the autogeography of a no/body

Jun 2

The remains (of two soldiers)

I don’t like silence, it bothers me. The worst sort of silence is the one that descends at four in the morning. Leonard Cohen was right. Somewhere between night and day totality gets ripped. Falling into sleep, worrying about all the things I’ve done and not done, I started to feel suffocated, as if my face was covered in thin, black rubber. Quite still. Deathly silence. And then there was a man, with a rough bladed dagger, cutting the rubber. A cocoon? No, I wasn’t going to emerge like a butterfly and unfold my vernix wings.

The radio played scattered news reports from around the world and an interview with Ravi Shankar. I listened to Yehudi Menuhin and his violin. Such a sad sound. I thought about Primo Levi, the man who ‘died at Auschwitz forty years’ before he committed suicide. An American, drawling, nasal, began to talk about Hezbollah and how they had returned the remains of two Israeli soldiers.

The remains, in the remains of the night, the remains of a nightmare, the beginning of a new one, of a new day.

My father went to War. Twice. The first time as a sailor. The second time, I guess, as a mercenary. He never came back. Sure, his body, still pulsing and breathing, arrived at home, but in his head he was always somewhere else, with a secret terror, perhaps even a thrill. When he got drunk, which happened fairly often, he’d spring up, suddenly animated, and show me, amongst other things. how to quickly take a blade out of your sock and stab a man to death. He carried this weapon, strapped to his ankle, until he was well into his sixties. Unusually, for an English man, he also had guns and was a proficient marksman. He preferred his knives though, and fists. Close quarters. I think he liked the damage, that raw, cruel damage. Or maybe he just couldn’t avoid it and this was his way of trying to control it. Don’t get me wrong, my father was not a thug, there was nothing mindless about his violence, all of it was guaranteed to ensure you got hurt a lot more than he ever would. He didn’t have the capacity for pain. I saw him do things to himself. His relationship to pain … masochistic … sadistic …

and our heroes all died crazy

broken, poor or shot

let’s celebrate their tragedy

and sanctify the loss

and manifest the daydream

like those who fell before

and glorify our small attempts

and hate ourselves no more

One of the first writing jobs I ever had was to produce an article about tracing the war dead. It made sense to me to start with the story of my own uncle, Neil Kirkwood Devlin. Having joined up before the Second World War, he was an officer in the Royal Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Born some twenty five years after his death, I never knew him, except for the stories my mother would tell. He was her favourite brother; a strapping handsome man, thick black hair, always laughing and joking about, even when she fell off a five bar gate and cut her head open. He stitched it back together for her and gave Frank, another of her brothers, a good telling off. Small things, simple things, life is made up of these skin and bone patchworks.

Once every so often she would get his cap and cane out of her wardrobe and sit on the edge of her bed and cry, thirty years after he died, forty years, fifty years. A survivor told them, her family, what had happened. Trapped by the Japanese in Singapore, suffering from heat exhaustion, subject to a catastrophic pincer movement, diseased and desperate, they surrendered. The officers were buried, vertical, their heads remaining above ground, and left to … left … to die, in front of their men.

I found his memorial, an unobtrusive, stone, pyramid structure covered in names. So clean. It relieved her, to see the nearest thing she could to a grave. And then she showed me his picture. Sixty five years she had carried it around in her wallet. There he was, standing, in full uniform, his hand on the back of a chair, looking straight at the camera, as was the woman seated on the chair, the Japanese woman. “Who’s that?” I asked.

“His wife, Nancy.”

The other family member I researched was Charles Holmes, my husband’s great uncle. Charles died in the First World War, in France, in horrible conditions, like so many other men, thousands of other men, millions of other men. When I was at school my best friend’s grandfather, Ted, helped us with a history project. I remember him telling me about how he crawled off the battlefield at Somme. Fourteen years old. The wounded snaked their way through the trenches to the ‘hospital’, holding on to the man in front. Ted had lost a foot; the man behind him his face.

No one knew Charles, all that remains of his brief sojourn on this earth is a photograph. It’s an interesting shot. Again, full uniform, including the obligatory officer’s moustache, riding breeches and long, leather boots. Because the picture is sepia, I imagine the boots to be brown. Again, looking directly at the camera, but this time there’s no chair and no woman, instead a curtain behind him. It’s a hurried construction. The curtain doesn’t entirely reach to the floor, and where it does, it’s lopsided. This isn’t a studio shot, it’s an army shot, taken before he left, so that people had something to remember him by, while he was away, after he was dead …

The remains of two soldiers.

Archaeologists in Fromelles, northern France, have found the mass graves of thousands of Allied troops, mainly Australians. The battle of Fromelles, fought on 19 July 1916, was supposed to divert German attention from the Somme, but it didn’t work. Instead, Allied forces ran into heavily fortified German lines and sustained losses that are estimated at around seven thousand men in a little over twenty four hours.

The Battle of Iwo Jima commenced on 19 February 1945. Twenty one thousand soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army sought to defend their strategic position. After thirty five days twenty thousand seven hundred and three had either died as a result of their injuries or by their own hand in ritual suicide. Allied forces suffered nearly seven thousand fatalities.

the remains

what remains

two soldiers, close quarters, raw, cruel damage.