Wednesday, 15 February 2012

February 2012

James Watson

A Writer’s Notebook

*Literary encounters (9) Meeting with a foot-mine
*Notes in Passing: ‘What a terrible way of earning a living’. Don McCullin at the Imperial War Museum
*Poems of Place (6) French Lines
*Correspondence: Dear Signore Giorgione

ENCOUNTERS (9) Meeting with a foot-mine

In No Surrender, set during the Angolan civil war, Malenga is a volunteer at a medical centre in the bush; and she has also begun to teach in the local school. She is surrounded by dangers, but the worst lie under foot.

Tomas possesses all the skills – trapping, dribbling, passing; and he can shoot with either foot. That is why Malenga has two extra players on her side. She calls, ‘Pass it, Salu!’ Her six-year old centre-back attempts to speed the ball on its way by using both feet at once. Ball and player crash into the sand at the half-way line – between a string of washing, sun-scrubbed and dazzling, and the New Medical Centre.

‘Okay, mine!’ The ball is with Malenga. She takes to the wing, overkicking a forward pass that threatens to run into the bush. The shadows are emerald dark here, and the sand green with oncoming dusk.
Tomas hurls out of his goal towards her. He collides with her outstretched palm. ‘Foul – free kick.’
‘For me, you mean?’
‘No, you fouled me, Sis.’
‘Tell that to the referee.’
‘We don’t have a referee.’

‘Well then…’ They stand six paces apart, she tall, wide-shouldered, long-armed, in jeans cut to knee length, wearing a loose shirt of scarlet; he in khaki trousers too big for him, taken from a dead bandit by the river: Tomas of the Nine Lives.
Tomas has no time for rules. ‘Okay, Sis – you try penalty.’ He takes up a crouching position between goalposts that also don’t conform to the rules – one is his backpack (which contains everything he owns), the other is his hunting rifle.
As Malenga wonders whether to slice her shot with the outstep or curl it across goal with her instep, she is suddenly called for. From the fields beyond the village edge – an explosion. The ground quivers. One blast, everybody running.
Malenga runs, then halts, uncertain. ‘Doctor Garcia – we must fetch him.’ Brain and feet equally slow. Stupid. It’s shock. Tomas has retrieved his gun and back-pack. He comes towards Malenga Nakale, trainee medic and schoolmarm. In English now, ‘We not dilly dally, Sis’.

In the fields the women have been working the last hour of daylight. Now they converge upon a screaming. Until now there’s been singing, and the women’s voices have been answered by the tune of the cicadas and answered again deep in the bush by the frog battalions along the river banks.
‘Ma-lenga! Ma-lenga!’ The crowd of women opens for her. Tomas checks her progress for an instant. His face is screwed up, one hand half-covering his eyes.
‘It’s Dédo!’
Stood on a mine.
Salu’s sister; bright star of Malenga’s class.
Beside a cluster of cedars, in their lengthening shadow, Déodora had been hoeing rich, red earth. Everyone knows – mines are to be expected: the last of the war.
‘Tomas – go get the Doctor. Salu – black bag, please, from the Centre – hurry!’ Malenga kneels in hot soil; red soil soaked with red. ‘Don’t let her look! Hold her head, and her hands. Good. Soothe her. Cool her.’ The women obey, all eyes on Dédo’s face, averted from her terrible injury.
The girl’s left foot is a bloody pulp. ‘You stop bleeding, Sis,’ instructs Tomas.
‘I thought I told you…’
I fetch Garcia. Fast.’ She wishes she could do the racing away, the plunging into the bush. She looks down at the leg, writhing.
The foot’s severed. Stop the bleeding.

Malenga pictures Tomas go, sprinting down the slope from the village, down the burning yellow track which leads to the river, where Doctor Leon Garcia has gone – today of all days – to treat a sick worker on the bridge project.
She’s tugged off her shirt: red to red; places it over the leg, the stump. ‘Stretcher – we must get her to the centre. Dédo, listen. I’m doing what I can. You’ll be fine.’
Salu brings the medical case Garcia has been putting together for Malenga, of worn black leather, wide-based with a tough steel clasp.
Under the leg, fragments of mine. She scrapes them away. Treat for shock. In the past few weeks she’s watched over Garcia’s shoulder. ‘Your turn will come, Malenga.’
‘I’m not ready.’
‘You’ve the gift.’
But do I have the nerve? Dédo fights to sit up. Her face is stretched, swollen. Her scream is aimed at Malenga’s heart. ‘Keep her flat.’ From the medical case she takes a roll of cloth, stronger than a bandage. Old Maria has hobbled up from the village. The very breath of her is a comfort. ‘See, Maria’s arrived. That’s good news.’

As she has been taught to do by Dr. Garcia, Malenga applies a tourniquet.

Water has been brought. It is offered to Dédo, calm now, fading. ‘No drink. Doctor’s orders.’ Malenga works at the exploded leg, at the arteries. No to drink, no to antiseptic too. Not in a deep wound.
…The tourniquet will have to be removed shortly. She is tying off. The stretcher has arrived. In the corner of her eye, a metallic glint. Salu is holding the leftovers of the mine.
Malenga is up, stiff, swaying, steadied by Old Maria. For a moment in the turn of the light, the rectangle of steel held by Salu resembles one of those old catechisms hand-stitched and placed above the bed. Salu traces the lettering with his fingers. He has just begun to read.
His catechism for the day shines clear and bronze in the falling sun. In English, it says – FRONT TOWARD THE ENEMY.

In the story that follows, Malenga is taken captive by a squad of South African militia assisting Unita the rebel army of Angola. She meets Hamish, another captive, a young South African national serviceman, a deserter. Theirs becomes a journey of survival, friendship and love.


What a terrible way of earning a living’

Shaped By War: Don McCullin at the Imperial War Museum

Of all the top photographers of war and conflict, Don McCullin has a singular distinction: he was officially barred from covering the Falklands War of 1982; the reason, he’d have sent home images that would have done something similar to what the media did for Vietnam – turned the American public against the war.

The evidence is to be found multifold in the major show of his work down the decades (50s, 60s, 70s and 80s in particular) Shaped By War, running at the IWM till 15 April.

Forgotten wars
In the film that accompanies the exhibition, McCullin says that he doesn’t believe his photographs of war, of atrocities, starvation, horrific suffering in over a dozen countries, from Biafra to Northern Ireland, from Berlin to Beirut, from El Salvador to Bangladesh, changed anything; further, he admits that ‘I don’t particularly believe I can trust humanity’.

Perhaps he is right, but this much has to be said, his images provide an electrifying record of events that have all too swiftly passed out of public consciousness. After all, who but those involved directly remembers the suffering and carnage of Biafra, the horrors of dispossession that occurred as Turk fought Greek in Cyprus; indeed what does the Vietnam war mean to a new generation?

Yet here in amazing detail, these events are documented. We are borne every which way on a tide of disaster and anguish, prodded into either remembering or having to admit, ‘I didn’t know that…didn’t realise that’.

Courage and dedication
All this is salutary in the context of current public outrage at some media practices and the subsequent low esteem in which journalism is held. Here, though, is a different story: here are photo-brilliance, personal courage and dedication that amaze and inspire; timely reminders that we owe a debt of gratitude to a profession which at its best serves the public right to be informed.

It is also a reminder of how that profession has been sacrificed on the altar of profitability; how hard-gained news, serious comment, in-depth enquiry have been in retreat in face of contemporary media obsessions with celebrity. The work McCullin became famous for, which he risked limb and life for, has been eroded and seriously displaced, and with it a cosmopolite vision of the world.

McCullin highlights the dilemmas affecting him as a person. Of the humanitarian crisis in Biafra in 1969, McCullin told Life magazine, ‘I was devastated by the sight of 900 children living in one camp in utter squalor at the point of death. I lost all interest in photographing soldiers in action’.

Of his time in Northern Ireland (1970-71), he acknowledged the uneasiness of his own position as an agent of record. In his book Unreasonable Behaviour (1990), he wrote, ‘For a journalist, one of the prevailing emotions in Ulster was feeling like a Judas to both sides’. He confesses, ‘What a terrible way of earning a living’, while at the same knowing this was what he was good at, the best, and that what he was doing served human awareness.

Don McCullin on assigment was deported from Uganda, strip-searched by Israeli officials during the Yom Kippur Arab Israeli War and badly injured in El Salvador. On display in the IWM exhibition is Don’s Nikon camera that had been struck by a bullet from an AK47 in Cambodia. It still works, ‘Or thereabouts’.

Beyond madness…
Eventually, Britain’s best war photographer, confessing to being ‘beyond madness’, turned away from earning his bread on the war fronts of the world. Visitors leave the show in a more tranquil mood having seen McCullin’s latterday landscape photography. Here is peace at last, though one cannot help sensing the brooding darkness that lies beneath. Even so, McCullin believes that the landscapes have ‘actually healed a lot of my pain’.



At Gisors red lake
Coot duck among weeds
Wind in corn; at Auvers
Cemetery shadows
Poppies remembering
Vincent’s blood; towards
Talcy deep green speed of Loire
Sunflower clouds
Float on golden river
Of the wheat god.

At Blois brick patterns
Make music, Chambord reciprocates
With towers and prickly tunes
While Giverny, all style and medallions,
Flags us on to water-wed Chenonceaux
Where queens once counted
Monarchs in and out.

All quiet on the plane of Beauce:
Crimson twilight spilling
Over silent patter of cobbles
Towards black barn mouth
Where in wooden majesty
Sits cobwebbed winepress;
Not forgetting sky-perched
Côte of doves, once a city
Of birdly babel, century silent.

Squirrel horde,
For winter comes.


Popular demand from our readers has encouraged the editorial team to continue with Ed Baslow’s Letters to Celebrities in which he asks them some very searching questions. He informs us that to date Harold Goodwinson has not so far responded to Ed’s advice about not rushing in to things at the Battle of Hastings.

He has mailed a duplicate letter to Homer with regard to the poet’s lack of a Christian name, and praise for his Hanging Gardens in pre-invasion Babylon has so far not brought a reply from Lord Nebuchadnezar, though artist Billy Blake has, we are informed, agreed to the British Museum altering the title of his masterpiece from ‘Nebuchadnezar Grovelling on His Knees in Shame’ to ‘Nabonidas doing likewise’.

Ned tells us that for his last birthday he received from his wife Betty (who is studying hard for an Open University degree) Art Fund membership, since when he has been visiting museums and galleries at greatly reduced prices. His recent attendance at an art lecture prompted the following letter to one of Venice’s top-rated Renaissance artists.

Dear Signore Giorgione
I seem to be getting into the habit of writing to people of note, even of fame, who do not seem to have Christian names – at least in the reference books I’ve been sifting through.

Lately I’ve received, at the second time of prompting, a caustic missive from the Greek poet and raconteur, Homer; who is of the opinion that a man (presumably) of his historical stature has no need of first names.

However, his most stinging comment relates to the query I raised as to his existence other than as a legendary figure emerging out of the mists of antiquity etc. etc. I hasten to assure you, Signore, that there is nothing in what I am about say that casts the slightest doubt on your own existence between circa 1476 and 1510.

It is well known that you were a prodigious talent, working in Venice and very probably a pupil of Giovanni Bellini, expert in madonnas and blue skies. According to my Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists you were the first exponent in Venice of the small oil painting for private collectors; which, if I might be allowed to say, comes as a relief from the endless parade of holy altarpieces, gloomy crucifixions and Last Suppers that bung up so many Italian cathedrals, churches, chapels, cloisters and depressing refectories (the Dominicans’ are the worst).

The fact is, a Giorgione on your wall, and you’ve got all you need for a sense of alluring mystery – the magic of landscapes slipping in and out of light and shade; sir, a veritable feast of the senses; and an inspiration, of course, for the mighty Titian, expert in undressed women and overflowing cups of plenty, who some experts say learnt everything from your good self.

Wonderful – and congratulations. But to my purpose, Signore, in penning this letter to you. Such has been my admiration for your (admittedly few) surviving masterpieces that lately I attended a lecture on The Enigma of Giorgione.

The lecturer (whose name escapes me) explained that what was enigmatic about you was what he referred to as Attribution, meaning – Did you actually do it? As the lecture proceeded, I became aware of a slow chill passing through the packed audience, made up chiefly of over 70 year olds most of whom, like me, had Giorgione among their top-ten favourites.

Alas our professor, who seemed to know what he was talking about, cast doubt one by one upon the authenticity of your masterpieces. It seems that the stripling Titian had begun to muscle in on your brooding landscapes, your style – the chi-as-ros-curo, as I think the professor described it – along with a troop of imitators recruited from the less prestigious night schools in downtown Venice.

By the end of the lecture a terrible silence reigned. A chasm of bottomless doubt had opened at our feet. The professor had whittled down your Complete Works first from twenty-five paintings, then to fifteen, then a creditworthy dozen, then six and counting.

Suddenly we were faced with a last, fleeting but penetrating gaze that almost literally turned us all to stone. By the time our distinguished professor had stepped off his dais and disappeared without a backward glance, the sum total of your ’ouevre’ as he referred to it, had been reduced to zero. At least three members of the audience took ill, one fainted, and the rest of us exited with a pallor that haunts me still.

Such has been my uneasiness at the prof’s failure to authenticate a single one of your masterpieces, I feel I might be forgiven for harbouring the dreaded thought that you never actually existed, or that you were an invention by a very clever bunch of dealers convinced that what makes a hot property is a touch of ‘was he, or wasn’t he?’

If you are reading this – my fourth letter of enquiry in as many months – you will appreciate the importance to your reputation of at least a one-line reply. For me, it really is a personal matter: your famous masterpiece, The Tempest, has hung over the damp patch in our parlour ever since we moved in to the house. Time and time again my wife Betty (who is more in to literature than art), has been on at me to replace the work with her Uncle Ivor’s Christmas gift, a gilt-framed rendition of The Stampede of African Elephants.

This would not only cover up the damp patch, but also my son Benjie’s infantile scribbles in the style of Picasso (who, by the way, has a Christian name and, unlike yourself, Signore, signed his work with such a clear and memorable hand that they named a car after him).

Rest assured, Sir, that I have your best interests at heart in this matter, but as a believer in a thing being exactly what it’s claimed to be (in common parlance, what it says on the tin), I would appreciate some indication that you aren’t and have never been, as our learned professor implied, a figment of the imagination.

Yours confidentially,
Ned Baslow, Art Fund Membership (300197)
‘Yer Tis’, Old Roman Road,

*Subject to legal advice, we will be publishing next month Ned’s somewhat controversial letter to John Milton, in part questioning his literary style as well as his ethics.
* Read them on Kindle: Talking in Whispers (£2.01), The Freedom Tree (£1.03) and Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa (£5.15).


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