April 14, 2013

As towns with fire: so won, so lost

Anthony C. West, As Towns With Fire (1968):

No one seemed to know how wonderful it was to wake and listen to trees talking to new mornings and it was disturbing, even frightening, to realise that these fellows couldn’t seem to hear a thrush or blackbird while they could look up and accept the physical reality of hundreds of loaded bombers rumbling eastwards to rendezvous on Germany.

Had he the mind, he was more free than in civvy street to call the war names, since all his companions disliked and mistrusted it now they were next door to the risk of operations. They had bluffed an early enthusiasm to cream off the doubtful disappearing glamour and were realising that press and politician had coaxed them into hazard: they had only wanted to fly and to experience flying much as young bucks wanted to roar about on motor bicycles and drive fast cars with innocent simulation of sexually mature importance, a pillion or a car seat a kind of bed with the ghost of a woman on it: sex and its impotent extensions.

But free as he was to name the war its dirty name or intimately to describe the erotic possibilities of a waafine nest, he couldn’t say: look, now, how lovely that old oak. It was an acorn when Shakespeare died in Stratford. To hate, to scorn, to be salaciously falstaffian and sexually cynical was legal and logical but to love the conversation of a branch with wind was abnormal: sex, some blood and something of the flag – although these lower bourgeois boyos knew nothing of it more than newspapers untold them.

He could see freedom and could see unfreedom and know how much he was free and was unfree and watching these others he could see how they were free and how, on their own terms and expectations, they couldn’t be free since no one had bothered how to teach them how to make thinking. He had slowly moved away from many elementary notions of existence, from most of the things these boys were trying hopefully to grow into before the hairs on their chins were able to stand up to a razor: the forcing-house of war had hurried them, miscalling them fighting men, mature martyrs to chauvinism disguised as patriotism. Nevertheless it was very lonely: he felt old and able if necessary to die, as of senility.

War was not unique and this one was only a little more concentrated, noisier, better bruited. Nature was incessant war and contained it even as space held stars. If he asked nature what life was, she immediately answered: it is death, the sum of death as life is total living and dying. Were he to mention death in a conversation he would never live down a morbid reputation: it was so unfair to teach the fellows how to kill and not also to teach them how to die. The ancient tribal priest-chiefs were more charitable.

Peace: it was much more difficult and diffuse to wage. Sometimes for seconds he was really peaceful, sweetly tense, not lax. Peace was a terrible thing to endure, everyone scared of it, scared of drowning in it, rather to get drunk. No one really wanted peace. They only wanted plenty, plus safe excitement. ...

The boys in the billets had often talked of a Butch Harris, Bomber Command’s top brass who wielded the whole air force like a whip and put all Germans, good bad and indifferent, women, aged and children, as much in the front line as battle-hardened soldiers, it being popularly assumed that an experienced soldier was not any longer a suffering human being. He often wondered what these aloof leaders and high-ranked officers were as fallible human beings, what hates and loves they had as children, what fears and snubbed frustrations; naked they were only men, two-legged, two-armed, headed, bald men with or without chest hair, they bathed, ate, shat, pissed, breathed, sweated in heat and shivered in cold, scratched themselves when itchy, cleaned their teeth, cut their nails, shaved, belched, were sometimes tipsy, laughed, swore, were angry, pleased, proud, boarded their wives or concubines in the laid-down way, pushed home their common phalluses and endured the passing storm; and yet the nation gave them zeus-powers, their signature sufficient to kill ten thousand men. Maybe they even went to church and prayed and took the Elements, had gracious children . . . and O what was this demonism of power to make them all so ruthlessly mad. Did they not know they would die and meet the faceless legions of their slain?

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It’d be a hell of a thing, going about and meeting one’s mere estimations of people. Some saint has said that if we could really meet and listen to another instead of trying to murder him with preconceptions, we’d hear the voice of Jesus Christ, Himself. We all use each other like a gambler uses a deck of cards. If we don’t stop doing that, sooner or later we’ll have to put up with blokes like Hitler or Joe Stalin, the big professionals, their jokers regiments of secret police who really would act on their prejudiced psychopathic estimations.

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Last daylight lingered slowly into moonlight as a rising moon in a green cirrus-ring rose swiftly – a moon-dawn reversing all the shadows’ leaning, autumn’s grey mist filling up the land’s shallows like a flooding tide, as if in memory of the days when seas broke their waves across this same sandy shore: time the long rememberer.