Category Archives: war

The Christmas Truce in World War One

Blood-red poppies pour out of the Tower of London

A few of the 888,246 poppies in the Tower of London’s moat

Yesterday, TV news kept mentioning the Christmas Truce in 1914, when some German and British troops stopped fighting to play games of football and chat to – even sometimes exchange presents with – soldiers on the other side.

I was talking to a friend yesterday morning.

She asked me something I had never asked myself.

“If you were the commander of a section of the trenches,” she asked, “what would be the first thing you would do if there were a truce and you were fraternising with the enemy?”

I had not thought.

She told me: “Figure out where their best snipers were and the exact layout of their trenches and the exact points in the trenches where their best people went back to. So that, when the truce was over, you could target them.”

She had talked to someone who had been there.

He told her commanders on both sides had done that.

My father’s father was in the Merchant Navy during that war. He survived. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here.

My mother’s father was in The Black Watch but, I think, was mostly in the Middle East and Africa, He survived. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here.

There were 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London this year. One for each British or Colonial serviceman killed in the First World War.

So it goes.

Wikipedia reckons the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War One was over 37 million – over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded. That includes 6 million missing presumed dead and 2 million dead from disease.

So it goes.

According to The Queen’s Speech yesterday, no-one who fought in that war remains alive today.

So it goes.

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Hyphenate comedian Steve Best hopes to get laughs out of the Kosovo War

A selfie taken by Steve Best for the book

Steve Best – a comedy hyphenate with other strings to his bow

“You are a hyphenate,” I told comedian Steve Best in the Soho Theatre Bar.

“What?” he asked.

“In Hollywood,” I said some people are called hyphenates – writer-directors or actor-producer-directors. You are now a hyphenate. A writer-comedian-photographer podcaster.

In yesterdays’s blog, Martin Soan mentioned that Steve Best had performed with him and Boothby Graffoe in a freeform existentialist theatre piece in Germany.

On sale from this week

A second Comedy Snapshot book is in the pipeline…

Readers of this blog in March this year might remember Steve published Comedy Snapshot, his book comprising 440 photographs of UK comedians.

He is currently working on a second book of photographs and, he told me, is talking to a potential sponsor for the book tomorrow.

He is also involved in Abnormally Funny People, the highy-regarded group of comics with, as our American cousins might say, physical challenges. Abnormally Funny People have just launched a third podcast in their monthly series.

“Barclays Bank are sponsoring the podcast,” Steve told me, “but they’ve given us complete editorial control.”

“What’s in it for them?” I asked.

“To attract disabled customers,” replied Steve. “I think they’re trying to reach out and be accessible. They did that ad with (blind comic) Chris McCausland about talking ATM machines.” (It is currently on YouTube.)

“So Barclays approached you?” I asked.

“Well,” said Steve, “we always wanted to do a podcast, but we probably wouldn’t have done it without them. If you like the idea of something and someone gives you the money to do it, you do it.

“It’s something slightly different and we’d tried so many other avenues – TV scripts that nearly made it. We had Jimmy Mulville script editing at Hat Trick and it got to Channel 4, but that was the time BBC2 had Life’s Too Short and we didn’t get any further in the end.”

Life’s Too Short - maybe one worthy series a a time?

Life’s Too Short – Was it the big problem?

Life’s Too Short was TV’s token disabled show?” I asked.

“You kinda felt that it was,” said Steve, “but you can’t know for sure.”

“Yours was a sketch show?” I asked.

“No,” explained Steve. “It was Abnormally Funny People on tour as a sitcom. It wasn’t gratuitous disability; it just happened to be there and it was funny.”

“Why do Abnormally Funny People need a token non-disabled person like you?” I asked.

“Well,” said Steve, “Simon Minty and I knew each other from school. He has run consultancy firms and it was his original contact with someone who worked for Sky – Kay Allen – that financed our whole first Edinburgh Fringe run. They paid for the accommodation, venue, publicity, everything.

“Kay Allen now runs RUS – Really Useful Stuff – which is the company that provides us with the products we review in the new podcast.”

“Products such as?” I asked.

A self-stirring mug in action

An admirably self-stirring mug in action – I want one now!

“There’s a self-stirring mug,” said Steve. “If you have rheumatism or you can’t stir for some other reason, it stirs itself. Then there was the shoelace that was elasticated and worked like Velcro so, once you got the shoes on, you didn’t have to tie up the laces.

“Anything in the pipeline,” I asked, “other that the next photo book?”

“I’ve finished some fiction I want to get out,” Steve told me.

“A novel?”

“Yeah.”

“About comedy?”

“Sort of. It’s a love story, but to do with comedy and Yugoslavia – Kosovo – in 1999.”

The Kosovo War took place 1998-1999.

“Why that subject?” I asked.

“My wife is from Bosnia. She came over just before the Bosnian War (1992-1995) started. She is a lecturer in Linguistics at UCL, got a PhD in Linguistics. She studied at MIT with Chomsky.”

Steve has been married for 18 years.

“Your wife is a Kosovan or a Bosnian?” I asked.

“She would say she’s Serbian. She was born in Bosnia. Her mum was a Bosnian Croat and her dad’s Montenegran.”

“The Serbs were the baddies,” I said.

“They were put across as the baddies,” said Steve. “Sthe Bosnian War started in Croatia, when they chucked out the Serbs.”

“And the Croatians rather liked the wartime Nazis,” I said.

“I learned so much about it,” said Steve.

“Not many laughs in the subject,” I suggested.

Steve Best talked to me at Soho Theatre Bar

Steve Best aims to add another hyphen to his jobs – novelist

“It is a very funny book. Hopefully,” said Steve. “It is to do with an English comedian meeting a Yugoslav woman. So it’s semi-autobiographical.”

“Have you been out there?” I asked.

“Loads of times,” said Steve. “Been to Bosnia five times, Sarajevo, Mostar, all those places. But I’ve also worked out there with the forces – in CSE shows. I did a lot of research, but I’ve kept the politics very much away from the book. It is a funny book.”

Well, it is a funny world.

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Filed under Comedy, Disability, war, Writing, Yugoslavia

World War I, Cambodia and beheadings

Front page of Sunday Telegraph

Front of today’s Sunday Telegraph

I am posting my blog a little late today because, this morning and lunchtime, I went to the Imperial War Museum in London where, amongst other marketing matters, they were discussing reaction to the design of their new First World War exhibition area.

Yesterday, the self-styled Islamic State beheaded British aid worker David Haines.

When they beheaded the second American journalist, Steven Sotloff, a couple of weeks ago, my eternally-un-named friend and I discussed whether or not, if you were the family of the victim, you would want to – almost feel compelled to – watch the video of the beheading. I think we both came to the conclusion that we probably would.

I have no urge of any kind to see the beheading of any of these (so far three) victims.

But, for some reason, if I were a brother or father or son, I think I would want to see.

It makes no logical sense. It would have no good, positive effect. It would merely traumatise you with those images for the rest of your life. But there is, I suspect, some inexplicable human urge to experience the last seconds of your brother or husband or father or son.

The Imperial War Museum this morning

London’s Imperial War Museum this morning

The new Imperial War Museum exhibition on the First World War manages an excellent balance between facts and people. It is a big exhibition. I had 50 minutes to skim through it. But, to see it  properly might take three or four hours.

Strangely, the two things I will remember most are a film where not much happened – it was just German prisoners and British soldiers filing past a camera – but you could see all the faces and eyes of those now long-dead people…

And the other thing I will remember is a statistic right at the start of the exhibition which stated that, in the period 1900-1914, average life expectancy in the best parts of the West End of London was 55 (actually 55 for women; 50 for men) and life expectancy in the poorer East End of London was 30.

Nothing to do with the War, but it put it into context. It made that world come alive to me.

Killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Kampuchea/Cambodia

The killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1989

I went to the killing fields of Phnom Penh and to Tuol Sleng in 1989. Tuol Sleng was the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre to which prisoners were taken before they were driven in trucks to the killing fields.

At the killing fields in 1989, you could see the outlines of the mass grave pits of 10 or 15 years before and, here and there, little shreds of shirts and slivers of human bones which had splintered off when skulls and hands and bodies had been smashed.

There were glass pagodas of skulls. But the slivers of bone and the glass pagodas were less horrifying than the small entrance hall to Tuol Sleng where the walls were covered with faces.

Photos at the S-21 interrogation centre in Phnom Penh

These people were at Tuol Sleng long ago

With Germanic efficiency, the Khmer Rouge had photographed their victims before they were taken to the killing fields. Photographs of their faces, as if they were passport photos for death.

All the men and women photographed knew they were going to die.

They did not think they might die.

They knew they were going to die and soon.

They all had that same look in their eyes: a distant, empty stare without hope.

So it goes.

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In a Soho coffee bar comic Al Murray – no longer as The Pub Landlord – gets serious about British wars and Germans

Al Murray writing at Bar Italia this week

Al Murray was writing at Bar Italia this week

When I first saw Al Murray’s comedy act, many years ago last century, during the reign of the middle-aged Queen, it was an audio act. He came on, a slim young chap, and made the sounds of assembling and dismantling Army automatic rifles and suchlike.

For the last twenty years, he has been performing comedy as the bigoted Pub Landlord.

When I arrived at Bar Italia in Soho to talk to him this week, he was writing down some comedy ideas. Or maybe not. They might have been some Pub Landlord ideas. Or maybe not. I forgot to ask. I have a bad memory. What can I say?

“So,” I said to Al, “you’re an intelligent, sophisticated man.”

“Yes,” he said.

“But,” I continued, “everyone thinks you’re a thick East End or Essex barman. You’re a young Alf Garnett.”

“Yes, isn’t that fantastic?” he replied. (He must have been asked the question hundreds of times.) “I get to be who I really am off-stage, no-one knows who I really am and I get to talk about the things I want to talk about elliptically. I think that gives me great freedom.”

“Though, as yourself,” I said, “you get to do TV documentaries on the Second World War like Road To Berlin. Was that a difficult sell to the TV company?”

AlMurray_RoadToBerlin_Wikipedia

Al’s ten-episode 2004 documentary series

“I was on Frank Skinner’s TV show,” explained Al, “and he said Oh, you’re really interested in World War Two and the woman commissioning programmes at the Discovery Channel saw it. It was a long time ago and I haven’t done one since. In TV, there’s this thing that the person who commissioned your programme moves on and you’re left high and dry and that happened then. We went back to Discovery saying We wanna do Road To Rome next, the desert campaign and then up through Italy – and the new commissioning editor said Oh, I think the whole World War Two party’s over.

“We’re British,” I said. “It’s never going to be over.”

“Exactly,” laughed Al. “For you the War is over! – It couldn’t be any the less true. We like to think we won it.”

“Did I miss something?” I asked. “I thought we did win it?”

“With a little help from our friends,” said Al. “Obviously The Pub Landlord thinks we won it on our own with no-one else.”

“Well, we almost lost the Battle of Waterloo,” I said. “It was the Prussians who won that.”

“No, no, no,” said Al. “Wellington only fought it when and where he did because he knew the Prussians were turning up at teatime. That was the bigger thinking that was going on which, essentially, Napoleon fell for.

The charge of the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo

The iconic charge of the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo. (But did the Prussians really win? It depends what you read.)

“Historically, that’s a real bone of contention. If you read German history, that IS what happened: the Prussians won the battle. But, if you read our history… although our army at Waterloo was probably 60% made up of German soldiers anyway…”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Al. “It was a multi-national army. Soldiers from Nassau, Hanovarians, people from all over Germany, Dutch soldiers, everything. It was a coalition army against Napoleon.”

Culloden,” I said, “fascinates me, being Scottish, because it wasn’t a battle between Scotland and England, it was a battle between Catholics and Protestants; and Highlanders versus Lowlanders and the English and their Hanovarian royal family.”

“And it was a Franco-German dust-up,” said Al. “The French Germans versus the Scots Germans.”

“And the best fighters on Bonnie Prince Charlie’s side,” I said, “were the Wild Geese, who were Irish.”

“Yeah,” said Al. “These are the kind of conversations I can have all day, to be honest.”

“And you wrote a book about…”

Al’s book: Watching War Films With My Dad

Al’s book about growing up in the 1970s

“It was a book,” said Al, “about growing up in a family where this sort of stuff got talked about a lot, where it was regarded as interesting and important. And, at the same time, about growing up in the 1970s when it’s Action Man toys, Airfix models and Where Eagles Dare type films. That very post-War part of our entertainment culture. And realising that the thing which you think is a big adventure when you’re a boy is actually a vile, disgusting thing, but nevertheless fascinating.”

“It could be argued,” I said, “that the Second World War is the only totally justifiable war – concentration camps and all that.”

“But that’s not why we went to war in 1939,” said Al. “It’s interesting now there’s this current debate about whether the First World War was justified or not. In fact, the Germans invading Belgium (in 1914) is a better traditional British casus belli than the Germans invading Poland (in 1939)… Poland is a lot further away from here and the Belgian coastline is close. Though the 1939 Germans were bigger bad guys than the 1914 ones. Arguably. It’s all very complicated. There’s a way we need to see it and there’s what probably really happened.”

“So what’s the way we feel we need to see it?” I asked.

“That we were fighting the evil nasty Nazis. What really happened in the politics of the late 1930s was the collapse of diplomacy – again – and Britain being run ragged too many times and, on a raw level, a loss of face and prestige and Britain having to do something about that. I reckon. But what do I know? I am but a humble comic.”

“But…” I prompted.

“Well, I was talking about this the other night,” said Al. “I’d managed to inveigle my way into dinner with a couple of real historians and they were saying, in Europe, World War II is regarded as the most gigantic calamity, a hideous thing… whereas we seem to regard it as character forming and it gave us all sorts of good things.”

“Well,” I said, “we’ve always been at war. There’s that statistic that, in the last 100 – or is it 150 now? – years, there’s only been one year…”

“…only one year,” said Al, “supposedly 1968, when no British soldier has been killed on active service.”

“You studied History at Oxford University,” I said. “So really you wanted to be a historian…”

Al as The Pub Landlord

Al as the Pub Landlord

“No, no, no no,” said Al. “When I got to Uni I was thinking What the hell am I gonna do? History was the subject I found easiest. But, once I got there, my academic career became very dismal very quickly, because I got involved in doing comedy.

“I thought I was going to end up playing in bands and I remember unpacking my drum kit on my first day at Uni in a music room in my college and Stewart Lee and Richard Herring were in there planning their sketch show that they were going to do the following week.

“They had been at the Edinburgh Fringe that summer and they didn’t tell anyone their sketch group had sometimes outnumbered the audience, so they came back to Oxford University in great glory and did a big sell-out run and I remember thinking This is the thing I’m looking for – doing comedy. It had never occurred to me before…”

… CONTINUED HERE ..

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Lest we forget: West Berlin in 1985 and the Belsen concentration camp in 1945

Sonny Hayes

British entertainer Sonny Hayes lives in Berlin

In yesterday’s blogI quoted London-based Dutch comedian Jorik Mol on Wagner.

I received a comment from Berlin-based British entertainer Sonny Hayes saying:

“I love his take on Tristan und Isolde, “…it is like coitus interruptus without the coitus. This chord is never released – never”. We did an event in the 1970s where, for background, we combined bits of finales from Wagner, Richard Strauss et al, where the last note began the next finale and then we looped it – a never-arriving climax and very loud. It worked well, was very uncomfortable and one woman had a hysteric breakdown.”

In 1997, Sonny married Russian magician Galina and formed a professional partnership that still continues.

I Skyped Sonny in Berlin at the weekend.

“Anything glamorous coming up?” I asked.

“At the end of January, we go to Hawaii for ten months…”

“Lucky bastard,” I said.

“…which we’ve just found out is very radioactive,” continued Sonny. “The after-effect of the nuclear power plant exploding in Japan. It’s not safe to eat fish, which I was looking forward to.

“We’ve been working for some time on a solo theatre show called One For The Road which we premiered in Germany last month and we’ll be touring that after we finish our variety shows in Hawaii.”

“When did you move to Berlin?” I asked.

“In 2009, we came to work for a year at Friedrichstadt-Palast, a revue theatre, in a show called QI which was extended for a second year and then we decided we liked it here. Before that, we were living further south in Hessen.”

During the Cold War, Germany was divided into West and East Germany and Berlin was divided into West and East Berlin. The problem was that Berlin was deep within East Germany. So, to drive from West Germany proper to West Berlin, you had to travel along designated roads.

A publicity picture from around the time of Sonny’s first Berlin visit

A publicity picture around the time of Sonny’s first Berlin visit

“I remember the first time I came to Berlin in the mid-1980s,” Sonny told me. “I was working for CSE (Combined Services Entertainment).”

“We played in Helmstadt, the military police headquarters for policing the Berlin Corridor. The senior officer there was a Brigadier Gerrard, who was very impressive. I later saw him in the World at War TV series. He gave us a briefing about what to expect when we went through. And everything he said did happen.

“He told me: A Russian guard will salute you, then walk round your car then salute you again. That did happen and I gave the guard a Boy Scout salute.

“The brigadier said: At the time of night you go through, they’re going to want to do some black marketing with you. Under no circumstances are you to involve yourself in this kind of thing… But, as he was saying this, he had his thumbs in his belt and I could see he was wearing a Russian belt.

A tale of two cities - and of two countries - in the Cold War

A tale of two cities – and of two countries – in the Cold War

“You weren’t allowed to speak to anybody or to have any contact with anyone from East Germany. If you were in an accident, you weren’t allowed to get into a Russian or East German ambulance and you weren’t allowed to deal with the police.

“We were given a loose-leaf folder to take with us. If the police stopped you, you had to close the windows of your car, lock the doors and sit with your arms folded until they got really annoyed. Then you opened your folder on the first page and there was a Union Jack printed on it.

“Then you waited until they got really annoyed again and you turned to the second page where there was a smaller Union Jack and, written round it in three languages was We don’t accept you as a country. We don’t accept your authority – basically it said You don’t exist for us. We were told: You don’t speak to them unless they get a Russian officer and, unless you’ve killed someone, they are not going to get a Russian officer.”

“Did you have any problems?”

An East German GDR border scout apparently photographing grass along the border

An East German GDR border scout

“Not really. They did want to exchange bits of military gear – badges and emblems and things – for Western goods. I think I traded some chocolate for some badges. They unscrewed light bulbs and there were things inside the lightbulbs and in the hems of the curtains.

“You had to go to a hut to hand your passport in for checking. There was a small hatch and a hand came out and you could see there was an East German uniform on the arm, but you couldn’t see any more than that.

“They gave you two hours to drive through to Berlin. You didn’t drive too fast because that would mean you were speeding and you didn’t drive too slow. If you didn’t arrive within two hours, they sent a convoy out to look for you.

“Brigadier Gerrard was a super interesting guy; just a regular kind of hero of that generation. I liked him very much. He just did things his way and only followed the rules he wanted to follow. He spent a lot of time with the Russian officers drinking. They would bring vodka and he would bring whisky, which they much preferred.”

“All this happened in the mid-1980s,” I said. “Maybe 1985 – and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 – so it was quite near the end.”

“Yes” said Sonny. “I was there in 1990 with Circus Roncali and you still needed a passport to go through the wall from West Berlin to East Berlin. Circus fans would have a minibus and take a bunch of us out from the show and treat us to dinner in the East. It was very cheap to pay for things with West German marks.”

“Brigadier Gerrard sounds like a real character,” I said.

“Yes,” said Sonny. “He was in a tank regiment and drove his tank through the wire at Belsen.”

I saw the film footage of Belsen when I was about 11 years old: an impressionable age. I hope it remains the worst thing I ever see in my life. I think, in other concentrations camps, the film cameras did not go in with the first troops; they went in slightly later, so the scenes are slightly less horrific. At Belsen they filmed what the first troops first saw. I remember a pile of corpses like skeletons. Then one of them got up – just a skeleton with thin skin stretched between the bones – and started to stagger around like a newly-born zombie foal.

Former guards are made to load the bodies of dead prisoners onto a truck for burial, April 17–18, 1945

Former guards are made to load the bodies of dead prisoners onto a truck for burial after the liberation of Belsen in 1945

“We’d done a deal with the guards,” said Sonny, “that the guards would leave before the Brits came and took over the camp, though there were still a few people there: mostly Hitler Youth, as I understand it. Brigadier Gerrard had to shoot at least one of them.

“He said they didn’t really know what to do; they just contained the situation. Later the Americans came and they reacted a bit more emotionally. I think they released some of the remaining guards at the same time that they released the women and I believe the prisoners just tore the guards apart.

Nazi doctor. Fritz Klein stands amongst corpses in Mass Grave 3 at Belsen

Nazi doctor Fritz Klein stands knee-deep in corpses at Mass Grave Number 3 in Belsen

“Brigadier Gerrard said they released some Poles who had been prisoners of war in the camp and they went out and started killing Germans at random so, in the end, he had to send out a detail to round them up.

“He told me that, on Friday nights, British soldiers used to go down and smash every window in the town. Every week they smashed the windows; every week they were repaired; the following week they were smashed again. By this time, Brigadier Gerrard was the High Sheriff of Bergen-Belsen and he said he found out about what was happening by accident so he called the mayor in and asked Why didn’t you tell me about this before? and the mayor just shrugged.

“It was extraordinary meeting someone who had been there and experienced history.”

Indeed.

Lest we forget.

So it goes.

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Filed under Cold War, Germany, Nazis, war, World War II

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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