Category Archives: Military

The award-winning comic who almost joined the French Foreign Legion

Luca Cupani (bottom left) at the Awards last night

Luca Cupani (bottom left) at the SYTYF Awards in Edinburgh

Luca Cupani won the already prestigious So You Think You’re Funny? contest at the recent Edinburgh Fringe.

This Saturday, he appears with fellow Puma Londinese Italians as part of the launch weekend for Bob Slayer’s Blundabus in Hackney.

Next July, Luca goes to the mega-prestigious Just for Laughs festival in Montreal.

“Part of the prize for winning So You Think You’re Funny?” Luca told me, “is to go to Montreal and appear in a showcase for British comedy and I will have the spot as the up-and-coming British comedian.”

“So you,” I said, “an Italian, are representing Britain.”

“Yes,” said Luca. “This year was really a UKIP comedy. The runner up in So You Think You’re Funny? was Yuriko Kotani, who is Japanese. What I like about the UK is that I manage to win a competition despite my accent and broken English. This would not happen in Italy.”

“Don’t let the Queen down,” I said.

“She’s the head of Canada,” replied Luca, “and she’s not Canadian. This year, America’s Got Talent was won by an English ventriloquist.”

“And my chum Mr Methane, the farteur,” I said, “was in the semi-finals of Germany’s Got Talent, despite having nothing to do with Germany.”

“Ah,” said Luca, “but he speaks an international language.”

“You were an actor in Italy,” I said to Luca, “before coming here to do comedy. Why did you become an actor?”

“I was not happy with my job.”

“What was your job?”

“I was a freelance editor at a publisher. Not a bad job, but it did not pay very well. I thought: I’m not going to do this forever. I was already 35 and still living at home with my parents. I loved my parents but my mother was very possessive. When you do something that is boring, you sit at a desk and work and get up and ten years have passed and you do not have any memory of this.

Luca cupani took a selfie in London this week

Luca Cupani took a selfie in London this week

“Since I left that job, I now remember almost every single day, because every day something new happens. Sometimes horrible things like my mother dying, my father dying. But also sometimes beautiful things. New people. So I was looking for a way to get out of my boring job. And I thought: Why not join the French Foreign Legion?”

“Errrrrrr,” I said, surprised.

“I would never have joined the Italian Army,” said Luca, “because I’m not particularly patriotic. To be honest, Italy should be ruled by someone else. But, in the French Foreign Legion, they don’t bother where you are from. So I thought: Why not? It seemed a safe place to hide.”

“Did you mention this to your mother?” I asked.

“I tried. I thought about running away, but my father was disabled and I could not leave him alone.”

“But,” I said, “if you had joined the French Foreign Legion…”

“I just had this idea,” said Luca, “that, if something went wrong, I would join the French Foreign Legion.”

“Perhaps you should still consider it,” I suggested. “There must be an Edinburgh Fringe show and a book in it…”

“You can join the French Foreign Legion until you are 40 or 50,” mused Luca. “The transition from being a freelance editor or proof reader behind a desk to becoming a comedian or an actor did not change things too much money-wise – and uncertainty about the future was pretty much the same – but now I feel more free.”

“So why,” I asked, “did you decide not to join the French Foreign Legion?”

“Because it is so boring. I checked the website and the entry pay was only something like 200 Euros more than I was earning – to stay in French Guinea in the jungle – and you had to learn French. That could have been good, because I would have learnt another language, but you also have to sing and I sing terribly.”

“They sing?” I asked.

“They sing a lot,” said Luca. “Even before dinner. I learned one of their songs: Adieu vieille Europe…”

“Is it,” I asked, “one of the strict rules of the French Foreign Legion? You have to sing?”

“Yes. And then you have to iron your own uniforms. It is a clash between being macho and being quite camp. Their uniform is unique, so they make a lot of effort into putting the pleat correctly in it when you do the ironing. You have to put a lot of effort into the ironing and then, maybe, you have to kill someone.”

“Kill someone?” I asked.

“You have to, maybe. I don’t know. My favourite group in the French Foreign Legion were the Pioneers – the people who make bridges.”

Sappers?” I asked.

French Foreign Legion Pioneer wearing off-the-shoulder buffalo leather apron

French Foreign Legion Pioneers wearing off-the-shoulder buffalo leather aprons

“Yes. There are very few of them.”

“I guess there are not many bridges in the desert,” I said.

“I don’t know,” said Luca. “Their symbol is an axe and an apron open on one side. I don’t know why it is open on one side. And a long beard.”

“A bird?” I asked.

“A beard. A very long beard. And they hold axes and wear aprons. They seem very proud of their aprons.

“I also decided not to join because a friend of mine knew someone who had been in the French Foreign Legion and he was not happy and he left before his contract ended because he was heavily bullied. Apparently they were ‘fond’ of him.”

“Fond of him?” I asked.

“They fancied him,” explained Luca. “And I know men can fancy me. And so I thought: Mmmm. If I am in the jungle in French Guinea and find I am the most attractive ‘girl’ in the battalion, they will never get my heart but still they can…

“…get your butt?” I suggested.

Luca nodded.

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Edinburgh Freestival organiser faced 2 murder attempts and got neck broken

Al Cowie drinks his own Laughing Juice brerw

Al Cowie – a man who has several stories to tell

The venue chaos at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe got even more complicated yesterday when venue organisers Freestival announced they had a new venue which will host up to 40 free shows on four stages every day. I had hinted about this venue in a blog earlier this month, which also mentioned another rumour which has not yet happened and one particular jaw-dropping fact which may eventually emerge, I suspect, next year.

“So I hear Freestival have a new venue,” were my opening words when I talked to Al Cowie. He was involved in organising the original Freestival last year but this year (entirely amicably) he is not involved with Freestival.

“Mmmmm….” said Al. And that was that subject over with.

Al last appeared in this blog last month when he was organising a laugh-in in a brewery. And, in February 2014, I blogged about his ancestor Horace Cole who was a massive practical joker.

“So,” I said when we met this time, “titter-making runs in your blood?”

“I do quite like a practical joke,” Al agreed, “Horace’s idea of a practical joke was a friend of his waking up with a carving knife embedded in his pillow. OK, that might seem a little bit mean, but I can see the funny side of it.”

“What’s a good example of a practical joke?” I asked.

“I was,” replied Al, “growing chilli plants in my house and so, one evening, we decided to squeeze the chilli onto one of the flatmate’s toothbrushes, which I thought was very funny, though he didn’t think it was so funny the following morning when he brushed his teeth.”

“Schadenfreude?” I suggested. “Did he get his own back on you?”

“He squeezed chilli onto my toothbrush. But I knew he was likely to do it, so I checked. And he was driving to Newcastle the following day and when he put his contact lenses in… Oh yes! With chilli! Really strong chilli!

“Is that not dangerous?” I asked.

“Well,” Al said, possibly avoiding an answer, “there’s the tequila suicide where you snort a lemon and put tabasco in your eye.”

“And you die?” I asked.

“Oh no, it’s just a horrible way to drink tequila.”

“It surely can’t be good for your eyes,” I suggested.

“I don’t think it is. It is too dangerous to do practical jokes now: you would get arrested. We’ve become too serious. I really do enjoy popping brown paper bags behind people. I have a 120 decibel air horn on my bicycle.”

“You have aristocracy in your blood, don’t you?” I asked.

“A little bit.”

“That means a lot?”

“Not at all. I come from a military family. Winston Churchill’s 2IC was a guy called Alanbrooke and he was my great-grand-uncle.”

“What’s a 2IC?”

“Second in Command. He oversaw the retreat from Dunkirk and was generally credited with saving 300,000 there. And the Germans reckoned if they had had Alanbrooke to advise Hitler, they would have won.”

“Difficult for anyone to advise Hitler,” I suggested.

“True enough, but I think Churchill was equally difficult. He needed someone like Alanbrooke to temper his worst tendencies… and keep up with his drinking… I grew up very much in the countryside in Gloucestershire and Northern Ireland.”

“Your family were…” I prompted.

“We were sent over after the (Irish) Clearances. We were sent over to land that had already been cleared, rather than…”

“Where was this?”

“Donegal and Fermanagh.”

“There’s no reason I can’t print this, is there?”

“No. One of my cousins was Roger Casement, who was hanged by the British government. So I have family on both sides.”

“Cousin?” I asked. “Not a direct cousin.”

“Well, in Ireland, if you’re related, then you’re cousins. I was reading the history of Ulster recently and it’s quite clear that most people changed sides many many times. But I don’t really know my history. My great-grandfather was Prime Minister.”

“What was his name?”

“Brookeborough.”

Basil Brooke, 1st Viscount Brookeborough was third Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. 1943-1963.

“So,” I said. “Military family. Why weren’t you in the military?”

“I was in the Territorial Army for ten years. I joined in 2000 and the general feeling then was that there was going to be no more war. I joined the TA as a fun thing: keep me fit and a nice group of guys. And then 9/11 happened and suddenly everything gets a little bit serious.”

“When did you leave?”

“2011. I stopped really going after I broke my neck.”

“When was that?”

“Six months before I got into comedy, about seven years ago. I was riding one of the Household Cavalry horses out in Hyde Park first thing in the morning while I was working with the City of London Police and, of course, the Commissioner of the City of London Police would sometimes ride out with me…”

“Of course,” I said.

“…and he would then give me a lift into work. So I was galloping down Rotten Row and the horse tripped up and pitched into the ground on its head and so did I and I got compression fracture in my spine and, yeah, it was really annoying.

“I got an X-ray where it didn’t show up. I was in so much pain. It was like someone taking a sledgehammer and smacking it into my back every time I took a breath or took a step. I went to my GP, who was called Dr Savage, and she said: Well, you don’t know pain. You’ve never been through childbirth.

“She didn’t want me to have a second opinion, but I went and saw a neurologist and he said: Don’t do anything. You’re going straight in to have a CT and MRI scan. By that stage, I had already been on a military unarmed combat course for a week. Someone had grabbed my arm in that and I had lost feeling in my legs. I also rode a green horse who threw me off…”

“A green horse?” I asked.

“A very young horse. Then I went and saw a chiropractor who successfully cracked my back because I just couldn’t breath. Then I went to the South of Ireland and bonnet-surfed on a speedboat in a storm on a lake in Galway. That would not be sensible even if I hadn’t broken my neck. I do consider myself very lucky.”

“I think you should reconsider the facts,” I said.

“Someone has tried to murder me a few times.”

“You mean different people have tried?” I asked.

“Yes. Different people. Someone tried to stab me in the head because he thought I was posh and should therefore die.”

“In Ireland?”

“On Battersea Bridge in London. He heard my accent and tried to stab me in the head with a Stanley knife but missed. He swung at me seven times, but I kicked him onto the ground.

“Someone tried to murder me in Argentina. I was hitch-hiking in the desert and this guy gave a lift to me, my friend and a random Argentine bloke. Then we set up camp in the desert and the Argentine bloke came up to us and said: Look, I think you guys should probably get out of here, because the other guy has just suggested to me that we murder you and take your kit. So we left that situation.”

“Has your neck mended?” I asked.

“I have an ache, but it’s nothing important. I don’t believe in pain. I think it’s your body complaining. Pain is not real. the damage is real, but the pain is not real.”

I must have looked bemused.

“Does that not make sense?” Al asked.

“Not remotely,” I said.

“Pain is not real,” Al repeated. I was not convinced.

“Isn’t it,” I asked, “something like electricity travelling down your nerves?”

“Exactly,” said Al. “The pain is just a signal. I once tried to take the blade off a circular saw. I put a spanner onto the central lug and pulled the trigger. The spanner flew out the window and the circular saw went straight through the side of my palm; I’ve still got the scar. I am so lucky; really very lucky. It’s enough to make you believe…

“…that God hates you?” I suggested.

“No,” said Al, “believe in multiple universes: that there are many other universes in which I’ve died.”

“Apart from running comedy gigs in breweries,” I said, “what are your plans?”

“Well, I do a drivetime radio show on Wandsworth Radio, 7.00-9.00 in the morning on Fridays. It’s only online – great for people who live in Hong Kong. And I’m setting up three technology businesses at the moment, which I can’t really talk about. And I’m moving more into clowning now. Clowning and cabaret and burlesque. I really enjoy doing different things. I had an awful lot more fun when I first started doing comedy. I once ate a girl’s sock on stage. Now I am enjoying myself again and having fun.”

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Amy Howerska, the sassy comedian raised by a family of trained killers

Amy Howerska - allegedly

Amy Howerska really was “raised by a pack of trained killers”

Comedian Amy Howerska’s Edinburgh Fringe show in August will be called Sasspot. The publicity blurb for it says she was “raised by a pack of trained killers”.

This understates the truth quite considerably.

I had tea with her.

What this blog does not and cannot represent is the amount of laughter in the recordings. There was a LOT of laughter.

Halfway through, I asked her: “You are allowed to tell me all this, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know,” she said,

“I think when they get married,” I mused, “they are not allowed to have any photos of themselves in the local newspapers?”

“There are no pictures of my dad anywhere on the internet,” said Amy. “You can’t find him online.”

“Is your dad’s surname the same as yours?”I asked.

“No.”

“It’s probably OK, then,” I said. “There was something recently about three people dying on the Brecon Beacons while training. But that’s happening all the time, isn’t it?”

“That’s in my show,” said Amy. “I almost died on the Brecons when I was seven. My dad used to take us camping. Re-living his glory days. With his kids. Climbing the highest point in the Brecon Beacons in the worst weather recorded in over forty years. He set up a sky-diving centre after he left the… military. He had very limited skills.”

“What?” I asked. “Like overthrowing regimes?”

“I think he did do that to get the money to buy a house,” said Amy. “He went and… I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say.”

“When I have met SAS men…” I started to say, “allegedly-ex SAS men… they were…”

“Short!” laughed Amy. “They’re all short and Cockney! I tried to get a quote off Andy McNab for my Edinburgh Fringe poster, but he wasn’t up for it.”

“You know Andy McNab?” I asked.

“I’ve met him at a… at a few funerals,” she laughed. “He’s very charismatic. He’s very short.”

“Were you born into the SAS?” I asked. “When you were an embryo, was your dad in the SAS?”

“No. Let’s call it The Regiment. I asked my dad for some stories the other day. I asked him what his favourite gun was. He told me all these stories of all these fuck-ups. All these training exercises, hostage situations that all went wrong.

“I have quite a dark sense of humour – obviously. When I have been previewing the show, people have been pissing themselves laughing but some have gone Oh my God!

“I did a preview of the show to 100 Marines on a Royal Marine base and there are loads of jokes about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which I think is probably the funniest thing in the show. It’s a bit that goes consistently well.

“All the young Marines’ wives were pissing themselves laughing because now, if someone comes back with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, they send them off for CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – so they found it quite funny. And the young men were laughing as well. But the older wives were: Ooooh! Is she talking about that? It split the room a bit. But I always think you’re doing something right in comedy if you’re splitting the room – maybe 50% howling with laughter, 25% who are confused and 25% who are angry.

“When I was talking to my sister about writing the show and trying to gather memories, she said: Do you remember when dad used to get out his machete and cut an apple up like he was still living in a hole in the desert? 

“Some of it is so outlandish it sounds made-up but, actually, it’s watered-down to make it more believable and less mental. I just accepted everything as normal and it wasn’t at all.

One day he came in and found me and my sister throwing knives at a dart board when we were about eight years old. He said: What you doing??!! What you doing??!! – and then he taught us how to do it properly. He ran a sky diving centre – a drop zone – for years. He’s 66 now and he still sky dives.”

“So,” I said, “you decided to do a comedy show about your dad and his top secret exploits…”

“Well,” said Amy, “it wasn’t like that. I decided to do my first hour-long show about growing up in a sky-diving family – three generations. My parents met at my granddad’s drop zone. My granddad was also in… in The Regiment.”

“When was that?” I asked. “The Second World War?”

“No. He was only six or seven when the Second World War broke out.”

“So he was in Oman?” I asked.

“No, my dad was in Oman and Dhofar..”

I switched the recorder off at this point.

I like to tease.

When I switched the recorder back on again, Amy was laughing…

“When I started talking about my childhood, people were like: That’s fucking batshit! And I thought: Oh, yes, it is! So it has been quite a challenge to make it relatable. the core of the show is really about people’s family relations.”

“So,” I said, “it’s about life in a family. A bit like The Godfather.

“But with more sky diving.” laughed Amy. “And death. And guns. The show is not about my father. He is in it, but my sister and dad are in it equally; my mum features; Evil Dwarf features; and…”

“Evil Dwarf?” I asked.

“My mum’s father. He’s an ex-sergeant major. That was his nickname in…”

“In what?” I asked.

“The Regiment. The show is about my family, my upbringing.”

“And grassing-up your dad,” I said.

“I’m not grassing him up. He gets off very lightly in it.”

“And in your family…” I asked. “What does your sister do?

“She runs a drop zone. She’s married to a sky-dive champion. My mum’s brother is the Ozzy Osbourne of sky diving: he’s just had so many head injuries. And we call my mum ‘Peggy’ after Barbara Windsor on EastEnders: she’s really sassy and little with big boobs and big opinions and not afraid to say ‘em. It’s all about that, really.”

“So you grew up wanting to be a comedian?” I asked.

“I wanted to be a nun. My family is a bit Jewy, but they thought, to confuse me, they would send me to a convent school when I was little. The nuns were lovely: I think I’m one of the few people with a positive experience of Catholicism and I think I wanted…”

“Why,” I asked, “did your parents send you to a convent school?”

“Because they weren’t very Jewish. Only a bit Jewy. So I wanted to be a nun. I liked the accessories. Madonna was very big at the time. They used to let me swing my rosary around in the playground.”

“Was one of your parents Jewish?” I asked.

“My dad’s father was Jewish. and my mum’s grandmother.”

“So,” I said, “after you got over wanting to be a nun, what did you want to be?”

“A journalist, an actress or a comedy writer. I remember watching Blackadder and thinking: Who writes that? Who’s that Richard Curtis bloke? I loved reading and I loved comedy.”

“Then you should,” I suggested, ‘have become a comedy reader.”

“I came to comedy arse-backwards,” explained Amy. “I came in as a writer. I was writing for an act. I’ve been doing all this for five years, building my way up.”

“And now,” I asked, “you don’t want to write any more? You want to get the orgasm of applause?”

“The most fun you can ever have,” said Amy, “is when there’s a group of you writing something together.”

“If you had to put one thing on your passport as a profession,” I asked, “would it be Writer or Performer?”

“Writer probably,” said Amy.

If, dear reader, I die unexpectedly in a car crash in a tunnel in Paris or a random domestic animal falls fatally on my head in Soho, please draw this blog’s existence to the attention of the police.

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2 diary entries 99 years ago at Gallipoli

I got to bed late last night. I woke up late. I have to go out soon. I am again pushed for time.

So here – for no logical reason at all – are two entries from an Anzac soldier’s diary written at Gallipoli exactly 99 years ago – in May 1915.

He was a signaller, born in London, and his name was Ellis Silas.

He moved to Australia in 1907.

He was aged 29 when he wrote the diary entries at Gallipoli.

He, of course, no longer exists.


1st May 1915

We are relieved from the firing line – the battle still raging; every nerve strained. Australians have done splendidly, holding a very difficult position; have been much troubled with snipers. Am glad I have done my duty.

First wash for a week – go down to the Water Hole, which is always covered by Turkish snipers – it was safer in the trenches than here – all around this spot are dead and wounded who have been hit when dodging round this corner; however, one must drink, even if the price be Death.

Make dug-outs in our rest camps, but men are continually caught by the snipers. Many are commencing to suffer from dysentery, though the spirit of the men is splendid, always ready for a joke.

Signaller Walker just hit in the mouth – we considered we were out of range in our dug-out but the snipers are everywhere. Sergeant of the machine gun is writing a very amusing diary, full of humour; I wish I had his spirit.

In the dug-out just above me a poor chap is lying very ill but has asked me to say nothing to the medical officer as he does not want to get sent away in the middle of the fun, as he calls it. Of such stuff are soldiers made – I think if I were in his place I’d be glad of an excuse to get out of this Hell, though I don’t think I should ever have forgiven myself if I had not come.

I hear that to-morrow we are going to make a charge – the Turks are cutting our supplies off; the situation is severely critical.

To read this in a newspaper makes an item of passing interest; to experience it is something quite different – if we are up against it, please God I may die in the same spirit that I know my comrades will display, for they know not defeat.

2nd May 1915

Our supplies are getting cut off – Turks have complete command of the roads through which we have to bring them – tonight we are to take the Ridge.

I wonder how I shall get on in a charge, for I have not the least idea how to use a bayonet; even if I had, I should not be able to do so, the thing is too revolting – I can only hope that I get shot – why did they not let me do the RAMC work? I have told the authorities that be often enough that I cannot kill.

One poor chap in a dug-out close to us was killed while preparing his meal; he has been lying there for two days – his mess tin full of tea, the charred remains of the fire he was cooking by, a few biscuits scattered about, his pipe by his side – we cannot bury him on account of the snipers; it seems no place is safe from them – efforts are being made to clear them out but it is a difficult job as we cannot spare the men to do it.

We are very hard pressed – we were to have had four days’ rest from the firing line but now the situation is so critical that at all costs the enemy must be shifted from the Ridge. Colonel Pope has aged much during these first terrible days.


Ellis Silas died in London exactly 57 years later, aged 86, on 2nd May 1972. 

So it goes.

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British Lieutenant Colonel writes comedy novel about Sierra Leone war

(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)

David Thorpe’s face hidden behind his novel

David Thorpe’s face hidden behind novel

It’s not often a serving British Army officer writes a comic novel about a real war he was involved in. So Eating Diamond Pie by David Thorpe is an interesting one.

When I met him last week, I asked: “Did you think I want to write a book or did you think I want to get Sierra Leone out of my system?”

“I didn’t need to get it out of my system,” explained David. “I just wanted to write a book, but I intentionally didn’t do much research on how to do that. I thought If I do, it will be formulaic. So all I did was find out how many words you’re supposed to write – 70,000 to 90,000 words for a first book – this one is 86,000 words. And the only other piece of advice I followed was Write about what you know. I thought What do I know? Well, I knew about the civil war in Sierra Leone.

“It’s not a military book. It’s about a guy who’s ex-military, working for an aid agency and most of it is really just pointing fingers at the aid agencies. It’s a fictional book, though set in a real war. I could have taken that story and put it against other backdrops I know: Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Iraq or Afghanistan and perhaps I will write books about those in the future.

“I actually wrote the plan for this book on the flight out to Iraq thinking I would write it when I was in Iraq – in my spare time! But this was in 2007, when it was fairly hairy out there and the tour was at such a frenetic pace that there was no time to write. When I came back, I was at based at Catterick in North Yorkshire while my family was still living down south, so suddenly I found myself ‘married unaccompanied’, as we say, and I sat in a little flat in Richmond, North Yorkshire, on my own every evening. It took six months.”

At what point did you put humour into it?” I asked.

“It was always going to be a comic book.”

“You wrote an article for Mensa Magazine last month,” I pointed out, “where you mentioned the Sierra Leone rebels’ habit of using machetes to hack off arms or hands – which they called the ’short sleeve’ option or the ‘long sleeve’ option. You said it was a conflict completely bereft of sympathy, compromise or humanity. So this war was serious insanity and you decided to write a comedy about it…”

“Well,” said David, “there’s Springtime For Hitler and Catch-22 and Blackadder Goes Forth… War is a fascinating human activity and it’s at the extremes. So, if you’re making any type of social comment or documentary comedy, you can find it easier to hook it onto the extremes of humanity.

“Once I’d written it, I had this moment of terror thinking: You know, this could really badly backfire here: Army officer has written a funny book about war. But, then, none of it is: Look! That man’s had his arm cut off! Isn’t that funny? Let’s crack a joke. And, if you write something that’s bland and completely uncontroversial, what’s the point? Imagine if Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin just painted nice pictures of landscapes…”

“You joined the army when you were 17,” I said. “And have been involved in several wars.”

“Oh yes,” David said. “Always plenty of wars going on.”

“There’s that statistic,” I said, “that, in the last hundred years, there’s only been one year…”

“Yes,” said David, “only one year -1968 – when a British soldier hasn’t been killed in active operations.”

“They used to say a hundred years.” I mused, “Probably much more than a hundred years now.”

“It’s not brilliant, is it?” said David. “I went on a battlefield tour recently. The World War One battlefields. The Somme. And I realised human beings are a fairly ridiculous species. The way we solve our problems: using all our technology to kill each other. When you see the industrial scale of World War One, it’s just so ridiculous. The final trenches ended up just 200 metres further on than the very first trench that was dug. Ten million dead. You just think: Really? And we’re the alpha species on Earth?”

“Why were you in Sierra Leone?” I asked.

Members of the Sierra Leone Army during the war

Members of the Sierra Leone Army during the civil war

“We were part of IMATT – the International Military Assistance Training Team, helping the Republic of Sierra Leone’s armed forces organise themselves.”

“What about the West Side Boys?” I asked. “Weren’t they high on drugs most of the time? They thought they were superhuman and ironically, because they were crazed on drugs, they were superhuman because they would do anything.”

“They’d cover themselves with amulets,” said David. “It’s in the book. They were into Voodoo and they believed it and, of course, if you convince someone – and it helps if they’re high on drugs – and you tell them You are bullet-proof, then they’re going to run towards the enemy very quickly. So we had to try and convince them that this wasn’t such a brilliant military tactic. But without destroying their value set.

“African wars are mostly about logistics and not firing off all your bullets in the first ten minutes. If you can just control your rate of fire you will win.

“We made the mistake earlier on of trying to train them as a Western force. There’s no point. You could give them the most complex set of tactics you could come up with but, ultimately, all they wanted to do was line up in two ranks behind a big truck with a big gun on it and march forward and then start firing. And whoever had the most bullets left won. Variations on that theme.”

“Ultimately, you won,” I said.

The Revolutionary United Front was a loose affiliation of criminals and ne’er-do-wells,” explained David, “and there was a lot of swapping of loyalties, jumping sides. Groups would fight sometimes for the government, sometimes for the rebels, depending on what suited them.

“In Africa, though, there’s a capacity for forgiveness you often don’t find elsewhere. We took all the weapons off the various warring factions, put them all in a demobilisation camp and, after some antagonism in the first 24-48 hours, they all calmed down and they were playing football together within two days. You witnessed this and you suddenly had hope. You thought There is a real chance of peace here, because these guys are prepared to forgive. 

“But, if you go to Bosnia and bump into a Serb, he’ll have a tattoo on his forearm – a large cross with four Cs in each corner – which, in Serbo-Croat, means Only Unity Can Save The Serbs. He’s celebrating and remembering the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. He’ll absolutely hang his hat on that as a reason he hates the Croats and the Bosniac Moslems.  So what chance have you got of peace?

“And you go to Northern Ireland and the Catholics will be raging about the Battle of the Boyne and you can never go forwards if all your politics is based on what’s behind you. What happened in the past may be unjust, it may be bad but, if it’s 400 years ago – you know – get over it. We are just blips in history. We’re here and then we’re gone.”

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The killing fields of Cambodia and the trenches of World War One in London

The Imperial War Museum in London welcomes visitors

Two days ago, a friend and her 13-year-old son arrived at London Stansted Airport from Milan on a Ryanair plane. They sat in the plane at Stansted for 30 minutes because the airport, reportedly, had lost the steps to get off the plane.

Yesterday, we went to the Imperial War Museum. The son went to a room where a film was screened about various crimes against humanity. The Holocaust. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

All the greatest hits of genocide.

“In 1989, your mother and I visited the killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia,” I reminded him. “But they weren’t the worst thing. The worst thing was an entrance room at a building where people were kept and tortured and then sent off to be killed.

Photos at the S-21 interrogation centre in Phnom Penh

Photos at the S-21 interrogation centre.

“The Khmer Rouge were very efficient,” I told him. “They photographed everyone. Black & white, head & shoulders pictures. Like passport photos but a bit bigger. Just the faces looking into the camera and they all had the same look in their eyes. They knew they were going to die and they had no hope in their eyes. The room you entered had photos from floor to ceiling on all four walls. All these faces. All around you. All those empty eyes. That was worse than the killing fields, which were just…”

“Bits of bone?” my friend’s 13-year-old son suggested.

Killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Kampuchea/Cambodia

Killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Kampuchea/Cambodia

“Yes,” I said. “Occasional little splinters of bone and a few scraps of torn shirts and things. But the room in the S-21 interrogation centre was much worse. Bits of bone and scraps of fabric are abstract. But the faces and the eyes were people.

“So just remember,” I said, trying to have a lasting impact on him, “that, if you ever think you’re having a bad time in your life, you’re actually comparatively well off. Other people have had it worse. Are having it worse.”

We got a bus into central London.

As it crossed Westminster Bridge, a photographer was taking a picture of a Japanese bride in a white wedding dress and her new husband with the Houses of Parliament behind them.

As we came off the bridge into Parliament Square and turned right into Whitehall, a red double-decker bus was coming towards Westminster Bridge, with a V-shaped white ribbon down its front, like a giant red two-storey bridal car.

WW1 Trench Art

One unknown British soldier’s WW1 trench art

In the afternoon, we were in Cecil Court in London, looking for a Tintin book and ended up in a shop selling military uniforms and mementos. There were a couple of items of ‘trench art’ – shell casings which men had decorated in the trenches in the First World War.

“They never signed them,” the owner of the shop told me, “because the shell casings were the property of the Crown and, by decorating them, they were defacing them. If you defaced any property of the Crown, you would get court martialed.”

So they never signed their names.

No-one will never know who made them.

This morning, my Italian friend’s husband – the father of her 13-year-old son – arrived at London Stansted Airport from Milan on a Ryanair plane.

He sat in the plane at Stansted for 10 minutes because the airport, reportedly, had lost the steps to get off the plane.

I wondered what the men engraving shapes on the shell casings in the trenches of the First World War would have made of it all. What the men and women in S-21 would have thought of the film screened at the Imperial War Museum. If they had lived. And what type of person the 13-year-old boy will grow into.

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Comedian Nick Wilty, a failed armed robbery & Malcolm Hardee’s power drill

Comedian Nick Wilty’s wedding on 28th September, 2008

Last night I went to Nick Wilty’s Whitstable Comedy Club aka the OyOyster Comedy Club. It is called OyOyster Comedy because Whitstable is known for its oysters and Nick’s late friend, comedian Malcolm Hardee, was known for saying, “Oy! Oy!”

A great comedy night – Adam BloomGeorge Egg and Sean McLoughlin.

Nick is himself extraordinary – a former British Army soldier who became a very very good stand-up comedian with itchy feet which meant he was forever travelling the world. At one time, he told me he was thinking of settling in the Far East but instead he got married in 2008 and moved to Whitstable. And, having been at the leopardskin-themed wedding (I can’t remember what I wore) and seeing him with his wife, I think he made the right decision.

I don’t think I have actually seen him since for any length of time, though we might have bumped into each other at the Edinburgh Fringe. But I do remember a meal we had at Kettner’s in London’s Soho on Thursday 21st November 2002.

Alright. I kept a diary, now transferred to my Apple Mac, and I did a ’search’. The diary entry for Thursday 21st November 2002 reads:

Lunch with comedian Nick Wilty at Kettner’s in Soho. In the 20 minutes before Nick arrived (I was early), I sat in the almost empty bar. The only other people there were former Kray Brothers associate Freddie Foreman and three men apparently talking about an armed robbery which had gone wrong and whether or not The South African had double-crossed them.

Nick told me he had left the army after the Falklands War because it had become boring – doing the same thing day in and day out. He served c1978-1982 but avoided Northern Ireland by (truthfully) saying he had lots of Irish mates and his sympathies tended towards Republicanism.

Nick told me that going onstage was like the first time he parachuted or bunji-jumped – fear in the pit of your stomach then a sudden change to exhileration when you were actually doing it.

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