of the land whom he would not otherwise get to know so intimately. And while he could not be lenient as his father’s representative, he created caring characters like the zamindar in Atithi ( The Guest) who brings home a vagabond, gives him education, and even prepares to give his daughter in marriage to the free spirited boy whose restless soul drives him away…
* But having seen the reality of the lives of the subjects Rabindranath also created uncaring zamindars like the one in ‘Dui Bigha Jami’ (Two Bighas of Land) that had inspired the Bimal Roy classic Do Bigha Zamin (1953), set in a post-independence India that was rapidly industrialising. Debaki Bose attempted a more literal visualisation as part of Arghya, his Centenary Tribute to Tagore, along with his poem ‘Puratan Bhritya’, (Old Retainer).
* Robi, the motherless child who was raised in a large household in the rigid care of servants, said ‘Thank You’ to them through characters like Kesto, the old family retainer who refuses to leave even when he’s dubbed a thief or driven away. Instead, he saves his master from small pox at the cost of his own life. Tagore, in fact, goes a step further in his short story, ‘Khokababur Pratyabartan’. The trusted servant even raises his son to eventually give him up as the master’s child lost to a landslide in the river! Oppression of Religion
Pujarini (Worshipper) was immortalised by Manjushri Chaki Sircar’s dance. Although set in the revivalist times of Ajatshatru who was set upon putting the clock back and wipe out the Buddhist tenor of his father Bimbisara, we can easily identify with Rabindranath’s condemnation of any excess – violence in particular – in the name of Religion. Visarjan (Immersion) too raises consciousness against violence in any form, against even animals, in the name of religion.
* Nor can we overlook instances where he raises his angst ridden voice against the inhuman treatment of humans on grounds of caste or creed. In Chandalika, the untouchable gets a new mantra to live by when the Buddhist monk Ananda says “Jei manab aami sei manab tumi kanya (You, lady, and I are part of the same humanity).” The act becomes a beacon for Sujata, the eponymous protagonist of Bimal Roy’s film, who is on the verge of ending her life (following casteist discrimination).
* Tagore’s poem called ‘Debatar Grash’ (God’s Greed), lashes out against the cruelty people can unleash through the heart rending plight of the mother whose child is snatched from her and thrown into the raging waters to appease the villagers superstitious belief in god’s wrath. Shubha O Debatar Grash (Shubha and God’s Greed, 1964) remains a signature film of Partha Pratim Chowdhury.
* Tagore questioned the very concept of belonging to ideological boxes. His time-transcending novel, Chaturanga (Four Quartet), points out that human experiments (like, say, Communism) have failed because they put ideology in watertight boxes that do not have any room for flexibility. This inspired Suman Mukhopadhyay to film it in 2008. Tagore, who himself created walls and broke them, questions this through Jyathamoshai, his uncle, and Sachish, who invite Muslim singers and feed them at shraddha or funeral as much as through Damini, whom Sachish wants to domesticate much against her wish. She even questions her husband’s authority to will her away along with his property, to his religious guru. Tagore uses the graphic imagery of a hawk and a mongoose that Damini has as her pet (it is well known that these animals cannot be domesticated).
Nationalism to Internationalism
‘Where the world has not been fragmented by narrow domestic walls, and the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habits: into that heaven of freedom’ Tagore, forever and always, wanted his compatriots to awake. That is why Nikhilesh, in Ghare Bairey, does not condone violence even in the name of nationalism. That is why he decries Sandip, who uses the passion of young freedom fighters and the wealth of the poor to fill his coffers.
Beware the false god: Tagore repeats the criticism in Char Adhyay. In 2012 Bappaditya Bandopadhyay revisits the novel filmed by Kumar Shahani in 1997, the golden jubilee of Independence. But Ela’s Char Adhyay review it for its politics, its backdrop of ultras and violence, for the debate that acquired a new validity in the world after 9/11. Tagore was much in favour of non-violence, so much so that he criticised the nationalist movement too when it turned violent. How much of a visionary he was to ask a full century ago: “What will be the state of the nation that is based on violence?”
Young filmmakers are amazed by Tagore’s vivid criticism of the deterioration of party structures although he himself never belonged to any party. Sarat Chandra’s Pather Dabi (Demands of the Path), written about eight years before Char Adhyay, had taken a populist stand while Tagore didn’t hesitate to say through the protagonist Atin, ‘I am not a patriot in the sense you use the term.”
* That Rabindranath was against any form of regimentation is well established. His play, Tasher Desh or the land of cards, perhaps, written to criticise the submission of the conscience in Hitler’s Germany, remains the ultimate critique of regimentation. Directed by Q in 2012, the text layers his criticism of contemporary society by “trippy” visuals. By Q’s own submission, it is a “quirky” retelling of the Tagorean allegory.
* Gora (directed by Naresh Mitra in 1938) goes further: He bows to his adopted mother, hails her as his Motherland and says, every child is equal for a mother, she does not differentiate on any ground. Tagore here gives us a blueprint for an ideal Republic where a hundred flowers can fill the air with a hundred different colours.
* Perhaps the ultimate example of Tagore’s humanism is Kabuliwala, directed in Bengali by Tapan Sinha in 1958 and in Hindi by Hemen Gupta in 1961. An Afghan selling his wares in a Calcutta 150 years ago and striking a friendship with a child who reminds him of his own daughter back home, is a story that will strike a chord in anybody, anywhere in the world, at any given point in time — even in a world swamped with internet, chat rooms, mobile phones and multimedia messaging.
All of this reiterates the ‘forever-ness’ of Tagore. It also redefines the need to interpret his farsightedness, his comprehensiveness, his universality for our own times, in our own terms. Tagore himself had observed in a letter: “Cinema will never be slave to literature – literature will be the lodestar for cinema.” So we may conclude that since Tagore was primarily delving into human emotions, into the psyche of men and women placed in demanding situations that forced them to measure up to social, political, cultural or gender-based challenges, films based on his stories not only continue to be made but find an ever-growing audience in the globalised world.
(Courtesy: Tagore and Russia: International Seminar of ICCR 2011 held in Moscow. Har Anand publications, 2016. Edited by Reba Som and Sergei Serebriany)
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The right to exist with freedom to choose is threatened when dictatorial regimes try to erase a culture or linguistic group as we can see in the current conflict that rages between Russia and Ukraine. In 1971, Bangladesh came into existence over a similar issue. The colonials had divided the Indian subcontinent on the basis of religion — not culture. Before this division, Bengal was a whole. In 1905, Tagore had marched against the British directive to divide Bengal and Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India. In 1911, Bengal was reunited to be slashed again in 1947 and made a part of Pakistan with Urdu as its national language. Bangladesh fought a war to find the right to exist as an entity outside of Pakistan — adopting their favoured language Bangla. Throwing off the yoke of Urdu, Bangladesh came to its own. On 16th December, the battle against cultural hegemony was won with warplanes drawing to a halt.
Celebrating freedom from oppression, we have an article by Fakrul Alam giving the historical background of the struggle. A musing from across the border about the 1971 refugee exodus into India has been written by Ratnottama Sengupta. Asad Latif muses on the need to identify with a culture. We have translations of poetry by Nazrul to add a dash of seasoning.
Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons.
Christopher Winnan is a man of many hats. He has travelled widely throughout Asia, seeking out the latest breakthroughs and emerging technologies; with an uncanny ability to pick and forecast trends. As a travel writer and location scout, he’s explored off-the-beaten-track places; contributing to National Geographic and Frommers. When not consulting or publishing about Asia’s newest frontiers, he has an on-going fascination with past exploration, from the karst landscapes of south China’s opium trails to the ancient tea-horse trading routes across the Tibetan borderlands and eastern Himalayas. He writes on a wide range of subjects, both non-fiction and fiction, transporting guests to worlds old and new. Keith Lyons introduces us to the multi-faceted persona of Christopher Winnan, his past, present and future…
Tell us about growing up in the UK. When did you first get into writing?
The first paid writing gigs that I had in the UK were for top shelf men’s magazines, titles like Mayfair, Knave and Men Only. I was still too young to write the Readers Wives’ Real Stories, and so instead, I would pitch them bizarre subjects that they used as factual fillers. One I remember doing was a deep dive on the Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane, and another was about the Sultan’s harem in Constantinople. I used to find obscure books at the library on strange subjects and then compress them into articles. I may not have been Pulitzer Prize work, but the pay was good, and the work was steady.
Before you moved to Asia, what things did you do?
In the UK, I worked as a manager in a pet food warehouse, and I was one of the first casualties in the steady move to logistics automation. Just about everybody I worked with has since been replaced by AI and robots. I was not all that cut up because I had been working almost every hour that God sent, and the great boss that had originally hired me had since moved on a replaced by someone I could not get along with. I was happy to go, just to get away from him. Fortunately, I got a nice redundancy settlement, and decided to spend it on one of those round-the-world air tickets. I always thought that I would be back in twelve months and find another job. I would not have believed that I was never going back.
What first brought you to visit Asia, and where did you go? What was your first impression?
I heard about a big military parade in Seoul, and so I decided to make that my first stop. I was only planning to stay a couple of days before moving onto Tokyo, but an Australian at my guesthouse persuaded me to go for an interview at a local English school. I had never done a days’ teaching in my life, but they did not seem to care, and I was hired on the spot. I started work two days later. The school was a massive Hagwon, a cram school right in the middle of downtown. There were at least 300 foreign teachers, and about two-thirds of us were illegals, working on three-month tourist visas. Back in those days, the authorities did not care. South Korea was an Asian Tiger economy and everybody and their dog wanted to learn English. The Korean won was really strong against the dollar, and so we were all making bank. We would do three months on and three months off. During the down time, we would go off and explore other parts of Asia, and party like animals. Then we would come back and work like dogs for three months. I can remember that it was not long that I knew all the textbooks by heart and was teaching 14 contact hours a day, starting at 6am and finishing at 10pm. I had taught just about every class at least a dozen time so my prep time was minimal, and honestly, I loved every minute of it. The entire country was on a massive growth streak, and everybody had high hopes for the future. It was an amazing time. Eventually, I started dating one of the Korean teachers at my school. Unfortunately, she was not an ordinary local. He father had been an ambassador, she had studied at Oxford, and Papa was now the mayor in Korea’s second largest city. When he found out that his precious daughter was with a dirty foreigner, he hit the roof. The following Monday six immigration officers turned up at the office of my Director of Studies. They were all wearing long black trench coats and dark glasses and looked like the Gestapo.
“Tell us which classroom Chris Winnan is in. If you do not tell us we will arrest every teacher you have and close down the entire school.” Clearly, he did not have a lot of choice. I spent a couple of nights in an out-of-town jail and was then on a plane back to the UK. I was not too cut up about it, because at the time, Kim Il-sung in North Korea, was jumping up and down threatening to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire”. A lot of the other teachers were desperate to leave but could not get out of their contracts. Anyway, it had been a good run. I had only planned to be in Seoul for three days, but I ended up staying for nearly three years.
And China, what was your first encounter like, and what made you decide to live and work there?
Like I said, we were doing three months on and three months off in Seoul, which gave us plenty of chance to explore the rest of Asia. Some places were just starting to open-up in those days. We went wreck diving in the largest WWII warship graveyard in the Philippines and ancient coin hunting in Cambodia. Cambodia, for example, was still a scary place in those days. The Khmer Rouge had only recently been ousted from power, and there were still UN peacekeepers everywhere. The markets were full of weapons, and much of the country was still off limits. We went down to Sihanoukville because we heard about an intrepid Frenchman was setting up the country’s first dive centre down there. When we went back three months later, he had been murdered by Khmer Rouge militants. We took the once-a-week train back to Phnom Penh and then just a week later, Khmer Rouge bandits kidnapped a dozen westerners and twenty odd locals off the very same train. Every one of them was executed and ended up in a shallow cave. That was a very close shave. If we had been travelling just one week later, we too would have been on this train, and I would not be talking to you now. Unsurprisingly, there were not a lot of other travellers at the time. Back in the capital, we met a Swiss who was smuggling looted artefacts out of places like Angkor back to Europe. Then there was the young Belgium kid who was trying to buy authentic Khmer Rouge uniforms. He was heading off to Battambang, which was the militants last remaining stronghold. We never saw or heard from him again.
It was dangerous but incredibly cheap. We met an American who had rented a massive nine-bedroom villa out of town for just a hundred dollars a month. It turned out he was a bit of an idiot though. He was petrified of being abducted and so he went to the Russian market and bought a load of land mines. He buried them all around the perimeter of his place, and then that night the monsoons rains came, and washed them all away.
When I was deported from Korea, I was still quite flush with cash and I had really enjoyed my teaching experience, so I decided to do a year-long intensive TEFL course back at university in the UK. The course itself was a waste of time, far too academic to be of any real practical use in the real world, but I was one of the only native speakers, on the course so I had a wonderful time partying with teachers in training from all over the world. Even in those days, the universities were corporate money-making machines. My course had about thirty students and nearly all of them were non-EU residents, which meant that they were paying around four or five times as much we UK residents.
This was long before the influx of mainland Chinese students, but there were at least half a dozen Koreans and Japanese in my class. They could barely speak a word of English between them, but the professors were instructed to give them every possible assistance, in order that they would come back and sign on for even more lucrative Masters and PhD courses. The faculty would bend over backwards to help them and practically wrote their essays for them, while we English students were generally ignored. I can only imagine that universities are far, far worse now that they are full of rich tuhao Mainlanders. At my university, there were only two Mainlanders in the whole place out of about 6,000 students in total, and they both looked as though they had stepped right out of the Cultural Revolution. They were more like a pair of North Koreans than the Chinese students you see today.
Their English was excellent, but they both wore Mao caps, and they talked as if they had come out of a time warp. They wanted to exchange stamps and discuss Marxism, while everybody else wanted to go down to the student union and get drunk. They must have had a tough time of it. Talking to them I realised that mainland China was about the only place in Asia I had not yet visited and so once I finished my course, that was where I decided to go.
What was China like when you first went, and how has it changed?
I initially went to Shanghai and worked at the very first English First language school. I soon saw what cowboys they were at that company, but fortunately, there was an abundance of work in Shanghai at the time, so I quickly jumped ship and went to work as a ‘Training Manager’ at a local five-star hotel. There were only a handful of luxury foreign hotels in Shanghai, and so I was really lucky to have landed such a plum job. I got my own room and ate like a king at the restaurants along with the other executives. My hours were few, especially when compared to that of the interns who had come out from the UK and who had to share rooms and eat in the staff canteen.
Shanghai in those days felt much like it must have done in the twenties nearly a century earlier. In the clubs that we went to at the weekend, famous MTV VJs and Cantopop stars from Hong Kong would fly in to party. There were so few foreigners at that time, that we still had a kind of rock star status, which I fully took advantage of. I ended up dating the Prima Ballerina from the Shanghai Ballet, which gave me all kinds of incredible introductions to the local movers and shakers. For a year or so, I felt like I was living a charmed life.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Shanghai was growing so fast that scores of new five-star hotels were being built. The one where I worked was one of the first, and therefore one of the oldest. Occupancy rates dropped as other more exciting options came online. They had to make cuts and having a full time English teacher on the management roster seemed to be rather extravagant and so I was one of the first to be let go.
I decided to take a job in Guangzhou at the Guangdong Foreign Language University. I went for that option because I had heard that university jobs were becoming more prestigious, even if they were not as well paid. The salary back then was 1,100 RMB per month which was about US$100. Fortunately, I had been earning ten times that at the hotel, and as it was full board, I had been able to save most of it.
I can still remember the staff of the foreign affairs office picking me up at the Railway Station and how we drove though the downtown of Guangzhou. We passed a couple of big five-star hotels, and I immediately felt more comfortable, thinking that this will not be so bad after all. We then continued to drive for another hour, and I found out to my dismay, that I was going to be working out in a secondary campus way out in the sticks.
The teacher apartments had definitely seen better days and the student canteen was like something out of the Cultural Revolution. This time, I was in for a major culture shock. Fortunately, the students were all very keen and enthusiastic. They were mainly from poor second and third tier cities out in the hinterland. Most of them had been delighted to be accepted into this particular big city university, but like me, hit the ground with a bump when they realised that were going to be at an out of town, secondary campus.
Immediately, corruption reared its ugly head. The waiban (the foreign affairs office) had a nice little earner going where they would hire out their teachers to the local joint ventures at the weekend for inordinate corporate rates. I was immediately placed at Coca Cola in a nearby industrial city. The money was good, but it was two hours travel either way and really ate into my weekend.
The other big problem that I was one of only two qualified teachers. All the other foreigners were undercover Christian missionaries from some American church organisation, who actually paid the University to hire them. Most of them were far more interested in preaching than teaching.
After a couple of months of extreme boredom, stuck out in the middle of the Chinese countryside, I started to take the long bus trip downtown to explore Guangzhou. The city itself was amazing and far more interesting than Shanghai, as it really was the Workshop of the World in those days. It was filled with every kind of wholesale market you could imagine. If it was a ‘Made-in-China’ product that ended in the west, it was guaranteed that it had gone through the markets in Guangzhou first. And they were huge sprawling places, as big as any shopping mall back home, and each one focussed on just one range of products. There were vast buildings filled with suppliers of tools, toys, Tupperware and textiles. Every time I ventured downtown, I would visit a new one and it would usually take me the whole day to explore the entire place.
I remember the day I first went to the Toy Market. There was a peasant woman outside with a bunch of plastic Star Trek figures on a piece of battered plastic tarp. Upon closer inspection, I found that they were all stamped with serial numbers on the feet, and most of them were very low numbers indeed. There was a 0001 Captain Picard, a 0002 Commander Riker and a 0003 Mr Data. I quickly realised that these were probably the factory prototypes, the original production batch that had gone up to marketing for displays and presentations before the main quantity was shipped out. I made her an offer and bough the lot, some thirty or forty figures. This was in the days before Ebay, so I went on a few early Star Trek collectors’ forums and told them what I had found and offered them for sale. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling them where I had found these, and everybody immediately accused that the figurines were fakes. China’s reputation was terrible even in those days. I could not give them away, let alone sell them, and so I sent them back to a friend in the UK as a gift. I hear that many of them are now worth hundreds of dollars apiece. This experience got me very interested in export opportunities, and from then on, I bolstered my measly teaching income by buying all kinds of oddities that I would stumble across in my travels and sell them overseas. One day I found the factory who made all the patches and insignia for the FBI and the Secret Service. For many years, I exported vast quantities to collectors in the US. I was buying them for pennies and selling them at high prices on eBay, with the help of a couple of partners in the US.
How was your experience in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai?
Guangzhou was an interesting place to be in the early days. It really felt as though I had been taken back in a time machine. In the decade before the handover, Hong Kong was at its most exciting and vibrant, and crossing the border back into the mainland after a visa run was like suddenly going back fifty years. Bicycles ruled the road, there was no such thing as the internet and there was not even any English language TV. I might as well have been on another planet. Guangzhou was the first city to open up to western business interests, and this had also been the case in the past, and so the people that were drawn there were curious about all things western and what was going on in the largely unknown outside world. The city had been hosting the world’s largest international Trade Fair for more than fifty years, and so twice a year I was able to make friends with intrepid entrepreneurs from the remotest corners of the earth. I remember developing a passion for Yemeni cuisine, partying with Senegalese ambassador and exploring the factory slums with a group of businessmen from Madagascar.
Living conditions were most definitely in the hardship category, but the opportunities were immense. I left the university and went to work for an American corporate training company right in the heart of downtown, and fully immersed myself in what was, at the time, the most exciting city on earth. I had always felt myself to be somewhat of an ugly duckling, but here I quickly transformed into a tall, handsome swan. While I was coaching the eager new managers at the world’s biggest multi-nationals, I had a nice little sideline in modelling gigs. One year, I played the role of visiting businessman in an advertisement for the first state-owned five-star hotel in the city, and suddenly, my face was on TV all over Guangdong and Hong Kong, twenty times a night. I could not walk down the street without people recognising me and wanting to talk to me.
It was ironic that I was so popular downtown because my name was mud back at the University that I had just left. I was talking to some of my old students, and they told me that one of the missionary teachers had been caught in bed with one of the students. Rather than fire and deport the missionary, they expelled the student. They then announced at a student assembly that it was me that had been caught en-flagrante, and that I had been fired for this indiscretion. This was of course a lie, but I was no longer there to defend myself, and it also meant that they got to keep a missionary teacher that they did not have to pay.
I later landed a short-term six-month contract at the brand new computing campus of BeiDa, Beijing’s most prestigious university, and I hated just about every minute of it. I had been looking forward to working with the crème de la crème of Chinese education, but the students turned out to be robotic study machines, superb exam takers, many with photographic memories, but barely a shred of imagination between the lot of them. Nobody ever asked any pointed questions, contradicted what I said or suggested interesting alternatives. All that they were capable of was rote-memorisation and mindless regurgitation of the textbook.
Obviously, any discussion of current affairs, geo-politics and domestic issues was completely off the table. Here I was, with what was supposed to be a few thousand of the brightest young minds in China, and not one of them wanted to discuss anything of consequence. To make things worse the climate was appalling, the freezing temperatures made worse by industrial smog that was so thick that you could cut it with a knife and spread on your toast for breakfast. I did a little bit of sightseeing on my days off, but everywhere had been so thoroughly transformed with revisionist propaganda that I soon gave up. Even the food was appalling. Chinese cuisine is disappointing at the best of times, especially if you have spent any length of time in any other Southeast Asian countries but coming directly from Guangzhou where Cantonese really bucks the national trend, being in Beijing was like being on prison rations. After six months, I was going crazy and incredibly relieved to leave.
What has it been like to be in China at its peak in terms of energy, growth, dynamism?
I am not really sure I saw China at its peak, not by a long shot. You have to remember that China was way ahead of the rest of the world back in the days of Confucius and then again back in the Tang and Ming Dynasties. When I was there in the nineties, China was still reeling from a series of the worst man-made disasters that the world has ever seen, including the Great Famine and The Cultural Revolution. It was not surprising the Deng Xiaoping era was a period of rapid growth. They were after all starting from almost nothing and just about every other country on the planet was years ahead of them. People talk about the Chinese economic miracle, but in hindsight, which other way could it have gone? They were already at rock bottom in terms of economy and technology. From there the only way was up.
I was very lucky that I was living there as a foreigner with all the advantages that entailed, but it was still pretty unpleasant to be a Chinese citizen, especially a female. For ordinary Chinese people, life was not much better than it is in Iran, Russia or even North Korea. It was slightly better for a few years after Deng’s reforms, up until, say the Beijing Olympics, but it was not some Golden age of equality and mass prosperity.
As foreigners, we were somewhat isolated from the most unpleasant aspects. In fact, many existed entirely inside an expat bubble of privilege and protection, not even wanting to know what was going on in the real China. As an explorer, I saw with my own eyes what life was like in the mega-city slums, or back in the quasi-medieval villages of the hinterlands, and it was really grim. I can only imagine what it is like now, with the mass lock downs and large-scale crackdowns.
Most of the expats I knew enjoyed the exoticness of their existences, but it is not like we lived like the British colonials of the Raj. Yes, occasionally you met the kind of expat businessman who live in a gated villa and threw away a thousand dollars a night on karaoke whores, but most of us were teachers who lived in regular apartments and shopped at local wet markets. The fact was that life in China was so unpleasant that the really rich folks simply did not want to go there. I can remember briefly doing some consulting work for the heir to the VW fortune, who was planning to invest millions, if not billions in green technology and environmentalism. Once he arrived, he found that he hated the place so much that he immediately flew back to Tokyo permanently and handed off all responsibility to his subordinates. Once his initial enthusiasm disappeared, so did the funds and the whole thing came to nothing.
I can also remember meeting an eighty-year-old who was backpacking his way around Yunnan, staying in hostels and guesthouses with youngsters that were around a quarter of his age. It turns out that he had been stationed in Shanghai as a Marine, just after the war when he was still in his twenties. For me, that would have been a much more interesting period to experience China, or maybe even earlier, in the days of Chiang Kai Skek and the gangsters that ruled the city.
How did you get into researching and writing travel articles and guidebooks?
I was on a visa run in Hong Kong, browsing through the China travel books in a bookstores in Tsim Sha Tsui. I was quite proud of the growing body of knowledge that I was slowly accumulating on the growing megalopolis of Guangzhou, and I wanted to see what the existing guidebooks said about the place.
I was very disappointed when I saw that the writer for Frommer’s claimed the entire city was a complete waste of time. He talked about a few lacklustre tourist sites, but this was completely unfair as Guangzhou was never a tourist city. It was an international business hub. He practically ignored all the wholesale markets, and the vibrant restaurant culture. I was very disappointed and wrote to the publisher telling them so, and that Guangzhou deserved much better. They agreed and asked me if I would contribute to their forthcoming edition, and could I cover another eight provinces at the same time.
When did you venture into Southwest China and how did it contrast with other parts of coastal city China?
It was when I got that first commission that I really started venturing into the Hinterlands. Obviously, I was required to cover all the coastal cities, but honestly, most of them were just provincial versions of Guangzhou filled with pop up factories and very little else. Huizhou Hangzhou, Fuzhou, Wenzhou and every other bloody Zhou were almost all identical. A few fake temples to replace everything that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but otherwise all pretty similar and boring. I was glad to get out into the sticks and explore the mountains and the countryside. Of course, this also had its downsides.
The second time I worked for Frommers’, I recommended a guy that I had met on the road who had been working for Rough Guides. They gave him Shanghai, Beijing and Xinjiang, all the places that I did not want and so it worked out really well. I had just had a meeting in Shenzhen with the new Director of PR for Shangri La hotels, who had been incredibly gracious and offered to comp me at any of her properties all over the country. I was grateful, but back in those days there were only about two Shangri Las in all the provinces that I was covering, so it was not really a big deal. Anyway, I told my friend Simon from Rough Guides to get in touch with her, and she quickly offered him the same deal. There were so many Shangri Las in his patch that over the next twelve months he enjoyed more than 200 free room nights completely at her expense. She was so happy with all the free coverage that he gave the brand, that she put him and his entire family up for a two-week, all-expenses-paid vacation at the company’s flagship hotel in Hong Kong. All meals included, unlimited bar tab, limo, everything. It must have been the holiday of a lifetime. As for me, I can remember turning up at the Shangri La in Beihia, and it was a worn-out shell of a state-owned enterprise dump that had yet to be renovated. I took one look at the place and decided to pay for a guest house in town out of my own pocket instead.
What’s your fascination with things like the ancient tea-horse routes or opium trails?
I was very lucky working for Frommers’, as the editor encouraged me to explore and find new places. She gave me a freedom that most other guidebook writers did not enjoy. If you work for Lonely Planet, you have to cover the three must see sites, the three most popular eateries and three of the most well-known hotels. They cover so much that there simply is not room for anything else.
With Frommers, I had much more autonomy. For example, the first edition that I did they asked me to go and cover the up-and-coming destination of Hainan. It was so disappointing that I told them if they insisted that I go back, I would not be doing another edition for them. Fortunately, they agreed.
I was fascinated by the real history of China, not the propaganda that the official guides had to memorise in tourism school. I knew that there were stories that were being suppressed, fascinating takes of history and adventure that deserved to be told. The Opium Trails was a great example. For hundreds of years opium has been the main cash crop in Southern China, and much of the North too. Not only was in popular domestically as a recreational drug, but it was also exported to feed the habits of all the coolies that worked in the Chinese enclaves that existed all over Southeast Asia and beyond. So much of it was grown by the greedy landlords that it often led to regional famines and conflict. When the Communists took over, they changed the names of most cities, but if you start looking at the old records, you soon see that opium was the key commodity of the domestic economy. In Kunming alone, there were more than 120 opium distilleries.
How do you feel as a guidebook writer knowing later others will use your expertise to make it easier, but also that it might change a place?
Nowhere stays the same forever. Brigadoon is not real. Everywhere changes, whether I write about or not. In fact, it would be incredibly arrogant of me to assume that I can do anything alter the vector of a specific location. I agree that tourism can cause irreparable damage to pristine environments, but that is a problem that is caused by the many flaws of capitalism, not by me writing about it. To be honest, most of the very best places that I ever discovered are still relatively unknown even by the most adventurous travellers. For a while I did consider keeping them a secret, but I soon realised that was completely pointless. The real damage is caused by mass tourism, not by a few adventurous backpackers trying to get off the beaten path. From what I have seen, even the most remote locations were pillaged and plundered long before I was even born. Occasionally, I would find a remnant of what existed before, but it is usually just a brief glimpse of what was there previously.
How have you managed to stay at the cutting edge of ideas, new places, trends etc?
I love to read old guidebooks that have long been out of print. One time, I found an eighties paperback that had been compiled by a couple of overseas language students who wanted to explore the provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou during their summer vacation. Much of what they had written was tips on how to avoid the local authorities and visit places that were usually off limits to foreigners. Back in those days, nearly everywhere was forbidden and those two guys seemed to have spent half their holiday being escorted onto buses by local policemen who really did not want them to be there. Their explorations were long before the first Lonely Planet, and so their guidebook was filled with places that I never heard of before. This is the main problem with guidebooks. They establish well-travelled routes, which then receive so much traffic that everywhere else is usually ignored, even if the places recommended in the book have gone so far downhill that they are hardly worth considering any more.
I was always on the lookout for new places that I had never heard of. Whenever I arrived in a new town, the first place that I would check out was the local Xinhua bookstore. In the days before mobile phone and even owning a GPS device was completely illegal and likely to get you arrested as a spy, locally printed maps were always a treasure trove of information. Libraries are few and far between in rural China, but everywhere has a state-owned bookstore that disseminates all the government propaganda and school textbooks.
Sometimes I would really on local expertise. I remember one time I was travelling through Yunnan with a really glamorous Shanghai socialite. I think that she was slumming it with me, probably to enrage her parents. While we were in Kunming, she insisted on visiting one of the most expensive hairdressers in town for a suitably elegant coiffure. I asked her to quiz the head stylist on the trendiest new restaurants in town, and he gave us some amazing leads. One of the best was an amazingly innovative new place that had set up shop in what was previously a retail outlet for the local, state-owned Chinese medicine factory. It was full-on oriental apothecary in style, wall-to-wall with all those tiny wooden drawers that they used to store all the herbs and tinctures inside. The menu was a bamboo pot full of temple shaker sticks, the kind that are used by Chinese fortune tellers. You shake the sticks and depending on what falls out they tell you your future. In this case, we shook the sticks in order to decide what to order. All the food had medicinal ingredients like Lion’s Mane mushroom, gingko nuts and goji berries. It was a unique experience, that I would never have found by myself. Sometimes, insider information is essential.
How glamorous is being a travel writer and how does the reality compare with the perception?
As I explained before with regard to my friend from Rough Guides and all his free comps, it can be extremely glamorous. I imagine that if you are working for the New York Times and writing about the Caribbean, it must be a non-stop life of luxury. If, on the other hand you are out in the back of beyond in rural China, working for an English language guidebook in a place where absolutely zero percent of the population speaks any English, it is more of a challenge. In a place like China, in terms of finding interesting places, you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs before you ever meet any princes. Unfortunately, I can never be absolutely sure of that fact until I had actually been there and had a good look around for myself.
There again, some of the most spectacular discoveries come from the most uncomfortable conditions. The further you get away from civilisation, the more unspoiled the nature becomes, but the harder the travel becomes. I can remember spending endless hours in a horribly cramped minibus to reach a remote one-donkey mountain village that probably had barely changed in the last five hundred years. The accommodation would have been considered hardship conditions even by Mary and Joseph. There was no heating, the bed was carved into the bare rock and the toilet was a couple of planks over the adjoining pig sty. Despite all of this, the terrain was some of the most spectacular karst that I have ever seen, ancient stone staircases cut directly into the side of the mountains surrounded by vistas straight out of a Tolkien epic poem.
What’s the process of writing for you? How do you find topics or get ideas?
I try to keep abreast of interesting new developments by dipping into a wide as range of media as possible. Fortunately, this is easier than ever with the modern internet. I especially like websites that have very active comments sections, where people express a wide range of opinions and add valuable insights to the original article.
It is only when you dig into sites that have very active comments sections that you start to get some contrary opinions and interesting leads to follow up. Reddit is obviously one of the most useful resources, while Youtube videos have by far the most comments.
I recently watched a video about the future of resin 3D printers, and the presenter asked his viewers to share their thoughts on the way that that the industry was heading in the comments. The result was a selection a very knowledgeable individuals offering some very valuable insights that would have been difficult to find anywhere else. Good videos can often have thousands of individual comments and so in that case, I find that it is always good to sort them by the most replies received. That way you can start with the most active conversations and avoid all the mundane monosyllabic comments.
I recently found an interesting website called Exploding Topics. They have a regular newsletter where they highlight the most searched for trending topics on Google. Most of them are quite obscure but it is still interesting what is going viral before it hits the mainstream.
With subjects that I am especially interested in, I will do a regular Youtube search every month or so and sort the results by date uploaded. This way I can see all the latest content since I last searched and see for myself what is trending. For example, I regularly search for new 3D printing related videos, and recently discovered that the field of 3D musical instruments is suddenly taking off. Some wind instruments, such as clarinets can be extremely expensive, often requiring rare tropical hardwoods and craftsman engineering for all of the finger controls. Seeing and hearing some of the 3D printed versions showed me that the technology is rapidly catching up, and it probably will not be long before we see the very first entirely 3D printed orchestras. A 3D printed violin might not sound like a Stradivarius, but open-source designs are being improved on all the time and are vastly reducing the cost of entry for any aspiring musicians.
The general media is slowly being eviscerated and they simply have not got the resources to cover all the interesting stories out there. Even with the field of 3D printing, there are so many new areas opening up. Mainstream media cannot be expected to cover niche topics such as 3D printed firearms, 3D printed clockwork mechanisms or 3D printed crossbows, but all of these are making very rapid advancements and are fascinating subjects to watch develop.
What satisfaction do you get from being an expert in your many fields, getting positive reviews, gaining acknowledgement?
I am not sure it is possible to really become an expert these days, especially when so many fields are advancing so rapidly. It is good to try and keep an overview over a broad range of topics. Anyway, that is where the most interesting breakthroughs come from. From people in different fields making imaginative connections between topics that would otherwise seem completely unrelated. Hopefully, one day I will be able to make one of those world-changing cross-fertilisations that nobody else had ever considered before.
How vital are language skills, contacts, connections and your own drive to help find the latest?
The world has become such a huge place that I am not sure that personal networks are really of all that much value as they were in the past. If anything, I would say that social media is a distinct disadvantage in this sense. It is too much of distraction and too often becomes an echo chamber. Look at Wechat in China for example. Everybody is separated out into their little special interest groups which really makes it difficult to get an accurate view of the bigger picture. It is for this reason that I choose not to have a phone, and I notice that slowly, more and more people are starting to see the advantages of this choice. Not many at the moment, admittedly, but I recently found out that both Alan Moore and Andy Hamilton both choose not to have mobiles. These are two great examples of amazing writers, and so I am tempted to believe that I am following the right path.
How do you stay disciplined for your writing?
My last job in China was as the director of Marketing with a Chinese travel agency. The Chinese owner had very little clue of what was involved in the creation of quality content. Towards the end of my contract, she signed a contract that would have required me to write about 400,000 words in a matter of months. In the end, the project never came to fruition, but for a for weeks, I found myself under enormous pressure and realised that I was quite capable of writing 10,000 words per day, something that I would never have dreamed possible previously. I would not like to have to maintain that kind of output on a regular basis, but it is very useful to know that you can do it when push comes to shove.
These days, I like to get at least a thousand words out of the way first thing in the morning before I check my email or get sucked into Reddit. This gives me a sense of achievement early in the day and means that I can be more productive for the rest of the day.
How has the guidebook industry changed from the days of Lonely Planet/Frommers to now in the digital age?
On-line Travel Agencies such as Agoda, Tripadvisor and Booking.com killed the guidebook publishing industry stone dead. I hear that there are still a few Lonely Planet guidebooks being published, but they do not really count, as that company never paid a decent living wage in the first place. I read that that the brand has been sold twice in the last couple of years and are now a major money sink. Unfortunately, the OTAs are no better, and in many ways much worse. Having worked in the travel industry for such a long and having experienced all the tricks that hotels and travel agencies get up to, I would estimate that at least 90% of TripAdvisor reviews are fakes. They might not be paid for in cash, but are usually part of some quid pro quo deal, like a kind of insider trading within the hospitality industry. The remaining 10% that might be genuine are usually for the most popular, well-travelled places that everybody already knows about. The end result is that there are plenty of reviews of five-star business hotels that are paid for with points or exchanged air miles, but hardly anybody is going out finding new routes, and discovering new places.
The other main problem is the fact that the OTAs charge 20% or 30% per booking which has put huge financial pressure on a lot of the smaller accommodations. Admittedly, this was also partly true for Lonely Planet. In any location, the three places that got included in the book usually had more business than they could handle, while everybody else struggled to find customers. The OTAs have only made the situation far worse and have caused endless numbers of smaller operations to simply give in and shut up shop completely.
Still, what grates me most about about the OTAs is that they did away with one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Anybody that was paid to be a professional travel writer literally had their dream job. I am all for automating as many of the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs out of existence as possible, but why do away with the most exciting jobs on the planet, just so that another Internet company can improve its bottom line by a few bucks? The demise of the paid guidebook writer is the end of an era, amazing job opportunities that future generations will never even know existed.
How different is factual writing from writing fiction?
Writing fiction is far more difficult because you need to be constantly creating an original storyline. Either you need to be a natural born storyteller, or you need to do a lot of drugs. I have been working on a solar punk novel for many years now but it requires much more effort than non-fiction. Rather than repackaging facts, you have you come up with truly novel ideas and then back them up with believable facts anyway, which makes it at least twice the work of producing non-fiction. Some of the more prolific novelists seem to be able to channel stories from another dimension. I remember reading that Robert E Howard, for example, would just sit down at the typewriter and the character of Conan the Barbarian would just flow out of him, like he was possessed by some literary spirit. Only very occasionally have I had that kind of experience, but I sure wish it was something that I could turn on and off at will. Now I understand why so many fiction writers struggle with writer’s block. At least when you are writing about real world facts for a work of non-fiction, you can always go out and do some more research. It is really frustrating when you are halfway through a fictional plot line and suddenly the inspiration just dries up and will not come back.
What is travel like post-Covid? What have been the best places you’ve lived in, and where are you now?
Honestly, I have not yet done any post Covid travel. It is still too much hassle to consider at the moment and anyway, I am lucky that I have spent the lock downs in a very pleasant Thai beach resort, and I could not have been more comfortable if I had tried.
As for the best places that I have lived, well I always found that tourist locations were a better bet than solely industrial or commercial centres. Tourist towns are usually popular with good reason, and as long as you find one that is not too developed, then they are often quite affordable. Obviously, this does not apply to the Bahamas or Tahiti or Monte Carlo. While I was living up in the Himalayas, I would often bump into fellow guidebook writers who were there on vacation, but who like me had chosen to live full time in one of their favourite discoveries. I met an Australian who had relocated to Thimphu in Bhutan, a Kiwi that was living up on the terraces of Ubud above Bali, and a couple who were enjoying the high life in Hong Kong. This was shortly after the handover but still long before the descent into despair, back when Hong Kong was still a world class city.
What was interesting was that most guidebook writers would choose to settle somewhere that had been a highlight in their travels, and that these places were often far more attractive than any of the places that you see in these entirely fabricated Top Ten Places to Retire articles. The only exception was the Lonely Planet writer who was compiling the latest China edition. It turned out that he lived in Ulan Bataar of all places, the capital of Inner Mongolia. It turned out that he had married a Mongolian girl and that is why he was stuck in Bataar.
These days, there are far fewer places to choose from than before. Most countries have clamped down on long term visas, and the end of the globalisation era will see far fewer long-term expats than I have experienced in my lifetime. A worldwide wave of fear and xenophobia prevails all over and the only foreigners that are welcome are those with huge amounts of disposable cash, even though they often end up wrecking the housing market and the economy for the locals.
I was very lucky to experience as much travel as I did, and it is sad to see that current generations will not have the same opportunities. When I was young it was easy to travel and find work as an English teacher or in the tourist industry, but those days have rapidly come to a close, and in the future, I think that if you really want to travel to exotic climes, you will probably have to go with the military as part of an invasion force.
How about air travel in the age of climate change? Is it better to view documentaries?
Oh yes, definitely. I gave up flying in the early part of my writing career, but I was lucky in that I had plenty of time to travel, and so going everywhere by boat and train was an adventure that I could justify. These days the new cost of flying is so prohibitive that it is going to be restricted mainly to the very wealthy from now on. The good news is that you can explore many of the most amazing parts of the world through travel documentaries. When I was young, we were lucky to see the occasional show about the rain forest or the outback, but these days, there are amazing films of some of the most remote places on the planet. These guys that jet around the globe with the aim of visiting every single country on the planet, honestly make me sick. What utterly narcissistic excess, when you can now travel all the way around the globe from the comfort of your very own armchair!
What future travel plans do you have?
Not many at the moment. Covid has put pay to just about everything and it looks like we are entering into a global recession that will make travel expensive and difficult for a long time to come. Still, there were not all that many places left on my bucket list anyway. It is ironic that most of the places that I really wanted to tick off were locations that most people had either never heard of or would never dream of actually visiting. For example, Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, has been at the very top of my list for a long time now, and yet the UK government only considers it a place to forcibly deport unwelcome refugees. In truth, Kigali was one of the fastest developing cities in Africa, attracting lots of high-tech investment and with a wonderfully cool climate and beautiful countryside. Admittedly, it was not ideal when it came to democracy and freedom of speech. I really wanted to experience the urban chaos and incredible opportunities of Lagos in Nigeria.
I always wanted to see the Tepuis of Venezuela, and I always fancied the idea of living in one of those medieval tower blocks in Sana’a in Yemen. Unfortunately, more and more of these places are now becoming off limits to even the most intrepid of travellers, and so maybe I will have to wait until my next life before I get chance to experience their charms.
The good news is that life in Thailand is really not so bad.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
There is good money to be made on Amazon, but only if you approach writing as a business. This means putting in long hours and hard work when you are getting started. It means having a wide selection of attractive products for your potential customers to choose from and making sure that they are up to date and relevant. I took all the unique experience that I built in Guangzhou and created the world’s only guidebook to the city and its hundreds of specialist wholesale markets. Unfortunately, as soon as the Chinese economic miracle began to grind to a halt, so did my sales. Although I had recommendations from embassies, consulates and chambers of commerce, I could not get any official backing at all from the local government or tourist authorities. Then, on top of this I had to deal with assassination reviews from local tour guides and interpreters because my work was so thorough that it negatively impacted their business. Finally, Covid struck and by now, my book is probably completely out of date.
Initially it took years of adventure and exploration to compile, and now I doubt that I could ever afford to update it, even if I could get back into the country in the first place. Therefore, my advice is to try and make sure that your writing has a long shelf life. If you want to create an evergreen title that provides you with a long-term passive income, then you will need to choose your subject matter very carefully. Find a good cover designer on Fiverr or develop the necessary skills yourself. A good cover sells your work and a bad cover will quickly consign it to Amazon oblivion. Find a fellow author who will help you with proof-reading and editing. You will never catch every single spelling mistake by yourself, no matter how many times to go over your work, and this will be the first thing that readers will complain about in their reviews. Professional editors are very expensive, so find someone who you can share the task with.
Always be looking for new subjects to write about. Your breakthrough book will very likely be the title that you least expected to succeed, but the more you publish, the more you increase your chances of it happening.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Written by and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi
Like a flower blooming in the crack of the rock, love blooms everywhere.
The grey metropolis is a big flower garden.
In a bus rattling on the country road,
Where old men die lonely, love revives as a flower.
In the hearts of the wayfarers sitting around the tavern,
Also in our empty hometown, a flower blooms brightly.
In the dark grating of the jail, or, in the complexionless faces of the orphanage,
Love blooms brightly as a bundle of flowers.
Love does not sway only to the rhythm of hymns,
Or, to the voices raised in prayers.
Like a flower blooming on the veranda or on the office desk,
Near the pale hearts of the street vendors, a blossom flourishes.
Love does not grow only in the hearts of Saints,
But in the whistle of the night guard or in the hearts of the criminals.
The root of love is strong and its flower so beautiful.
The tears of the penitents are all beautiful flowers,
Every agony and grief is a flower bud ready to bloom immediately.
In the hearts of the departed lovers, love grows again before anyone knows.
The flowers are already in full bloom,
In the hearts of the Northern and Southern Koreans,
Also in the hearts of the people of Ukraine and Russia.
The hearts of the peoples are always beautiful flower gardens.
Those are brilliant gardens of May, where so many flowers of love bloom endlessly.
Ihlwha Choi is a South Korean poet. He has published multiple poetry collections, such as Until the Time, When Our Love will Flourish, The Color of Time, His Song and The Last Rehearsal.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
For when your troubles starting multiplying
And they just might
It's easy to forget them without trying
With just a pocketful of starlight
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away (never let it fade away)
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for a rainy day
'Catch a Falling Star' by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss
Perhaps, it is time to find that fallen star popularised by pop singer Perry Como is 1957. Optimism glimmers faintly, sometimes even conceals itself, in a world passing through a dark phase in history. For instance, few of us would know that we might find more answers to tackle climate change as dinosaur fossils (from the time an asteroid hit the planet) have been unearthed recently. That sounds like solutions can be had to what was perceived as inevitable doom.
Another bit of news that perhaps will cheer some is the first anthology of Borderless Journal will soon be available in market. It has been accepted by a publisher, an old, trusted and reputed name from India, Om Books International. They have bookshops splattered all over — should make it easy for buyers to access the book. Hopefully, you can target the anthology for your Diwali or Christmas gift hampers. Om Books has one of the most iconic editors-in chief, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. A multiple award-winning editor, he has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and is currently churning out wonderful books from Om with a fabulous production team, working with whom has been a pleasure. Ray Chaudhuri is an outstanding film writer and poet. He is part of a group that is creating a film archive online. To know more about him or his views on publishing, you can read our online conversation with him.
The energy one gets from optimism like starlight from a fallen star, lightens the darker shadows that create gloom with the war leading to rise in prices and threats of recession in a post pandemic scenario. Lesya Bakun, the refugee from Ukraine whose story we carried last month, finds her starlight by sharing updates of her story. She added to her narrative with the news that her cousin has been taken as a prisoner of war by Russia from the besieged factory in Ukraine. Though sharing does not alleviate suffering, Bakun’s ability to cling to hope and imagine a future where she gets her dream highlights the strength of her convictions. The other thing that is revealed by her narrative and media coverage is exclusivity and boxes of ideology split humankind, erase families, cities, countries, lives and sanity. The war can appease only the lust of warlords. Against this desolation caused by the devastation, what could be the starlight that would lead to a happier future?
Laughter. Unleashing the ability to laugh at oneself is as potent as laughter that generates relief and lightens our mood, so that we can view differences as whimsical, treat them with tolerance and compassion and not destroy the diversities that add colours to the world. Perhaps, that is why Tagore took to humour too. Somdatta Mandal has translated a series of humorous skits by Tagore. We are featuring one of these called the ‘Ordeal of Fame’. Yet another translation or transcreation of a poem called ‘Lukochuri’ or ‘Hide and Seek’ reflects the playful in Tagore’s oeuvre. These, along with Rhys Hughes humour on the pandemic in poetry and prose, bring good cheer into our journal. Hughes has also used his column to tell us why he curated a new humorous anthology of verses by seventeen poets called Wuxing Lyrical. I wonder if he is serious or joking!
As we trot around the globe, Suzanne Kamata tells us about a Monet museum in Japan where she ate madeleines made with the artist’s recipe! Meredith Stephens sails to Tasmania with her camera and gives us a glimpse of nature’s plenty. Ravi Shankar relates his trekking adventures among the Himalayas in Nepal, with awesome photographs of these mountains, while Kenny Peavy who lives in Indonesia dwells on the value of falling down and getting up in a light humorous vein against the backdrop of nature – though metaphorically perhaps the world needs to do that. We have G Venkatesh’s story about his stay in Johannesburg where he discovers that skin tones do not matter.
Ratnottama Sengupta makes the whole world look like a home with the story of a legendary screenwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, who wrote the script of Mahabharata for Peter Brook’s play (1985) of the same name and the subsequent film (1989) — with characters drawn from all over the world. Candice gives us an overview of the pandemic, with more focus on US where she lives.
Mike Smith travels back to another time when an ailment called World War II raged and has revived a writer from the past, HE Bates (1905-1974). We have another essay by Dan Meloche on a legendary book which turned 100 this year — Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Rakhi Dalal revisits more than a century old translation by Devabrata Mukherjee of Tagore’s The Post Office which bears relevance to the present day as it shows how the human spirit endures over even the darkness of death.
Before winding up, I would want to extend my thanks not only to our team and contributors, but also to our publisher who is willing to republish our content with some tweaking. Thanks to our readers who, I hope, will be excited to have selected content between their palms as a hardcopy anthology with 49 of our most iconic pieces. We have more than a thousand published works. This anthology will be an iconic sample that you can carry anywhere with you even if there is no internet – that would include Mars and Moon!
I wish you happy reading, happy dreaming and hope… plenty of it.
Having been a reluctant fan of apocalyptic fiction since I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), I had studied virology when the AIDS pandemic struck and read a great number of virus-related books on infectious diseases. Despite this preparedness and the knowledge that it was not a case of IF, but WHEN, the next virus would strike, I think I speak for most of us when I say we were still all unprepared for Covid-19.
What the pandemic has taught us thus far is immeasurable and I believe it will last several generations, or I hope so. That said, it’s our human nature to want to move on. Not because we don’t care, but part of being alive is putting trauma and suffering behind us and ensuring those who survive, truly survive, which means living. Is that insensitive or just the nature of the beast? It can be insensitive, especially to the millions who have lost loved ones, but it’s also how humans generally operate.
Is it possible to move on and live a full life irrespective of this global tragedy without losing our compassion and responsibility to stop this from ever happening again?
The reality is; it will happen again, and for many of us, in our lifetime. What we can do is be better prepared and all that this entails.
What are the steps being taken to move toward the new post pandemic future? What are we doing differently? And why?
The pandemic divided us, it physically kept us apart. Some who were well versed in social skills and true extroverts, struggled when they emerged from the worst of the pandemic. They found it hard to do the things they used to be so skilled at. From lack of practice. I recall sitting at lunch with a friend who used to be the life-and-soul of any social event. She struggled for, as she put it; ‘her words’. Having become so used to speaking less and not being face-to-face, she said it felt ‘overwhelming’, ‘strange’ and she looked forward to going home.
That is a habit we must break. The comfort of the living room and the immediate family is intoxicating. We can rapidly get used to living in a smaller-seemingly safer, changed world where we see less people, go out less, and become accustomed to an intimate circle. For some of us this was always our life, and maybe not as challenging — a shift as it was for those who previously socialised a great deal.
In a way the pandemic was harder on the extrovert than the introvert. Because while introverts aren’t averse to socialising, they can find it exhausting; whereas extroverts gain energy from it. When you put an extrovert in a forced setting without social opportunity, they may struggle more than someone used to their own company.
But it’s not as simple as extrovert and introverts. Many of us are a little of both, depending on the situation. I can go out with a big group one day. But on other days I want to be alone. Few of us are extremes. Most are like ‘ambiverts’ a combination of extroverts and introverts.
For those who do thrive on socialising, the pandemic was particularly challenging, but there are many ways to be affected, not least the tension and anxiety all of us picked up on or directly experienced.
Fortunately, technology became our best friend as we Zoomed more and met via video chats throughout the world. It opened up an international stage more than we’ve ever experienced and gave children a new normal in terms of how they learned online. Learning solely online had deleterious effects on underperformers. This ‘unfinished learning’  particularly impacted youth who might have already been struggling in the educational system.
Having taught Critical Thinking online for years, I genuinely believe online learning cannot replace in-class learning. There are huge draws to learning from the comfort of home, especially for adult learners who do so after work . “In comparisons of online and in-person classes, however, online classes aren’t as effective as in-person classes for most students. Only a little research has assessed the effects of online lessons for elementary and high school students, and even less has used the ‘gold standard’ method of comparing the results for students assigned randomly to online or in-person courses.” The amount of information retained is drastically smaller and the social engagement of a classroom has benefits that are hard to quantify but necessary for social development. When you rob children of the opportunity to socialize with each other you isolate them at a crucial stage in their development.
Some kids with learning disabilities are particularly affected by this, as are those who come from unsafe or impoverished backgrounds, where they may not have equal access to technology or reliable internet. They may not have parents who can help them if they are stuck or be able to work from home or have access to lunch. All those necessary elements to the education system were lost in our need to stay home and protect each other. A generation of children will always remember this time as a result.
On the other hand, they have mastered technology in a way that few older generations can boast of, and they are conversant in all the myriad ways of communicating with a wide range of technologies and devices. They are adaptable, versatile and fearless when it comes to tackling the rigors of online learning. For some who dislike social settings, it may also be a vast improvement.
Women left the workforce in droves when the pandemic hit, with 2 million less in the work-force. The inverse of this was men began to return to work having been dropping in numbers whilst women rose. The Pew Research Center found “What accounts for the larger labor force withdrawals among less-educated women than men during the pandemic? It is complex but there seems to be a consensus that it partly reflects how women are overrepresented in certain health care, food preparation and personal service occupations that were sharply curtailed at the start of the pandemic. Although women overall are more likely than men to be able to work remotely, they are disproportionately employed in occupations that require them to work on-site and in close proximity to others.” Jobs men traditionally do like physical labor, were in high demand, whilst many jobs traditionally filled by women, were shut down, often not returning.
We can be glad our restaurants are open again; we’re opening borders, we’re flying abroad, we’re living again. But let’s also spare a moment to think of those who lost so much it’s almost impossible to conceive. Covid was the third leading cause of death in America during the height of the pandemic, how did this many deaths become normal? Covid killed an estimated 13% of people over 80. Aside the tragedy of a generation of elderly dying and the loss of grandparents, and parents for so many, we’ve also seen younger people dying from a virus, which has shaken the belief younger people have that they are impervious to viruses similar to the flu, what effect with this have on their sense of safety going forward?
And what of the health consequences of those who technically survived bout of the pademic but developed ‘slow Covid’ or worse, the side-effects and lingering legacy of being seriously ill with the virus? How many lung transplants will occur? How will ‘long haulers’ cope with lingering serious effects? What of those who live in countries where this isn’t an option? How many chronic illnesses will continue for decades as a result of this pandemic? It’s not enough to point to those who have died but also include those who survived but at such a high cost.
Financially we have collectively poured money into research, vaccines, countermeasures and prevention, but where has that money actually come from? And can we feasibly borrow that much money from our coffers without a reckoning? Economist Anton Korinek, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the University of Virginia’s Department of Economics and the Darden School of Business thinks: “People sometimes frame the policy response to COVID-19 as a trade-off between lives and livelihoods, and they ask whether it’s worth killing our economy to save people’s lives. But what they forget is that people won’t go back to a normal life and consumer demand won’t really recover if the virus is spreading through our country and killing people.” But the result of these hard choices and repeat closures, is they now predict an impending worldwide recession of global proportions, which had already been mounting prior to the pandemic, but promises to be far greater in its aftermath. I don’t think we’ve even begun to see the fall out; it begins with massive inflation but that’s just the start.
History tells us when we go through challenging times and survive, ‘the near miss experience’ as it’s known as, we want to live more than ever before, but economically this will not be possible for so many who are robbed of their financial security because of inflation, redundancy, underemployment and post-covid illness. We should be mindful that none of us are all right if many of us are still suffering and if we can support those who struggle, this battle with covid should have taught us all that we should care more about each other.
Perhaps these are the steps we can take to move toward a new post-pandemic future, where we consider ways, we may be better prepared for an invariable future of emerging viruses. We can try to find ways to avoid spilling into areas with high disease potential. “According to a group of UN biodiversity experts, around 1.7 million unidentified viruses circulate in animal populations, of which 540,000 to 850,000 have the capacity to infect humans.” So, we can avoid wet markets, and sloppy scientific research, both of which are vectors for the spread of viruses. We can pay more emerging virus hunters  to seek out those emerging viruses and begin work on treatments before they devastate countries. We can be borderless in our unanimous approach to equity for all, especially access to healthcare.
In America, we learned we were far from unassailable. In a New York Times article about Covid Deaths, the authors wrote: “For all the encouragement that American health leaders drew from other countries’ success in withstanding the Omicron surge, the outcomes in the U.S. have been markedly different. Hospital admissions in the U.S. swelled to much higher rates than in Western Europe, leaving some states struggling to provide care. Americans are now dying from Covid at nearly double the daily rate of Britons and four times the rate of Germans.” Nothing can diminish that fatal statistic or rectify the unnecessary deaths. Our healthcare system, considered superior, proved to be full of holes. Without some type of socialised healthcare our costs and resources are too high and scarce. We don’t value the front-line workers like nurses, porters, assistants and care staff and we do not pay them for the risks they take, and whilst we do pay doctors good wages, we have severe shortages of knowledge and progress. Finding out we didn’t have enough ventilators, masks for medical staff, PCP equipment and beyond, exposed the shame of putting profit over people. 
It is no surprise then that the UK and USA were among the top offenders in the rise and spread of the pandemic and their death rates exposed this. No one ethnic group appears to be at greater risker of dying from the virus based on ethnicity alone, but Hispanic, Black, and native Americans or AIAN people are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their White counterparts and that Hispanic and AIAN people are at one and a half times greater risk of COVID-19 infection than White people. This is caused by social reasons (inequality) not ethnicity, as can be proven by Africa and some AIAN countries having some of the lowest Covid mortality rates. In the article ‘Racism not Genetics’ in Scientific American, the authors point out “the genes that influence skin colour are distributed independently of genes that influence the risk for any particular disease. Given the heterogeneity of groups we call “black” or “white,” treating those categories as proxies for genetic variation almost always leads us astray.”
Even if there are increased susceptibilities related to blood type and age (More than 81% of COVID-19 deaths occur in people over age 65. The number of deaths among people over age 65 is 97 times higher than the number of deaths among people ages 18-29 years). The real risk is how healthy the population is and whether they have safe access to healthcare. Both America and the UK failed because they put profit above people and have large populations of sickly people. Going forward this needs to change, which means redesigning what we prioritise. People need to have access to healthcare and make lifestyle changes that will reduce their risks which they cannot do if they cannot afford to see a doctor or in the case of the UK find it hard to see a doctor because of long wait times and reduced staffing. It’s not as simple as socializing healthcare as the UK proved, this alone doesn’t save lives, what saves lives is considering the larger picture.
But politicians gain from older populations dying, consider what happened in Brazil when the President denied the danger of Covid and for a time Brazil had the highest Covid mortality. This is the harsh truism rarely mentioned: It benefits those in control of a society to lose the most fragile members who will suck up precious resources, much like a form of eugenics, it behooves them to let it happen and there are many examples. For a politician who is looking for ways to reduce healthcare costs, what is better than some of the potentially most expensive ‘customers’ dying? This happened in France where number of elderly people died one Summer, shockingly little was said at the time, but all signs pointed to a collective signal of relief from those in power who benefited from less older people making claim on an already taxed medical system.
When Italy and Spain  and Brazil  became epicenters of Covid 19 deaths, they did so because of ill preparedness and it’s a cautionary tale to witness which countries succumbed to the ravages of covid 19 repeatedly, versus those who learned from them. What we have learned is more, not less, needs to be done and if a country keeps its borders open including air-travel and business-travel, then as much as they hope to save their economy, they do so at the expense of their most vulnerable. For some countries this was a conscious choice (economy over lives) whereas for others it was poor communication and slow response times. For some a lack of money, for others a desire to gain at any cost. All this speaks of the tapestry that is the pandemic’s aftermath (and truly, is it really vanquished?).
I’d love to say a new post pandemic future looks rosy, but the only way that happens is if we learn from our mistakes, which history tells us, we rarely do. The most important thing is empathy, when we saw others take their masks off and simply not care if the vulnerable died, we saw how bad we as humans can fall. But we also saw how wonderful humans can be, including the infinite sacrifice and compassion of thousands who sought to help strangers. If there is a way, we can reward the good and not the bad, if we can get our priorities right and stop paying sports figures astronomical sums but perhaps emphasise on compassion, kindness, and diligence, we can all grow together.
I was particularly moved by youth who in the turmoil of the pandemic created inventions or systems to help others. Believing youth are our future, and thus, our hope, it gives me great faith in the future when I see those too young to vote, care for strangers and seek to do their part. We should always encourage this as we should encourage a continued dialogue into how we can create an international rapid response to emerging diseases. It is not if, but when, and now all of us should know this and have no excuse for putting our heads in the sand again. Yes, it hurts to think of it, yes, we’d rather go off and have fun, but what fun is it if we are only postponing the inevitable return of a lethal virus? Part of being responsible for our planet and each other, is not avoiding the harsh truths; of environmental changes and devastation, global poverty, continued inequality and elitism, and of course, the increasing risk of deadly diseases.
We have within us all, the power to effect change. The steps we should take to move toward a post pandemic future must necessarily include keeping our eyes open and not taking the easy road. Sure, governments don’t want to spend the money on research, science, virus hunters, predictions. And preparedness, but I challenge anyone to say this isn’t exactly what they need to do. It is necessary we keep this in mind when we vote and protest. We should be marching about this as much as any other cause, because it affects us all and equally, brings us all together with one cause.
Thinking in terms of one world, we are less divided than ever before and whilst we were separated, I think we also found ways to come together if we choose to. I say, we should. Because, together globally, we learn more than we ever would divided. With the offensive by Russia on Ukraine, we see the lunacy of war, the futility, the devastation and waste. Instead of pouring millions into wars and keeping the rich, rich at the cost of the poor and overworked, we should consider how we can all rise out of the mire and evolve towards a better future. But in order to achieve this we cannot be complacent, and we cannot let our guard down.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Featuring poetry by Lesya Bakun, Rhys Hughes, Ron Pickett, Michael R Burch, Kirpal Singh, Suzanne Kamata, Mini Babu, Malachi Edwin Vethamani, Sybil Pretious and Mitali Chakravarty
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
-- Wasteland (1922) by TS Eliot
These lines from a hundred year old poem by TS Eliot continue to cry out to be part of our civilisation’s ethos as do the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s pacifist song, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind‘ which wonders : “Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly/Before they’re forever banned?” The world continues to war destroying nature, lives and a common human’s need to exist in peace and go about his daily tasks, secure that the family will meet in their home for dinner and a good night’s rest. Cries of humanity in crisis from the battle grounds of Ukraine take precedence as Ukrainian Lesya Bakun writes about the plight of the people within the country stalked by violence and death.
REFUGEE IN MY OWN COUNTRY/ I AM UKRAINEBy Lesya Bakun (07.03.2022, Ukraine)
I am Kharkiv.
I am Volnovakha.
I am Kyiv.
I am the blocked Mariupol on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe.
I am the completely destroyed
City of Shchastia --
That is literally translated as "happiness" --
Where people have to sit in the bomb shelters,
Because nothing else is preserved.
The Russian troops are not letting them out.
I am Ukraine.
I am a fighter.
I am a refugee
In my own country.
What's in the minds of Russians?
Nine years ago, I was in Strasbourg, France.
Seven years ago, I was in Dublin, Ireland.
Two years ago, I was in Istanbul, Turkey.
Today, I am
In an internally displaced people’s centre --
In a city that I cannot even publicly disclose
For the security of too many families
Who are fleeing to remain safe.
"The Ukrainian IT company N has left the markets of Russia and Belarus forever".
We should have done it eight years ago.
We should have done it thirty-one years ago.
A lot of my friends are switching from Russian to Ukrainian.
We should have done that thirty-one years ago
So that no one comes to "protect us".
I am the gasoline
that NATO sent us
Instead of closing the sky --
Apparently so that we can burn
The Budapest Memorandum
We have seen the real face of Russians
They negotiated green corridors
And started shelling from the heavy weaponry.
Evacuation is cancelled.
"I wish you survival,
And the closed sky above you."
As the battle rages and razes, some react to what we have gleaned from media reports, some of which move hearts with stories of bravery and the spirit of the people battling the invaders who kill and destroy what they cannot possess… But can freedom of thought and resilience ever be destroyed?
THEY SHALL NOT PASSBy Rhys Hughes
They shall not pass
we cried as we held the pass
against the enemy.
And our sleepy student
days in sunlight
suddenly seemed long gone
and very far away
though it was only
a few weeks since war began.
Would such times
ever return? We had no idea.
Now the conflict is over
and the years pass
with increasing velocity
and right here
in the rebuilt city I am young
no longer. I am
the teacher: it is my turn.
And as I watch my students
dozing in sunlight
instead of revising for exams
an old refrain fills
my head: They shall not pass.
ADVANTAGE INTRUDERBy Ron Pickett
The sun edges over the cluttered horizon.
The cell towers, eucalyptus and large water tank are comforting.
The sun slowly fills the dark.
Life is safe and warm and good – for now.
The sun slides below the western horizon in Kyiv and darkness returns.
The dark brings its special unseen terrors.
The rumble and rattle of distant rockets and bombs.
The roar of jets and the throb of helicopters.
Flashes of light fill the night sky but there are no storms in the distance.
The earth trembles: the people quiver.
Daylight is ten long hours away, we who have been there remember, and shudder.
There are patches of dirty snow on the ground.
On trees and shrubs and the Peoples Friendship Arch.
And under the rubble of bombed buildings.
The snow is marked by the black stains of explosions and the red stains.
The snow will melt with the coming of spring, but the stains will remain.
The stains are physical and psychological and deep.
Dark is the province of the predator.
Dark is a comforting cover for the aggressor.
Dark is the source of fear and anguish for the weak.
This predator is man who can see in the dark.
To see at night is a huge advantage.
FRAIL ENVELOPE OF FLESHBy Michael R Burch
for the mothers and children of Ukraine
Frail envelope of flesh,
lying cold on the surgeon’s table
with anguished eyes
like your mother’s eyes
and a heartbeat weak, unstable ...
Frail crucible of dust,
brief flower come to this—
your tiny hand
in your mother’s hand
for a last bewildered kiss ...
Brief mayfly of a child,
to live two artless years!
Now your mother’s lips
seal up your lips
from the Deluge of her tears ...
FOR A UKRANIAN CHILD WITH BUTTERFLIESBy Michael R Burch
Where does the butterfly go ...
when lightning rails ...
when thunder howls ...
when hailstones scream ...
when winter scowls ...
when nights compound dark frosts with snow ...
where does the butterfly go?
Where does the rose hide its bloom
when night descends oblique and chill,
beyond the capacity of moonlight to fill?
When the only relief’s a banked fire’s glow,
where does the butterfly go?
And where shall the spirit flee
when life is harsh, too harsh to face,
and hope is lost without a trace?
Oh, when the light of life runs low,
where does the butterfly go?
THE TIMES, THE MORALSBy Kirpal Singh
(After Ee Tiang Hong)
Tempers flake, bruise
Blood swells veins
As memories burn.
When reason prevailed
And men talked --
Now it’s tit for tat
Know no restraint.
We pray n plead
For sanity’s return
As pall bearers
Carry another dead.
When will all this horror, violence and sorrow end? Will there be peace anytime soon… many voices across the globe join in quest of harmony.
A VIEW OF MT. FUJI (March 3, 2022)
By Suzanne Kamata
On the third day
of the third month
of the fourth year of
Beautiful Harmony (Reiwa)
which followed the era of
Heiwa (Peaceful Harmony)
my husband, son, and I traveled to Gotemba.
We checked into our mostly vacant hotel
wandered the grounds amongst
oaks and bamboo and volcanic rocks
gazed upon the majestic mountain
symbol of Japan.
Mt. Fuji stood
calm and dormant and frilled by cloud
spotlit by late afternoon sun.
As we stared in wonder and awe
an explosion resounded.
A black helicopter
like the ones over Kyiv
flew into view.
I recalled the military vehicles
we’d passed on the highway
those young men driving to
practice for self-defence.
When will there be peace in Ukraine?
When will there be peace in the world?
RUSSIA AND UKRAINE
By Mini Babu
After the war,
the repose of the dead,
settles over the nations.
The leaders will smile,
shake hands and
interchange the bodies
of the dead, maimed,
each will dust
that which belongs to
the other, wash
their hands and
Children hold on
expecting their fathers,
fathers never come back
And I, the ordinary,
instruct my children
how historic these names
are for examination.
Putin and Zelensky.
PEACE TALKS IN THE FOREST
By Sybil Pretious
I sit on the hard cushion of root, foundation of growth
Peace talks to me in the forest
Leaning against the rough trunk bark, feeling of strength
Peace talks to me in the forest
Above the leaves, cover me with a protective shade
Peace talks to me in the forest
Flowers flutter giving a splash of colour
Peace talks to me in the forest
Seeds heralding new life hang, dispersed on the wind
Peace talks to me in the forest
And I wonder
Why do warring nations not meet in forests
For peace talks
where peace talks.
PRICE OF PEACE
By Malachi Edwin Vethamani
a gentle brook,
natural and real.
not things to come,
We arrive as beings of peace.
One with all around us,
same flesh, same blood.
Then labels are thrust upon us.
baptised into communities,
branded as nations.
bind us and blind us.
We shed our individual beings,
stitched into communities.
If you are not with us
You are against us, they say.
Taking a stand
comes with a price.
The price is often peace.
This is yet another call to stop a war.
A new plea for peace.
A shout out for prayers.
The callers change
with each new
This too will pass.
How much will remain?
How much decimated?
Then these cries will be repeated.
What is lost?
Is anything ever gained?
We will smell
the stink of death
and see the rubble of destruction.
All the display of human unkindness
we inflict on our fellow beings.
What new enterprise,
has brought on this new war?
Surely, no noble cause
can condone this waste of lives.
Whose monuments will we pull down now?
What new statues will we raise for self-proclaimed heroes?
What of the spouses who lost their partners?
What of the parents who lost their children?
Children and citizenry
Crushed and broken.
WASTELAND REVISITED AFTER A CENTURY By Mitali Chakravarty
The river flowed with debris, with bodies
of the dead. When the waters reddened
with corpses crossing borders on a train,
nightmares haunted myriads of lives.
The undead cried till infecting more, the
anger, the hatred spread. That was more than
seven decades ago. History repeats itself.
Will it ever stop? This hatred? This war?
Does killing, destroying ever help? Does
it dissolve the buried hate, the anger, the
deaths? Swigging blood like vodka, the madmen
brew war with oil, weapons, the threat of nukes
to annihilate all lives — make barren the Earth.
Cosmic clouds gather to thunder,
‘Da, datta, dayadham, damyata’ till peace
comes with love songs that echo through the
Universe. A Brahmic vision of kalpas like waves
ebb and flow, calming the cries of tortured souls.
Oh God! Help us learn Mercy. When will the
white horse ride to our rescue? Or was that all
a myth? Kalki? Does the white horse ride out of each
soul to form a lightening that dispels mushroom clouds?
Peace be unto you.
Om Shantih, Shantih, Shantih!
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Candice Louisa Daquin explores war and peace pausing over the attack on Ukraine
War is among the main stays in human history. Is anything more instinctive than to go to war? I’ve never been able to relate to this but perhaps that’s because I have the advantage of living in a society where we’re protected from the literalisms of war. Or perhaps it’s because I’m female, although I don’t think it is as simple as being a male prerogative (though we can never be sure until a history of women making decisions proves this). To the outsider, war always seems futile. But what we must always do in order to fully understand something is to understand the other side. Not our own opinions but those we do not comprehend. As French philosopher Albert Camus said: “We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realise that we know where it lives…inside ourselves.”
Why would anyone ever want to go to war?
Imagine the first reason war was enacted. Was it as simple as Cain and Abel? Or one village attacking another village? One child attacking another child?
War tends to be on a larger scale, but perhaps it begins on a smaller scale.
It is said murderers have ‘symptoms’ of evolving as killers as do rapists and predators. If this is true, then watching children and seeing them skinning a cat as a predictor to future violence, could also be applied to war-mongering behaviour. Or conversely, could we establish what experiences that child has that engenders him/her to favour war?
If children who become violent often witness violence, then it stands to reason children who support wars or encourage wars, may witness something that in their minds is pro-war. What could it be? If you grow up in a war-torn country, surely you are more likely to seek peace and an end to violence, than to crave it? The fifth century famed military strategist Sun Tzu is quoted as saying: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Is war about the appearance of bravery or perceptions of strength? Ironically, Sun Tzu also said: “The wise warrior avoids the battle.” But do we follow this wisdom?
Studies show wars are committed by groups who are cohesive and decide (on invasion) and groups who defend. In essence, there is an aggressor and a protector. Sometimes wars start with two aggressors, but rarely with two protectors (this would cancel the desire for war out). Therefore, the thing everyone has in common who enters a war, is they are either seeking to invade or protect.
If people did not seek to protect, the invader would arrive and receive no resistance, and thus there would be no war. Sadly, it wouldn’t stop the invaders from say, raping and pillaging, so laying down arms and hoping for fairness, may lead to slaughter and oppression.
If people did not seek to invade, there would be no need to go to war.
What are the main reasons historically people have warred? Over land. Religion is a close second. The historic wars were over disputes of land or religion or other reasons related to both of these. The seizure of assets is related to greed/wealth/power, same as seeking to enslave people or promote an agenda (social control – another form of power). Essentially then all invasions can be reduced to one sentence: Seeking power.
One group believes they should have (more) power over another group. They invade. The other group defends or capitulates. This is the essence of war.
If we assume then most wars are enacted over a need to gain power of one sort or another, the next question becomes; Are all humans as likely to war? Or do certain societies promote war more than others? Throughout history there have been wars, many times one group did not want to go to war but were forced to in order to defend themselves. It implies there are those who are (warmongers) and there are those who are not (peacemakers or pacifists) and possibly while the latter may not seek war, they get involved if there is no alternative.
War then is to some extent – a luxury. Odd that if this is so, it’s often during the hardest times in human experience that a war begins. Wouldn’t you think if war is a luxury (by being a choice, as no war is enacted because the invaders have no choice), they’d choose not to go to war during hard times? Yet, the reverse is true.
We’re still in the struggling with the pandemic, but instead of seeking reconciliation and safety, Vladimir Putin has started the invasion into Ukraine. On the face of things this makes no sense because Russia must be hurting economically post the pandemic. To go to war when you are struggling seems madness.
Yet if this is often the case, maybe it’s like when everything is hard, people are less balanced and considerate than when things are easier? People are more charitable when they feel they can be, versus when it’s an emergency. That’s when they start looting and trampling over others. There is an inherent selfishness to humanity where they feel. “If I am alright I might be charitable but if I’m not alright you’re on your own’. It takes a really truly charitable person to stay behind and help others. Most people flee.
If we use this ‘typical’ personality trait and then apply it to a megalomaniac leader, it becomes less surprising they would choose an inopportune moment to strike. Perhaps it’s as inconvenient for everyone else as it is for Putin, therefore they have the element of surprise and inconvenience. They strike when the iron is hot, so to speak. The other impact of war is misdirection. If everyone believes something won’t happen (the invasion of Poland by Germany 1939 in WW2) when it does happen, everyone’s so surprised that they have a delayed reaction (which adds to the invader’s strengthen).
War strategy aside, do some people actually relish war ‘games’ and enjoy the enactment and planning of war? Boys are taught culturally to play with guns, war-gaming, mock-battles etc. If they were not, I suspect they would be no more inclined to go to war than a woman. Then again since we cannot prove or disprove this, we can only guess what is nature and what is nurture. Without doubt, the machinations of the war ‘machine’ promote an ideology of war – not unlike the machinations of a religion to promote an ideology. It’s a form of brain washing. Perhaps, one can agree that “In war, truth is the first casualty.”
When countries encourage a percentage of their population to join the military and have a robust army, they tend to be primarily pro-war – in that – they may not wish to die fighting nor encourage a war, but if one happens, they’re ready and, perhaps, they want it to happen because that’s what they have trained for. If you spend billions on war machines, would you wish them never to be used? Or would you see them as more than deterrents? Would you want to manufacture all this impressive battalion equipment only to see it do nothing? The problem with the creation of tools of war is then someone wants to use them. It is much like the debate raging in America over whether the ownership of guns perpetuates violence. On the one hand some believe if we didn’t have (access to) guns we’d have less violence or gun-deaths. They point to countries with lower rates of gun-ownership to ratify their beliefs. On the other hand, people say it’s not the gun but the person who wields the gun; if they don’t use a gun, they will use something else. They point to the rates of stabbing deaths and other forms of violence endemic in countries with low gun-ownership and to countries with high gun ownership (Switzerland/Canada) who have low gun crime.
There is no easy answer here. Guns have caused countless futile deaths, and gun ownership is a hot topic not likely to be resolved. But if we had less machines of war, would we be less inclined to go to war? Critics point to this as a reason to scale back the US military, whilst others say without such deterrents there would be more attacks on America (or any country without a robust military) because peace is actually wrought by both sides having enough machines of war (and nuclear weapons) that neither side feels they can strike without the other side striking back – and this is what enables us to avoid war. It’s a pretty twisted scenario that makes sense until someone in power decides – I’m not going to play by those rules. In non-interventionist theory, there was a drive to establish international courts to adjudicate disputes between nations and an emphasis on war contributing to moral decline and brutalisation of society in general. Whether true or not, it hasn’t stopped millions signing up for war.
In considering whether being anti-war is realistic, we must analyse the history of war, why humans go to war, what war means to us and what provokes it, as well as whether we can realistically avoid it? It’s one thing to wish for no war, I think a great many of us would share that perspective. But there is an old joke about this: A woman meets a genii and she gets one wish, she wishes for world peace. The world grinds to a halt. Why would the world grind to a halt? Do we depend on war so much? Personally, I don’t think war keeps us ticking over but if we consider our history, much of what we have done revolved around war of some kind (or the prevention of) and thus, we’d have a very different planet earth today if we had world peace. Classics like All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by German writer Erich Maria Remarque, have become part of a canon of anti-war media, that enduringly influences the pacifist movement. Perhaps without knowing war, we cannot know why war is such a terrible price to pay.
I am utopian in that I would like to see world peace. Imagine a world where people received funding for healthcare and food rather than bullets and violence? But is that like wishing human nature should have been different? Can we ever hope to become enlightened enough to actually stop wars from occurring? In 2022 as with history thus far, humanity as a whole has not been enlightened sufficiently to stop war from occurring. America, as a developed nation, is the only country to have used nuclear bombs on another country in our entire history. A less developed country that has historically been a trigger for war, may have more growing pains and therefore more wars. But let us not believe in ‘developed’ versus ‘developing’ to judge the pacifist intent of one country over another. Historically, we’re all guilty.
“Just war theory has been converted into a form of apologetics for whatever atrocities your favoured state is carrying out,” says Noam Chomsky in his book What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World. It’s not ethnicity, income or development that causes war. It’s human beings. Within us is a penchant for going to war, that cannot easily be explained but clearly has existed since the beginning of (human) time. Until we can come up with alternatives to war, this destructive cycle shows no hope of ending. We can reason ourselves to death, but it only takes one unpredictable leader, the right speech, and we’re at war again. What we know if nothing else is, humans go to war. What we don’t yet know, is how to remove that impulse.
Is it an impulse like sexual attraction or hunger? Something as intrinsic and hard-wired or more of a defense mechanism for men? Again, I think without proof of this, it makes more sense to assume this is a human predilection and not a gender-driven one. Would women go to war as gladly as men? We may not have enough historical precedence to substantiate this issue. It could be argued they were working with a masculine model, but we have no proof either way. Rather than entering the ‘blame game’ what would be a way to avoid war altogether?
Negotiations only go so far. What one country may wish another country to do, doesn’t mean they will. If that country feels that is a deal breaker, then war is on. How can you ever alter that outcome when it’s as common place as two people disagreeing? This will always occur and if those two people are world leaders, then war may be the result. Is it unavoidable even if so many of us wish for peace? What are the ‘necessities’ of peace? German philosopher, Immanuel Kant was one of the earliest exponents of the idea that “perpetual peace could be secured through universal democracy and international cooperation.” Democracy isn’t a save-all and has severe down-sides, making ideas in reality, less like their philosophical ideal. Novelist Victor Hugo contended, “Peace is the virtue of civilisation. War is its crime.”
I feel fortunate I did not grow up in war-torn countries, but even in my lifetime, I have heard of so many wars. All wars are a huge waste of money. Even the World Wars, where nearly every country entered in order to fight off the invading fascists. Whether anti-imperialism, an end to totalitarianism or nuclear disarmament, are the answers for enduring peace, they’re complicated and don’t explain the enduring penchant for violence and war within humanity.
One thing I noticed when I immigrated to America was how many people believed being pro military meant being pro war. People would say things like; ‘they are defending our freedom’ and I would ask; ‘how are they defending our freedom if our freedom was never in jeopardy?’ I felt most of the wars in America since WW2 were completely unnecessary. Not a single one of them was really justified (in terms of it being necessary to defend America against a true threat). Most were born out of paranoia and a need for control (anti-communism) or greed and a need for control (Afghanistan and beyond). They were not ‘as advertised’ meaning the average American thought America invaded countries for one reason but it was often a completely different reason.
When 9/11 happened, the entire world was shocked. America did not have a history of being attacked on their soil since the Civil War (and that, by their own populous). The outrage with a staggering death toll of about 3000 was so stunning that a need for vengeance or rectitude was experienced. The result was the longest drawn war in American history which led to billions being spent and weapons getting into the hands of ‘the enemy’ which so often has been the case. How can this be a good thing? Anymore than creating a generation of young men who seek vengeance for what was done to their countries in the name of ‘freedom.’
The polarisation of religion, culture, politics and ethos seems more acute than ever before. There is no universal agreement and those who sue for peace, must realise that just wishing for it, isn’t going to resolve those long-standing fractions. Maybe it’s simply not in our nature to want to all get along, to avoid war and seek peace. Maybe humans are warmongers and we’ve replaced the hunt of big game with fighting each other. Maybe the veneer of our so-called civilisation is very thin and waiting for any excuse to implode. That said, I’m an optimist. As such I believe there are ways to gain peace and avoid war. I don’t think it’s as simple as putting our weapons down, because someone will always cheat. Trust must be earned and even then. But if we seek the same goal, that’s a start. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it is my hope with every generation we come closer to a rejection of war. There are quite simply, too many other needs and just imagine — if we poured our collective funds into helping those in need, we could live in a paradise instead of buying bullets that erase life. Ultimately every single one of us is responsible for what happens going forward, collectively.
Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nobody can bring you peace but yourself.”
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely. She has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press is called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.
Mike Smith reflects on a short fiction by Russia’s first Nobel Laureate, Ivan Bunin. Could it be a precursor to flash fiction?
‘Un Petit Accident‘ (A small Accident) is one of those tales which will need more words to discuss than will be found in it.
First published in the late 1940s as part of a trio of short pieces this little tale might be seen as a forerunner of our present-day flash fictions and micro fiction. Yet it is in a tradition that stretches back through the prose poem or Illumination to the anecdotes and exemplars of much earlier times. Only recently cast into English, this translation is attributed to Maria Bloshteyn and dated 2017.
Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) fled to France in 1920 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution but unlike many émigrés he was already an established writer and his work is not solely related to the experience of exile.
‘Un Petit Accident’ in my paperback copy of Russian Émigré Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (ed. Bryan Karetnyk, Penguin Classics), runs to a mere 29 lines, yet it packs a punch you might think would need a much wordier arm behind it. For me it’s both a master work and a master class in the short story, illustrating perfectly Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’, and his advice to ‘take everything out that isn’t the story’.
Like a slow camera pan, it traverses the cityscape of Paris. It takes in the sunset, the Palais Bourbon, the Seine, the Place de la Concorde and the Eiffel Tower, before zooming in, near The Madelaine, on the rushing, choking traffic of a Parisian evening. The final shot, in what, to twist the metaphor slightly, might be thought of as a slideshow rather than a moving picture, focuses on a single detail, the significance of which we are left to consider.
There are no named characters, seemingly no protagonist and antagonist, no obvious cycles of increasing jeopardy. The ‘Inciting Incident’, if it is not that sunset, might be in our imaginations and for later. Or perhaps the ‘Obligatory Scene’, if it is that final image, must serve the function of both. It seems that everything that happens in this story has already happened by the time we see it. Yet there is no sequence of actions as such, only the sequence of images that we might mistake for mere setting.
As with much longer short stories, there is the vestige of that common structural oddity of placing the most striking event or revelation slightly ahead of the actual ending, making it part of the preparation and contextualisation of the true ending. And following that shock there is a little addition which poses the question, raises the issue, on which I believe the author wishes us to ponder; the view to which he has brought us.
The collection is furnished with a section of notes about both the writers and individual stories. What they say about this story reveals a lesson in the form. Bunin is quoted; “ ...even with the greatest writers, there are only isolated good passages, and between them – water…”
Karetnyk’s notes go on to say: “these miniatures are an attempt to distil prose into its purest form.” Presumably, that is by getting rid of all that water.
Earlier in the piece he has described Bunin’s tales as ‘terse’, but in this case I did not find it so. Rather the opposite. I’d want to use the word lush. That opening sunset, painted in a three and half line, verbless sentence – which a professor of English in the nineteen seventies categorized because of that lack as being a ‘label’ rather than a ‘message’– is rich with colour: “…the enormous panel of sky covered in strokes of murky colours,mellow and many hued…” The city too is awash with description: ‘Slim spikes of greenish gas flames are strewn throughout thepistachio haze of the city,’
It’s one of the most description packed little tales I’ve read. It brought to mind the startling contrast with an earlier and longer tale by Mary Mann, in which a bare half dozen words sprinkled throughout describe the rural Norfolk in which her story is set. It is sometimes averred that description kills story, disrupts the narrative, brings action to a halt, but here Bunin’s tale is almost all description, a colourful, noisy kaleidoscope of sights and sounds. “Now darkness falls, and the candelabra of the Place de la Concordecast their reflective silvery glow, while up in the black summits the lugubriously flowing lights of the Eiffel Tower flicker like lightning.”
The sequence is constructed of easily imaginable images, and when we have reached the ending and come to re-read the piece, we might pay more attention to the ambience of those sounds and sights. They are what make the context for our arrival at the final image. They are what prejudice our frame of mind for understanding and speculating about the deeper meaning of what we are being brought to encounter. The purpose of the story, and you might argue, the storyness of it, is in our reaction to what we ‘see’. Conrad is quoted as saying he wanted to “make us see” in his writing and Bunin here does just that. But it is up to us alone to grapple with the significance of what we have been told.
On closer inspection we might see that Bunin has given us more than just intense colour, form, and movement. That it is a single paragraph story is notable. In a story of thirty lines there is room for a handful of paragraphs, but the fact that Bunin uses one alone need be no ‘petitaccident‘. It gives the story a structural unity, such as you might expect to find in a painting or photograph.
The painting has it for me, with those ‘murky’ and ‘many-hued’ colours, but a painting of what? Despite the lack of protagonist or antagonist, at first glance, there is the anonymous man on whom our gaze comes to rest at what might be called the ‘crisis’ of the action, and there is one other ‘character’, referred to rather than present, and whose ‘unseen hand is smoothly conducting’. At this change point in the story, as the traffic locks and our focus is narrowed down onto and into a single vehicle, it ‘seems as if the hand has flinched’.
‘Seems’ is one of those words that, in a short story especially, should set our radars tingling, because it usually denotes, or at least raises the possibility, that what seems is not what is. And whose hand might that be which might be doing something other than flinching? It certainly isn’t a human hand. Is it a hand that has acted decisively? And the ‘fiery Babylon’ that Bunin describes with its ‘spikes of greenish gas’, its ‘darkness’ blazing, might seem more Hellish than Heavenly. I was reminded of apocalyptic visions in John Martin’s paintings.
My last paragraph contains a ‘spoiler’, and those who read to find out what happens next might prefer to stop here!
When we reach the story’s end, we are told of a “fast little auto, vividly yet softly lit inside” where a man in evening dress is “slumped over his steering wheel“. The narrative thread is almost imperceptible. The movement, lights and sounds, have seemed random rather than directional. Bunin’s tale has been told in the present tense, yet here, at the sticking point of the end, we are seeing events not so much unfold as having already unfolded. The focus neatly closes in, with mention of ‘matte top hat’, then closer still: “His eyes are closed…” The final words pull back a little, as we have recoiled from what we have recognised: “his young, tritely classical face is already looking like a mask.”
It is a mask, we understand, from behind which the spirit of life has already withdrawn.
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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