Monthly Archives: May 2016

Perspective

Two years ago I went on a WW1 Battlefields tour trip. We visited a lot of sites in the Ypres area and across the Somme. Among the cemeteries we visited was Langemark. It’s a small place, just off the side of the road, and if you didn’t know it was there it would be difficult to spot. It is a rare sight on the WW1 landscape: a German cemetery.

Langemark_German_War_Graves_2011_06

Langemark

If you have driven through Belgium and northern France, you will probably have seen numerous war cemeteries. There are almost an uncountable number through Flanders and the Salient. Small clusters of bright, creamy headstones and crosses. Mini cenotaphs and mausoleums. Some mark where units fell during operations and missions. Some are planned and gather the dead from different local events. But they are everywhere. On sunny days the stones catch that light and beam it out. On overcast days they huddle like ghosts, still faintly glowing in the murk. They are VISIBLE. Rightly so. I am in no way saying they shouldn’t be. The War Graves Commission has done and continues to do an amazing job marking and recording all these sites; maintaining them and allowing visitors the chance to reflect, commemorate and connect with family they lost.

tyne cot

Tyne Cot

Langemark, though, is a different affair. Against the hundreds of ‘Allied’ war memorials and cemeteries in Belgium, there are thirteen German ones. That’s all. The guide who took us to Langemark was Belgian, and he was clear as to the reason why: the Belgians didn’t want them. I can understand that: here were the casualties of the enemy. Here were the reason so many of their own had died. Many fallen German soldiers were of course repatriated. But the ones that remain are spread between these thirteen cemeteries.

Where the bright, white headstones of the British, the Irish, the Canadian, South African, Australian, French, Belgian (and so many more) troops stand straight and tall on parade, the Langemark graves are flat. The grave markers are dark, not white. The cemetery is enclosed by a low, unassuming wall. The site is under a lot more tree cover. There under sufferance. ‘You can have your cemeteries,’ the Belgians said, ‘but only if we can almost pretend they’re not there.’

Tyne Cot was a sombre place, but with a heart of gratefulness. I cried when I saw a double headstone for a grave containing the remains of four people. I was doing fine until someone else on the trip asked me why the grave was arranged that way; why the inscription said “believed to be” above each name. ‘The clue is in the designation,’ I told him. It was an artillery crew. Gunners. These four men were possibly manning a gun when it was shelled, and so they knew which four soldiers were on the crew. They perhaps found their name and regiment badges. But they couldn’t tell which man was which… I am fighting the tears again now thinking about it.

Langemark was sombre alright, but with an undercurrent of shame. It was gloomy and cold due to the thick canopy of trees. We did not linger. The grave markers were written in German (unsurprisingly). There was no memorial with a cross on the top. There were just four bronze, faceless men, remembering their comrades as best they could.

Langemark-German-Cemetery

Why am I telling you all about this? You see, history is written by the victors. It’s the social version of evolution. The stories, legends, grudges of the past get passed down to the next generation and then the next. In another few years we will start to see the last survivors of WW2 finally passing away, as those from WW1 have already done. Their legacy, apart from the sadly unheeded plea for such a conflict to never happen again, is History, with a capital H. It’s what we are taught in schools, see on documentaries, get stung by in the pub quiz. It moulds our consciousness and we don’t even realise. We take these stories as fact. They refer to real events and people, but they are relayed by people with an emotional investment. The phrase “there are three sides to a story: my side, your side, and the truth” did not come from nothing.

I am in no way trying to belittle the actions of those in the Great War or any conflict since. I am not trying to say people lied about events or have deliberately distorted the past (though I am sure that has also happened). I am just trying to navigate storytelling.

Onto a slightly lighter version of the last seven hundred words: Draco Malfoy. He’s not the star of the Harry Potter series, though he is not the Big Bad either (and we cannot name who is!). There are a few of these memes around, but this is my favourite one:

draco

It is natural, I suppose, to tell a story from the hero’s point of view. That’s one hell of a tale. It may even be full of sound and fury! We get that spark of an idea: save the princess, diffuse the bomb, stop the Apocalypse. There is nothing wrong with those stories. But how would they look if they were told by the losers instead of the victors? Draco’s version of Harry Potter is a little different, no?

jafar

Dylan Saunders as Jafar in ‘Twisted’

What about Aladdin? I’m sure I’ve talked about this before. StarKid wrote and performed a musical called Twisted, which is a parody of Aladdin told from Jafar’s point of view. In the story, Aladdin is an arrogant, psychotic wastrel who is thirty-three and still tries to mack on the teenage princess. Jafar is an idealistic government official trying to end “the socio-economic inequality” of the kingdom, but is constantly foiled by the selfish and incompetent Sultan (and other Viziers). This in turn sprang from the Wicked series by Gregory Maguire. If you haven’t heard of those, it’s the Wizard of Oz from the POV of the Wicked Witch of the West.

wicked

How would the stories you tell be turned around if the vanquished were the narrators? Do villains see themselves as villainous? We are all in that chain of narrative somewhere after all. Arthur Dent is a monster to Agrajag. How would Lord of the Rings look if Sauron were the hero? There he is, just trying to rule his lands, when the races of Men et al decide to overthrow him. Even the trees get in on the action! I mean, Sauron has built a stable economy, there’s almost no unemployment, he’s got heavy industry going on… and then an invading army – including ghosts/the undead don’t forget! – storm the gates and some undergrown guerrilla fighters infiltrate the fortress.

good guy sauron

Although this type of story clearly lends itself to parodies of existing work, I for one am keen to explore my options on this. I want a story where the hero… isn’t. Or where the “good things” the heroes do have bad consequences for Joe Public (I’m thinking collateral damage of a huge wizard duel). Or even that someone thinks they’re being the hero and starts this huge chain of events in Righteous Indignation, but then it turns out they were totally wrong and they have done some major damage for no reason. Or hey, a story that isn’t so A vs B. Shades of grey, people. Count them! But not beyond forty-nine…

All I’m saying is, don’t forget the Langemarks when you’re thundering through the Tyne Cots. If a narrative is to have depth, it needs to consider more angles than “well they’re doing it because they’re evil”, or “they just do the right thing!” There are more than forty four thousand people at Langemark, including 24000 in a mass grave. Some will never be identified, but they are all important. Germany was not wiped off the map, after all. Their survivors have their own stories to tell. Their own History is quietly grieving in the shadows under the oak trees.

Who will remain after your fantasy battles? And how will your hero treat the dead?

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Pontificating

Wow, so, hey! What a turn up for the books (pun always intended). Let’s catch you up:

I still haven’t finished Rivka’s Christmas present and her birthday is right around the corner as well. Oops! She’s super into scarves and headwrapping at the moment though so I imagine a couple of lovely layering linens will go down a treat. Or maybe that’s to throw her off the scent and I’m going to buy her books. Or make her something… Hmmm… I guess in a month we’ll find out.

I am still reading. Always reading. Not doing very well with Book Bingo. A lot of the books I have don’t fit into those categories… but I’m working on it. There’s no time limit, right? Right?

I have, however, read an amazing debut novel from Paul M M Cooper. River of Ink is a sumptuous narrative set in Sri Lanka in the thirteenth century. Cooper himself hesitates to call it ‘historical fiction’ (as you can hear for yourselves in the Papertrail podcast interview he did). I can see why: it’s very much a character piece so really the history side of it is just the window dressing. But it’s an extremely beautiful window. The story is told by Asanka the court poet. He is translating an epic saga poem for his new master. The world of Sri Lanka is exquisitely constructed – Cooper has clearly done a lot of research and I think spent time over there getting to know his locations firsthand – and the language is poetic, as you would expect, but not laboured.

river

Asanka is narrating the tale to his lover, who appears in the tale as well, and his relationship with her also tells us a lot about his character. Asanka is quite set in his ways but if he considers something worthwhile he will stubbornly and doggedly pursue it. He excuses his transgressions on occasion, while being critical of others, but the strength he doesn’t know he has slowly comes to the surface. He is a reluctant hero, and he fights his war with words. Be in no doubt: it is a story of conflict and violence and death, but Cooper weaves those harsh moments deftly through the real point of the story. He clearly very much loves words and language and poetry. Hang on, do I mean Asanka or Cooper? Both. Oh, very both.

I had the joy or reading part of this book in a beautifully painted roulotte caravan and being surrounded by peacock motifs, turquoise, purples and greens while reading on a chaise longue was almost like heaven. I mean, I don’t think I can attribute that to Cooper, but hey why not.

Other than listening to some audiobook Neverwhere (narrated by Neil Gaiman himself who as you know is not always my favourite person but at least he gets to make the characters sound the way he intended them to and he doesn’t do a bad job) I have almost from nowhere discovered podcasts. I know. I’ve always been behind the curve. My friend Jim told me I should listen to Hello, From the Magic Tavern and since I always listen to Jim I did so. Fifty episodes in, I’m now trying to eke them out as I don’t want to catch up so quickly and run out of them! Waiting for a new episode every week is for losers #Netflixgeneration

magictavern1

If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a comedy podcast hosted by Arnie Niekamp from Chicago. He fell through a dimensional portal in a Burger King drive-thru and landed in a magical land called Foon. He hosts the podcast (so lucky that he had the equipment with him in his car!) from a tavern called the Vermillion Minotaur and usually he co-hosts with a wizard called Usidore and a shapeshifter called Chunt. They have local guests and tell stories and Arnie is trying to get his head around life in Foon. It’s mostly improvised and they do try to trip each other up a little, but the continuity is great and they’ve really built a bizarre and wonderful world. My personal favourite episodes usually involve Mittens (the national sport of Foon) and its weird rules, Glenn Miller & Spants the travelling bards, or more recently the episode called Offices & Bosses, which is about a roleplaying game that is popular in Foon. You may not need me to tell you the premise of that. Also any time a wizard introduces themselves they do so with their full name including all nicknames and regional variations. The first time I heard Spintax the Green’s full name I could not stop laughing for a literal five minutes.

It’s rude, it’s bold and it’s hilarious. You currently have 62 episodes to get through. What are you waiting for?

Next projects… well… I’m sewing a manticore onto a cushion cover. As one does. Also trying to be more accountable to my creativeness. I was thinking about this the other day – I will always have projects on the go of one sort or another. I will write, I will stitch, I will take the vacuum apart and put it back together again (guess what I did yesterday?) or occasionally I may even draw. I need those things. But not in the same way I used to. As a teen, I wrote a lot (A LOT) of awkward angsty poetry. I wrote fanfiction. I wrote angry cathartic stories. I did some other things, too, like friendship bracelets and weird sketches and things. All that, I feel, was partly due to my latent personality being desperate for recognition.

Since hitting my twenties, and since finding decent friends and a fulfilling lifestyle, that focus has shifted. I don’t have to pretend to be “normal” whatever that means. No more Suzy-Highschool. So that drive to pour my real self into stories or fabric or drawing (and the odd cringeworthy song) has become less necessary. I am who I am on the outside now. Luckily. I may have a few grey hairs but I’m also independent, employed, in a great relationship… despite being a massive nerd and weirdo. So hoorah for that! Now I get to do the projects I want to do. Make things that are pretty or that I know others will like as gifts. I get to do for fun what I used to do for sanity.

Screw the normals! Well, actually, don’t screw them, because in my experience they’re not very good at it. To mix in another metaphor: I’m not hungry for it any more. My soul isn’t starving. I can nibble, and I want a snack, but I don’t need a big banquet of brain release. I’m happier. So that’s a good thing. Less productive maybe, but I’m productive in other ways. Emotional bridges, a little bit of mindfulness, taking care of my body, just actually chilling out… all the things I couldn’t really do when I was younger. I may be growing as a person. Horrifying.

And now for bacon. And listening to podcasts.

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