Tag Archives: Army

Comedian Jenny Eclair, born in Kuala Lumpur, gets annoyed about Christians

Jenny Eclair, as she wants to be seen on her website

Jenny Eclair, as she wants to be seen, on her website www.jennyeclair.com

I chatted to Jenny Eclair at her home last week. In the first blog that came out of that, she talked about parts of her very varied career. In the second blog, she talked about iconic comedian Malcolm Hardee and that led on, obviously and easily, to his drinking.

“Towards the end, the last couple of years before he died,” I said, “I thought all those years of drinking were taking their toll and were showing.”

“But,” said Jenny, “brains do dry out as well. I have a friend who basically flooded his brain with alcohol but, because he now doesn’t live in London, he’s drying out. It’s like an old carpet. It’s gone a bit but it is repairing.”

“I have a smoker’s cough, but I don’t smoke,” I said. “I have a beer gut but I don’t drink. Sometimes I think I would be in better condition if I had taken heroin. Keith Richards can fall out of a tree with no problem and Dennis Hopper was perfectly lucid in his latter years.”

“Heroin’s better for your skin and it doesn’t make you fat,” suggested Jenny. “But the trouble with coming off heroin is you normally go to something else. Once an addict, always an addict.”

“I suppose someone could come off heroin and get addicted to the Salvation Army or something worse,” I mused.

“They’re just at the bottom of the road,” said Jenny. “The most beautiful building.”

“Yes,” I said, “I saw it coming out of Denmark Hill station.”

The Salvation Army building at Denmark Hill, South London

The Salvation Army building at Denmark Hill, South London

“The Salvation Army are actually quite good,” Jenny added, “because once Geoff (Jenny’s partner) was choking – he had been greedy over a sausage – and I was trying to give him the Heimlich manoeuvre but, because he was too fat, I couldn’t get both my arms round him. I was really struggling and he was about to die and there were two Salvation Army people walking past and they came in and they Heimliched him between them and saved his life. They also come and play Christmas carols round the corner, which is nice.”

“Well,” I said, “Christians, by and large, are OK.”

“They get a lot of stick these days,” said Jenny. “You’re not allowed to slag off any other religion. But you can slag off Christians. That pisses me off. There are too many smart-alecky people around in the media who wouldn’t dare slag off Moslems, who wouldn’t dream of slagging off Jews, but they give Christians a right old kicking and you just think: Hold on! Hold on here!

“I can’t bear the hypocrisy. It really does piss me off. Those people who do all the science stuff and find Christianity an easy target. They show an intolerance about Christians that isn’t allowed about anything else.”

“There’s nothing wrong with religion,” I suggested. “Just organised religion.”

“Or people talking about it to you,” said Jenny. “On the bus.”

“That’s people trying to convert you,” I said.

Jenny with her back to bad weather last week

Jenny with her back to bad weather last week

“No. That’s because I live too close to the Maudsley Hospital. Nutters. A lot of religious nutters… Ooh, look at the weather. It’s horrible…” The rain had started battering on her back windows.

“I’ve got to go to Greenwich to deliver some Ladybird books to my eternally-un-named friend,” I said.

“I love Ladybird books,” said Jenny.

“My eternally-un-named friend,” I said, “was brought up in the RAF and you were an Army child, so you have that in common. You were in…?”

“Kuala Lumpur and Berlin and then Barnard Castle in County Durham,” Jenny replied. “Barnard Castle was tough. I went to a very tough school there.”

“People whose parents wear uniforms – police or armed forces or whatever – sometimes rebel, don’t they?” I asked. “You became a punk poet and comedian. Was that rebelling?”

Jenny Eclair performing at The Tunnel club, London, in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

Jenny performing at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

“No. My dad was an Army major, but he wasn’t ‘an army major’, if you see what I mean. He’s very funny. And my mum didn’t work – she was an Army wife – but she was very, very clever. In fact, she should have worked. She was a wasted opportunity.”

“I suppose,” I said, “all that generation of women were wasted.”

“Yeah,” said Jenny. “also, she was a cripple in an old-fashioned sense of the word. She had polio.”

“My mother was born without a left hand,” I said.

“Did she have a hook?” asked Jenny, perking up.

“Just a rounded stump at the end,” I said. “Why did you perk up at the thought of a hook?”

“I do love a hook,” said Jenny. “A hook and a glass eye.”

“You could get them if you wanted,” I suggested, “through the wonders of modern surgery.”

“I don’t want my own,” said Jenny, “but I am very drawn to that sort of thing.”

“Have you done Peter Pan in panto?” I asked.

Robb Harwood as Captain Hook in Peter Pan c 1906

Robb Harwood as Captain Hook in a production of  Peter Pan c 1906

“No,” Jenny replied, “but I do like the look of a pirate.”

“What’s the glass eye got to do with it?” I asked.

“Anything that’s a bit wrong,” Jenny explained, “I’m quite attracted to anything that’s a bit wrong.”

“Was your mother in a wheelchair?” I asked.

“No, Full-length calliper. It’s only one leg. She is really magnificent.”

“My mother only had one hand,” I said, “but she didn’t let it affect her. She seemed to be knitting all the time in my childhood. She used to play tennis when she was younger, which is actually quite difficult – You have to hold the racquet in one hand and have to throw the ball up in the air.”

“My mother was a tennis player,” said Jenny.

“My mother,” I said, “mostly hid the end of her left arm – because her parents had told her she shouldn’t show it.”

“Yes,” said Jenny. “It was slightly shameful. My mother told me that, after she got polio, her father assumed she would never marry.”

“I don’t think my mother expected to marry,” I said, “because she thought Who would marry a one-handed woman?

“And with my mother,” said Jenny, “it was Who would marry somebody with a great big leg iron?

“A pirate, perhaps?” I suggested.

“My dad,” said Jenny. “It was the only romantic thing he ever did. He was abroad when he heard it had happened. He got Compassionate Leave and hitch-hiked his way back from Aden or somewhere like that. She had been his girlfriend and then they’d fallen out. He was in the Army and went off to Aden. She went to a cinema in Blackpool and caught polio there. He heard about it and made his way back to Britain and to Blackpool Infirmary.

“My grandmother was there and said: Derek, you can’t go in and he said Yes, I must and he saw my mother. She said I’ll never walk again and he said Yes you will – when you walk down the aisle to marry me.

“Aaaaaahhhhh…..” I said.

An example of a modern egg poacher

Example of a modern egg poacher, seldom seen as romantic

“I know,” said Jenny. “But he’d used all his romance up in that one sentence. In terms of romance, never anything again. He once bought her an egg-poaching pan for her birthday and said: Go on, June. I’d love some eggs…” They’re both very gung-ho and Northern and good fun. Both from Blackpool.”

“So you feel Blackpudlian?” I asked.

“Not really,” said Jenny.

“The place I feel most at home,” I said, “is Edinburgh, but I’ve never had a home there. I always had relatives there until recently, so I was visiting there every year as a child, probably since I was an embryo.”

“I feel Northern,” said Jenny, “I think it’s more to do with the sense of humour than anything else, I understand that quite graphic, broad, seaside postcardy humour.”

“Blackpool is seasidey,” I said. “Not like Manchester.”

“No,” agreed Jenny. “I went to drama school in Manchester. And Liverpool’s different again. But I wouldn’t leave London now.”

“I met your daughter with you,” I said, “at Glastonbury about… It must have been…”

“Nine years ago,” Jenny told me. “When she was 15. She’s 24 now. She’s a playwright. She’s got the writing gene. She’s working at the Royal Court Theatre at the moment. Then she’s got a play on at Theatre 503 on Monday (that’s tomorrow if you read this blog on the day it’s posted) in a thing of new writing, then she’s got a residency at the old BBC building in Maida Vale… or it might be in Marylebone. It starts with an M anyway.”

“And you?” I asked.

Jenny helped develop the concept of Grumpy Old Women

Grumpy Old Women – touring the UK April to June 2014

Grumpy Old Women on stage,” said Jenny. “We go into rehearsal in March; we tour in April, May, June. And I’m writing a Radio 4 series at the moment for broadcast later this year: six 15-minute monologues. They’re all set in real time.”

“Will you be starring?”

“No. The producer thought we should get better actresses and she’s right, because I’m quite limited and I always sound like me.”

“That’s the sign of star,” I said.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere other than London now” Jenny said again.

“It’s where everything happens,” I said.

“It is,” said Jenny. “I like it when things happen.”

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Filed under Comedy, Disability, Religion

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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Filed under Africa, Books, Comedy, Military, Sierra Leone, war

North Korea – Phallic monuments, war lies, famine and an interview with MI5

An amazing erection in Pyongyang: the Tower

(A version of this blog was also published on the Indian news website We Speak News.)

Surprisingly today, our older male guide admitted that North Korea had a famine in the 1990s. It was, he said, caused by “no rain” and, in the period 1994-1999, “only 200,000” people died, not the 3 million he said was claimed by the Americans.

I think Apartheid in South Africa was doomed when they let television into the country. People could see what life was like outside the country.

Widespread tourism in North Korea brings much the same threat.

Being a North Korean must be like being a sheep or a goat. You are born into a place where people look after you and you learn to trust them and believe they care about your welfare. Then, one day, they may slit your throat and eat you with vegetables.

North Korea is an enclosed world of brown countryside and white-and-red towns. Or white-and-off-red towns. Brown earth. Off-white buildings. Red banners and slogans.

The Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s Juche Idea of self-reliance – much touted when I was here in 1986 – seems to have been superceded by the Songun philosophy of “military first” – which “prioritises the Korean People’s Army in the affairs of state and allocates national resources to the army first”. Interestingly, this first seriously appeared in 1995, the year after Kim Il-sung’s death, when his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il took over the country.

I wonder what sucking-up to the military Kim Jong-Il’s son the new Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un will have to do.

All towns seem to have at least one tall thin monument in a central position with slogans carved around or on it – the ultimate being the Tower of the Juche Idea in the country’s capital Pyongyang with eternal sculptured flame atop. It all seems a bit like worshipping a stone phallus erected in the middle of ancient communities with dwellings huddled round it.

North Korea is very big on icons.

We were taken to the national film studios today. The late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was much bitten by the would-be-Hollywood bug. We were proudly told that he had visited the film studios more than 590 times. We were told the studios made 20 films each year. So that would be almost two per month with lots of overlapping.

But the studio buildings and the widespread backlot streets were deserted. The ladies and gents toilets were closed and had to be found and specially opened. The gents was flooded. Someone told me there appeared to be an old woman sleeping in the ladies toilet.

The man in charge of the film studios said that the Great Leader Kim Il-sung himself had given advice on the positioning of the studios. He had said they should be outside the city.

Good advice, I believe.

The school year here starts on April 1st, which seems a very appropriate date given some of the facts learned in school. We were taken to an ‘ordinary’ school today.

In reality, of course, foreign visitors are never taken to ‘ordinary’ schools.

The school we were taken to – the June the 9th Middle School Number One School – was closed. This is the fourth day of a two-day public holiday. the extra two days, we were told, are “because in the previous two days the people had to celebrate”.

The science schoolroom had a small, cheap microscope on each desk. There was one room devoted to lessons about the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. And one room devoted to lessons about the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. “The children have one lesson each week on them,” we were told proudly.

Some children had been dragged in to perform for us. As with all performances in North Korea, they were perfect in every way, though with a slightly unsettling emphasis on accordion-playing.

I was very impressed by one small picture among many others stuck on a wall. It was of the small children undergoing military training – crawling under barbed wire and the rest.

Then we were taken to the War Museum where we had explained to us why the Korean War started. Basically, as I understood the story, the US made lots of money during the Second World War by selling its armaments. When the War finished, the US went into a big economic Depression and decided to start the Korean War to stop the Depression.

Last time I was here, in 1986, the line was that the Korean War started when the running dog South Korean lackeys of the US imperialists wantonly attacked North Korea, but the valiant North Koreans pluckily fought back, drove the Americans back to the sea and the Yanks begged for a peace treaty.

This fails somewhat to explain why the border between the two Koreas remains in the middle of the peninsula and, as told in 1986, the Chinese Army was not involved in any way. Presumably North Korean grandfathers who remember US/UN troops surging northwards through their village and then remember Chinese troops surging southwards through their village see the value of keeping schtum.

Today, I asked if many Chinese visitors came to the War Museum and if they saw the same rooms as us. “There are four Chinese rooms in the museum,” I was told, “but we do not have time to see them today.”

I do not really care. The more important factor to me is that, although there is some talk of the US conning the UN into being involved in the Korean War, it is the Americans who are 100% blamed (or credited) with the war. We see their downed aircraft, captured vehicles and photos of their POWs. Britain is never mentioned because it seems important to keep the focus of North Korea’s xenophobic hatred on the Americans alone.

That’s fine by me. It gives me a quieter life as a Brit.

In the evening, as a special treat, we are taken to Pyongyang’s main theatre for a special mega-performance by a cast of 2,000 in honour of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. Broadway and Andrew Lloyd-Webber eat your heart out. A stupendous production of professional perfection. It is later put on YouTube:

But, really, you had to be there to appreciate the scale of it.

At a restaurant meal, one of our group tells me his story about being interviewed for a job in MI5. He passed the tests where you are given lots of disparate information from different sources about a fake situation and have to compile a risk assessment  situation report. He got through to the interview stage and failed. He says he thought it was because he was around 22 years old at the time and “they like more fully-formed people… all the others were older, maybe in their early 30s.”

I wonder how uni-directional the microphones are in the restaurant. I feel reassured that the North Koreans have better people to bug in this celebratory period.

When I get back to the hotel – our final night is unexpectedly in the 5-star Yanggakdo Hotel – the television, very bizarrely, has the BBC World TV channel on it. What are the authorities thinking of? North Korean workers in the hotel can see this. I think of South Africa and Apartheid.

The BBC is saying there has been a Los Angeles Times report with photos of US soldiers posing with the severed limbs and other body parts of suicide bombers… and North Korea has said it will no longer allow UN nuclear inspectors into the country because the US has withdrawn food aid to North Korea in response to the launch of their rocket last week.

We live in interesting times.

Most of it utterly unknown by the people of North Korea.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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Filed under North Korea, Politics, PR

The Green Party diversifies into comedy Newspeak & Doublethink over women

Lindsay Sharman tries out diversity

(This also appeared in The Huffington Post)

In her blog yesterday, 2010 Funny Women Awards finalist Lindsay Sharman wrote:

____________________

A chap from The Green Party contacted me last week to offer me a 10 minute slot on a bill headlined by Alistair McGowan, for a Green Party fundraising event. I accepted, and we started exchanging e-mails to finalise details.

This morning, I received this –

Hi Lindsay,

I’m really sorry but I am going to have to withdraw our offer. It’s nothing personal, I was asked if I could increase the diversity of comics on the night. So we’ve got a 63 old transexual comic instead of a second female artist. Sorry you have been usurped in this case for a transexual

Best Regards,

Chris

____________________________________________________________________

I am a great admirer of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially the Appendix – on The Principles of Newspeak – which is why I have always been extremely opposed to so-called “positive discrimination”. It is pure Orwellian Doublethink. There is no such thing as “positive” discrimination; it is simply discrimination… It is an attempt to prevent discrimination by discriminating… Pure Doublethink.

The Green Party has managed to mess up their gig – and their PR – on all fronts. They had a good female comic in Lindsay Sharman. They then bizarrely tried to make the bill more ‘diverse’ by getting rid of not one of the male comics but one of the two female comics on the bill. AND they managed to belittle the (extremely good) transsexual comic (whom I know and admire greatly) by treating her as if she is not a woman but a separate ‘quota’.

As comic Karen O. Novak said, when hearing about this, the Green Party thought it had “achieved ‘diversity’ by replacing a white female comic with… a white female comic”.

Comic Charmian Hughes said: “I think the Green Party insulted both comics! They insulted the trans-sexual comic even more than the person they cancelled! I think it was actually more insulting to her than to Lindsay!!!”

Women have it bad enough already without the Green Party muddying the waters.

Janey Godley, a superb comic and possibly the best all-round creative I have ever encountered, tells me: “There is a booker in northern England who won’t have women on the bill… and I have had bookers say to me Sorry – We had a woman before and they were shit.”

Comedian Kate Smurthwaite tells me: “A London promoter once said to me: I can’t book you that week, Kate – I’ve already got Angie McEvoy on the bill and you’re too similar. Anyone who has seen both our acts would know we are very different in terms of style and content. The only obvious thing we have in common is gender.  Five minutes later, in the same conversation, the promoter said: I do want to book you, though, cos I think you’re really pretty – Do you want to come for a drink with me?

Comedian Laura Lexx tells me: “I have been introduced as The very pretty young lady Laura Lexx, which obviously doesn’t make an audience think particularly highly of you… but I very rarely gig on bills with other women outside of London so I suppose it often feels like it’s a ‘one in one out’ system for ladies and bills.”

Kate Smurthwaite tells me: “I once saw a male promoter say, as a female comic left the stage: I normally kiss the female acts, but I won’t kiss her. Then he said: If you want to drink alcohol, use the bar downstairs but (pointing at a busty woman in the front row) if you want to drink milk – ask her.”

Lindsay Sharman tells me: “A West Country promoter once introduced me to the stage with I only gave her this gig cos I fucked her! (I certainly hadn’t) and then mimed humping me from behind.”

But the sexism is not even restricted to men. Another female comic said to me: “CSE, who book gigs for the British Army, rarely book women – maybe one every four years – and they have a sexist website where all the men hold mics and the women are sexy dancers – and it’s women who run it!”

Lindsay Sharman used yesterday’s Green Party PR own-goal as part of her comedy act last night. “But,” she told me, “one of the other comics actually thought I was making it up, as the crassness of Sorry you have been usurped in this case for a transexual just sounds too unreal, like a shit punchline.”

I guess it is a bit like writing fiction. Novelists have told me they can’t write the actual truth because it’s so utterly OTT no-one will believe it. People will only believe the truth if it is watered-down. In comedy, I think people have a tendency to believe the made-up bits if they are skilfully interwoven and think the real bits are made-up because they are just too incredible.

Like this case in point.

The Green Party ‘diversifies’ into comedy Newspeak & Doublethink over women.

You could not make it up.

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Filed under Comedy, Politics, PR, Sex

18 years ago in Southern Lebanon…

The Lebanese Civil War (depending on how you calculate such things) lasted from 1975 to 1990. I have blogged before about being in Lebanon in 1993/1994. This is part of a diary entry for 3rd January 1994… exactly eighteen years ago today. At the time, Beirut was occupied by Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ forces:

* * *

The currency here is the Lebanese pound (L£).

I was told today that an official ‘taxi’ in Beirut will cost me L£5,000 but, if I get any other cab, it will cost only L£1,000. All the official taxis are Mercedes-Benzes marked ‘taxi’. And all the ‘other cabs’ are unmarked Mercedes-Benzes.

This morning, leaving Beirut, there was a solid, un-moving rush-hour traffic-jam of Mercedes-Benzes entering the city.

As we left, I asked about a shelled hotel nearby. It was not shelled in the recent Troubles, I was told: it had been half-built when the Israelis shelled it back in 1984.

We left through the southern suburbs, heading towards Israel.

On lamp posts, there are big 15-ft high cut-outs of the Ayatollah and others raising their hand in greeting or perhaps blessing. At one point there was a little community of oblong-shaped tents by the roadside. My driver told me with distaste that they were “gypsies” and, during the Troubles, there had been a famous massacre of them. I thought I must have misunderstood and that he meant the massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila ‘refugee camps’ because, at this point, we were near them. But he reiterated these were “gypsies from Greater Syria”. He did not specify if he thought Greater Syria included Lebanon.

Further along the road, we passed a group of about ten men in the wide central reservation. One man was in the process of swinging a tyre iron  at another. Perhaps if you have become used to satisfying bursts of anger with bursts of machine gun fire and then peace comes along….it must be difficult to stop anger bubbling over into violence. He was swinging the tyre iron at the other man’s head. We had passed before it made contact or the man ducked: I will never know what the outcome was.

Yesterday, on a road in the Bekaa Valley, I saw someone pushing a vehicle which had broken down. He became annoyed by the car behind him in slow-moving traffic. He just turned round, put his hand on the car’s bonnet and did nothing for all of a very long ten seconds. Just a long, long, very hard, unblinking stare at the driver of the car. Then he turned back and carried on pushing his broken-down vehicle.

Further down the coast this morning, we passed through an area where all the scattered buildings on both sides of the road had been blown up. I asked if the Israelis had done this and was told, no, the Lebanese government had done it in 1984. Christians fleeing Beirut had tried to resettle in the houses in this previously Moslem rural area. The government did not want to risk unsettling traditional religious areas, so blew up the houses to prevent the Christian refugees settling there.

Still further south down the coast, there started to be a more visible military presence: three tanks dug-in at one point – two with guns out to sea, one pointing South down the road towards Israel.

As we entered Sidon, there was a flurry of checkpoints. Generally there are checkpoints every 5-minutes or so as you drive along a road. As we entered Sidon, there were three within 100 yards.

As we passed through the town, there was what looked like a poster of British Radio One DJ Dave Lee Travis in a turban and a banner on the other side of the road in Arabic with some words in English – INDECENT PROPOSAL – ROBERT REDFORD. What on earth do the Islamic Fundamentalists make of this? I wondered.

Overlooking Sidon on a hill, there was a giant statue of the Virgin Mary standing on top of a large cone. An interesting concept. And, on a facing hill, a mosque.

Sidon is a Christian town.

As we looked at the statue of the Virgin Mary, a jet flew low over a nearby hill to the east.

“Israeli plane,” my driver told me.

Then we were off southwards again.

In a small town/village by a river and the inevitable checkpoint was a 40 ft high orange monument which, at first sight, seemed to be a crescent but was actually a grey hand holding aloft an orange scythe. It was a memorial to a boy who mounted a successful suicide attack on the Israeli Army. Towards the bottom of the monument was a banner: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING SOUTH LEBANON.

South Lebanon is noticeably different to the northern part of the country. The south seems less bleak, greener, with more trees plus banana and orange plantations etc. Also, the military checkpoints seem more serious with tanks and/or armoured personnel carriers plus artillery either dug in by the roadside or standing by the checkpoints themselves. The soldiers, rather than wearing just uniforms, are in full battledress with pouches round their belts, knives sheathed in the small of their backs.

As always, some checkpoints are Syrian, some Lebanese.

The Lebanese Army, strangely, seem to have better weaponry than the Syrian Army. The Lebanese (but what do I know?) have weapons that look like Armalites. The Syrians have less substantial, more basic-looking automatic guns.

When we entered Tyre (about 20 km from the international border with Israel and about 10 km from the start of the Israelis’ self-declared “Security Zone”), there was a Lebanese Army patrol walking down both sides of the road, looking around, rifles held horizontally. In another part of the city, I saw two UN soldiers. The UN has been in Tyre since 1978. With little effect.

The reason I went to Tyre was to see a massive 20,000 seat Ben-Hur style Roman stadium. Well, in fact, there is almost nothing left. But you could see the size and shape and, from some 1960s reconstruction, get an impression of what it must have felt like.

Massive.

To be there when it was built and operating… well… you must have felt the Roman Empire was so unimaginably mighty it would never end.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings indeed.

The gigantic standing temples at Baalbek must have awed the local peasants. Just these remains of the arena at Tyre awed me.

I guess all civilisations seem like they will never end.

But they do.

I used to have a company called Shivadance Productions. In Hindu mythology, Shiva is the god of destruction, but also of creation. The Dance of Shiva creates a new world out of destruction. You cannot destroy anything without creating something new. You cannot create anything new without destroying what was there before.

The world turns.

We drove back to Sidon and its Crusader castle defending the port. Then back to Beirut, where it started to rain.

I had decided to get dropped off at Verdun Plaza, an expensive new apartment block with three floors of ultra-modern plush shops below. Very plush. All marble and expensive trimmings. Then I went off to the main shopping street and the downpour started in earnest. The rain was bouncing: it was not rain but little hailstones. After that, for about 15 minutes, it became giant white hailstones thumping down onto the streets, making people scurry for cover. Then came deafening thunder and lightning.

At the moment, Beirut has no proper drainage/sewer system so, in downpours, the water builds up on the streets.

The day was rounded off nicely by seeing a sign which read:

NEW PERFECT HOME: THIS WAY

The sign was leaning against the boot of a gleaming new Mercedes-Benz.

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My brief encounter in Beirut with a man from the Syrian Army

Once, when I was working for the Discovery Channel, I had to make a TV trailer for a rather suspect documentary on the Waffen-SS.

I say ‘suspect’ because it started off with the words:

“The Waffen-SS is renowned throughout the world for its efficiency…”

Yes. I thought. Yes, but… and it is a very big But.

These last few months, I have been reminded of that by the Syrian Army’s wide-ranging put-down of the Syrian uprising. Very efficient. But…

I only had one encounter with the Syrian Army.

I visited Lebanon at the very end of 1993, almost four years after the Lebanese Civil War had sort-of ended. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I had tried to combine my trip to Lebanon with a visit to Syria to see the ruins of Palmyra but the Syrians had refused me an entry visa without explanation. My passport said my occupation was “writer” which probably did not help, though this had proved no problem in Albania  under Enver Hoxha nor in North Korea under the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

In Beirut at that time, there were still Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ troops manning occasional sandbagged emplacements at crossroads and roundabouts.

Beirut was a strange city. At rush hour time, there were traffic jams of Mercedes-Benzes – almost all the taxis were Mercedes Benz. Money was flooding back into what had been the banking centre of the Middle East. You could walk along a street and it would seem perfectly normal and peaceful. But you could turn a corner and there would immediately be two or three blocks of burnt-out, bombarded skeleton buildings, utterly devastated, like visions of Berlin in 1946. You could not go up those streets nor into the buildings because there were mines and unexploded shells.

This is an extract from my diary.

FRIDAY 7th JANUARY 1994 – BEIRUT

I have a sneaking feeling we are the only guests in this hotel. We never see anyone else at breakfast. Never share lifts with anyone. The room next to us, where we heard a loud argument late one night, has no beds. I just looked in. Just two sofas.

The Syrian soldiers have no problem with accommodation. No tents on the wet ground for them. They just live in some of the skeleton buildings. We saw them camp-bedded in the Hotel St-Georges yesterday and, round the corner from our hotel, they are living in three storeys of a burnt-out building – usually we see some playing cards at a table on the first floor. No walls, of course. Like several around here, it is a building reduced to a vertical grid of open-fronted concrete boxes.

Nearby, there is a sandbagged emplacement in the middle of a junction at the far side of which is a Kentucky Fried Chicken/Baskin Robbins emporium in all its plastic red, white and pink glory. Two soldiers with machine guns stand inside the ring of sandbags, which has a little metal roof over it. There are usually at least three other soldiers standing around, looking in different directions, either in the roadway or on the surrounding pavements or both. Yesterday, there were five soldiers and a lorry. They do not seem trigger-happy; but they seem alert.

Today, a man on the seafront pavement saw the Pentax camera hanging over my shoulder, half-hidden under my arm, and decided to shake my hand.

“Welcome to Lebanon!” he said.

I thought he did this to practice his English but, eventually, he invited me over to buy a tea from his van. It was impressive to see Lebanese entrepreneurial skills re-emerging.

As he made the offer, a military jet flew low overhead and a couple of klaxoned motorbikes ee-aw-ee-aw-ee-aw-ed out of a junction, leading a four-car convoy and, a little later, a couple more jet fighters flew over and round in a complete circle.

On Tuesday, I was woken up by the sound of two jets flying fast and low one after the other.

I walked down as far as the Summerland Hotel – which I knew for its peach melba, chattering American financier, vast swimming pool and supermarket. A man with a Buick told me his sister had bought a nearby flat for $750,000.

I looked at my map for directions and left the Summerland Hotel for the city centre but a gent in front of me pointed out that two soldiers behind me wanted me to stop. These two soldiers – then a third – then a fourth – then a fifth – wanted to see what I was reading. None of the five could speak any English or French at all. But they wanted to know if I had been taking any photographs. (My Pentax was over my shoulder; the smaller Minox camera was invisible in my pocket.)

They wanted to know where I got the map. I had bought it from a shop in one of Beirut’s main streets. Fortunately I still had it in the paper bag and could point at it. They did not seem to have seen any map nor knew one existed. They were not content. I showed them my passport, which the soldier in charge (in his twenties) did not really understand. He was more interested in my Middle East Airlines ticket stub. He must have read the Arabic on the back of the stub about four times at various points. It says (in multiple languages):

“Kindly reconfirm your reservation between 10 and 3 days before date of departure to guarantee your seat. Otherwise your reservation will be cancelled.”

This fascinated him so much we all went over to a guard post, then into an open area between two nearby buildings. I explained my week of merry jaunts around Lebanon by pointing to the days in my diary. But he was more interested in three Daily Telegraph Holiday Offer coupons I had torn out for a friend. They showed drawings of an aircraft, a cruise ship, a sun, a family and a bar code. He looked through these slowly twice.

As he was doing this, I palmed something else that was in my diary – a letter from a friend in Norfolk who sends letters/parcels to a ten year old girl in Beirut. It read:

“If you really want to live dangerously in Beirut, the address to seek out is (and it gave the girl’s name and address). Her dad was a policeman in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces so TAKE CARE!

I thought it wise to palm this even though, clearly, none of the soldiers understood English.

By this time, a Syrian Army Intelligence officer in civilian clothes had been brought over to our group. He was older, maybe mid-40s, and very relaxed. He also understood and spoke basic English.

We went through the map, photos etc again. He seemed to have been told the soldiers saw me taking photos which, ironically, I had not been. He, too, seemed surprised I had a map. He asked more detailed questions – or, rather, I volunteered information – travel agency in Beirut, hotel, route, the diary again.

All those many TV years of obsequious amiability, smiling, wittering and keeping calm came to fruition. If you can tell children and parents their appearance on national TV has been cancelled, then gents with battledress toting Kalashnikovs are less of a worry.

But only slightly.

The Intelligence man asked me:

“What is your job?”

“I write for children,” I told him, on the basis this had done me no harm in (an even dodgier country which shall be nameless until next year) and my visa said ‘Writer’ but I did slightly worry that the Syrians had refused me a visa.

“Mmmm…” the Intelligence man said.

The main military man went off with my passport and the Beirut travel agent’s card. I was left alone with Intelligence man in civilian clothes and a very young soldier fiddling absentmindedly with the trigger of his Kalashnikov. He could shoot his own ear off I thought.

“Are you in Lebanon with others?” the Intelligence man asked.

“One other person.” I replied. “I think he is still asleep back at the hotel.”

I was in obsequious/amiable chatting mode.

The Intelligence man had come back to Lebanon from the US one year ago. He was not surprised a flat in this neighbourhood went for $750,000. I asked how much flats in the building to our right would cost. He said about $400,000 with three bedrooms.

He was polite, amiable and smiling. But sometimes, when I was not looking at him directly, his smile would drop a little.

“Your British Foreign Secretary Mr Hurd went from Beirut to Israel this week. What do you think of the Israeli-Arab problems?” he asked me, then realised it was too blatant a question and back-tracked.

The main soldier came back.

They took me into a tent in the ground floor of the house to our left and we went through the map again.

I showed them my route.

“What photographs have you taken today?”

I could not remember anything except the devastated Holiday Inn area by the sea (not a good thing to mention) so I said Martyr’s Square and pointed it out on the map.

None of them (about five) had heard of Place des Martyrs/Martyr’s Square, the main – indeed only big – square in the city; and they had difficulty looking at the map and figuring out where it was in town.

You would think soldiers could read a map and would know the local layout, I thought.

It was around this time they started mentioning you need a licence to shoot film.

“You need a licence to shoot film,” I was told. “Do you have one?”

“No.”

In fact, this cannot be true and, indeed, I have always carried the Pentax in full view (though mostly using the Minox).

Yesterday, a soldier saw the Pentax over my shoulder

“You cannot take film here,” he said. “Bombs… Boom!” He pointed at the ground. “Not here. Poof!…Bombs!… Boom!”

But he never said I needed a licence to film.  I presume today they were trying to intimidate me.

I had been offering to take the film out of the camera and give it to them and they now decided I had to… take the film out of the camera and give it to them.

I could not remember what was on the film – possibly photos of the bombed American Embassy, the Holiday Inn, the Hotel St-Georges and the bay by these hotels.

I dabbled with the idea of opening the back of the camera, then unspooling the film for them, but figured it would be too obvious I was destroying the pictures I had taken. So I just rewound it and gave them the film as it was. Assuming they would not develop it by 0730 tomorrow anyway (my take-off time).

Everything was very relaxed after that. I was at my most obsequiously polite.

The Intelligence officer and the main soldier took me outside. I thanked the soldier three times for his politeness. The Intelligence officer said, “I hope you understood it is a difficult time… only for security reasons… A difficult time… very sensitive… for the country’s security and your own… A difficult time.”

I assume it was just a Jobsworth affair with the soldiers trying to get brownie points from their superiors for being alert to security dangers.

They had not searched me. If they had, they would have found the Minox camera and four new rolls of film in my trouser pockets.

When I left, I walked back to my hotel and switched on the BBC World Service, which was transmitting a report on the Jewish community in Cuba, with various Jewish songs being sung. I decided to switch it off.

Later, I went out and bought Tuesday’s Arab Times, which bills itself as “The First English Language Daily in Free Kuwait”. It reports that, on Monday, the day we were in Tyre and Sidon in South Lebanon, “Guerrilla factions in South Lebanon went on maximum alert in a pre-emptive move designed to avert Israeli strikes expected to accompany the forthcoming Syrian-American summit scheduled for mid-January.”

The Arab Times went on to report that, on Monday, the Israelis (via their ‘South Lebanon Army’ militia) “carried out a reconnaissance by fire tactic at 9.00am by firing six 120mm mortar rounds at a hill overlooking the southern Lebanese market town of Nabatiyey.”

What an interesting use of the word “reconnaisance” I thought.

They are all mad.

All sides.

Everything is out of control.

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Filed under History, Lebanon, Middle East, Politics

Deaths in the North African desert…. Deaths in Dresden…. So it goes.

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

I still cry every time I see the movie of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. He was a POW in Dresden, when it was bombed.

The name of this blog – So It Goes – is taken from his book.

When I was in my early teens – maybe even when I was ten – I read a description of the air raid on Dresden  in 1945 and the firestorm which was intentionally created to destroy it.

The one detail that stuck in my mind when I read it was that, when the second wave of British bombers crossed the English Channel, they could see a glow on the skyline and that was Dresden burning far, far, far away in the far east of Germany.

When I saw the BBC’s then-banned documentary The War Game, I remember the fact being stated that most of our knowledge of the effects of a nuclear attack on an urban area comes not from Hiroshima and Nagasaki but from the bombing of Dresden and Hamburg and the firestorms created by the creative use of  ‘conventional’ bombing.

At the time, in March 1945, in the closing months of the War, the Germans estimated around 200,000 people had died in the Dresden bombing. Some later guesstimates put the possible figure (no-one can ever know) at nearer 500,000; the RAF figures of the time are fantasies; the firestorm destroyed 15 square miles of the city centre.

Yesterday at the Soho Theatre in London, I saw 92-year-old former rifleman Victor Gregg chatting about his life.

He grew up in the 1920s in London’s King’s Cross where, pretty much, all the young boys were in street gangs because, with entire families living in one room, you had to go out onto the streets during the day; staying in your home was no option.

When he was older and the gangs were more mature, he hung around Soho, where gangs from North and East and South London had cafés in various streets and, if there were any territorial disputes, you resorted to cut-throat razors.

One day in 1937, when he was out of work, aged 18, he was standing at Horse Guards, watching the guards change and an older man asked if he wanted to come with him and have a free tea and a bun. He said yes. The man took him to Great Scotland Yard and, within half an hour, someone had chatted to him, a doctor had felt his testicles and he had one shilling in his hand and a railway pass for the next day to a military depot.

“That’s how they got people into the Army in those days,” Victor shrugged.

He fought in the front line at the Battle of El Alamein in the North African desert, including the Snipe Action where, according to Victor, 500 men with 19 six-pounder anti-tank guns were surrounded by and held off massed attacks by German and Italian armoured divisions and destroyed “about a third of Rommel’s tanks”. The British commanding officer won the Victoria Cross.

Victor was part of Popski’s Private Army when he was 21, drove the injured for the Long Range Desert Group and the death of his friend Frankie 70 years ago could still bring tears to his eyes.

Frankie was killed in a truck in the North African desert, hit by enemy shelling.

When Victor got to him, the truck was burnt out but Frankie’s body was still sitting there at the wheel of the vehicle.

When Victor pulled Frankie out, the bottom half of the body fell off onto the ground.

At Arnhem (subject of A Bridge Too Far), Victor was dropped by parachute on the second day which meant that he was landing on the bodies of the first day’s paratroopers. The 600 men he was with were soon reduced to 80 and, with their supplies mistakenly dropped 10 km away (roughly the distance from Soho to Wimbledon in London) they were hungry for most of their nine days there and praying it would rain so they could drink water from the puddles.

After being captured at Arnhem, he ended up on Tuesday 13th February in the centre of Dresden in a building with a glass dome roof. He had been sentenced to death for sabotage after trying to escape from a POW camp and burning down a factory.

When they heard the sirens and even when they heard the bombers overhead, they did not think Dresden could be the target. They thought, under their glass dome, that it must be another one of the almost nightly air raids on Leipzig.

The first incendiaries were about two or three feet long and came through the glass dome, showering people underneath with sharp glass shards. They had something like a liquid glue in them that stuck to people’s skin so people who already had glass sticking into them were also burning alive.

“And if you ran out of the building,” Victor explained, “it was like running out into an oven at Gas Mark 7; everything was on fire.”

When the second wave of bombers came – the bombers I later read about as a teenager – the ones which, coming over the English Channel saw Dresden burning on the distant skyline…

When the second wave of bombers came, they were dropping bigger incendiaries and 4,000 pound and 8,000 pound bombs.

To create a firestorm, you drop the secondary incendiaries and bombs into the fires caused by the first wave of attacks.

“Dresden was full of old people,” Victor said. “Old people, women, children, sick people, babies; there wasn’t a soldier in sight.”

And then the winds came. The fires burnt so intensely, the oxygen was being eaten-up so quickly at the heart of the firestorm, that air had to be sucked in to prevent the creation of a vacuum, so hundred-mile-an-hour winds blew along at ground level, sucking people and rubble into the centre of the firestorm.

“You had to try to walk into the wind,” Victor said. “or you’d end like the people who were being dragged up into the air or sucked into the fire. People who were in shelters roasted to death.”

He reckons he survived through pure luck and because he was wearing wooden clogs. The water was steaming, parts of the River Elbe were on fire, the pavements melted leather shoes and feet.

“There was an air raid shelter near the railway station,” Victor said, “There were 5,000 people in it. The doors had been locked to avoid over-crowding. When we opened the doors, there was just glue left inside. Everyone had been turned to jelly. There were no bodies. An occasional bone here and there. But it just looked like it was full of glue.

“The Yanks came on the second day.  By then, they had fighter planes which could fly all that way into Germany. They strafed the women and children as they ran on the ground. I’ve seen it written that it never happened, but I saw the fighters doing it.”

After the War, he says, “I was OK for about 18 months, then I became a psychopath. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel any responsibility to anything or anyone. It took me about 30 years to get over what I saw in Dresden.”

He wrote his autobiography Rifleman with Rick Stroud.

He had a look of faraway resignation in his eyes when he talked, except when he told the story about the death of his friend Frankie in the North African desert, seventy years ago, when the bottom half of the body had fallen onto the ground as he lifted it from the burnt-out truck.

Then he had tears in his eyes.

The death of one person can matter.

So it goes.

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Filed under Germany, History, Military, Second World War