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Archive for June, 2018

Bullets and ButterfliesMad Dog Killers: The Story of a Congo Mercenary, Ivan Smith (Helion / 30° South Publishers 2012)

Jaundiced on GeorgeGeorge Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

Crabsody in ViewRSPB Handbook of the Seashore, Maya Plass (Bloomsbury 2013)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Mad Dog Killers: The Story of a Congo Mercenary, Ivan Smith (Helion / 30° South Publishers 2012)

War is one of the most intense experiences a human being can undergo. Films or computer-games might give you a good idea of what war looks like and sounds like, but they can’t yet tell you what it feels like. This book can. Ivan Smith is a natural story-teller but not a polished writer. That adds to the authenticity of Mad Dog Killers. He’s an ordinary man who saw, did, heard, felt, and smelt some extraordinary things.

But that suggests he’s not so ordinary after all. He had to be tough to fight and survive in the Congo as a mercenary in the Armée Nationale Congolaise during the 1960s. But he isn’t a psychopath, because he’s still haunted by some of the deaths he dealt out or witnessed. Many of his fellow mercenaries were definitely psychopaths. On his own account, he owes his life to one of the worst, a “nerveless and totally ruthless man” called Boeta, who befriended him and watched his back in the barracks and on the battle-field. Boeta comes alive on the page thanks to death. He enjoyed dishing it out and was never happier than in the middle of a fire-fight. He could make night-clubbing go with a bang too:

Boeta eventually signed up for four contracts in a row and on the second one, some months after I had returned to a normal life, he visited a nightclub in Leopoldville [now Kinshasa]. The jazz band refused to play the music he requested. It was in the early hours of the morning so he would have been very drunk. He opened fire on the offending band with an FN [machine-gun]* on automatic fire and killed them all, as well as a couple of other patrons. The one band member turned out to be a relative of a high-ranking government official so Boeta was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. A week later he was back with his Commando; the funds he had accumulated from looting had allowed him to buy his way out of it all. (ch. 4, pg. 43 – *FN = Fabrique Nationale, the Belgian arms-manufacturer)

Later in the book, Boeta makes a visit to a “tatty café” go with a bang too: “The pistol came up and stuck in the waiter’s ear. The shot was muffled and blood and brains sprayed from the exit wound and splashed the wall and roof.” (ch. 11, pg. 155) What had the black waiter done? He’d jokingly claimed to be a “Simba”, or one of the rebels against whom the mercenaries were fighting. So Boeta casually murdered him. Earlier, he and another mercenary had casually murdered a black stranger because no-one could understand what he was saying after he was left with them by some white soldiers from an unknown unit:

“Hey, Harry, you speak Frog, what is he saying?” I asked.

“No, man, it is not French. The bugger is giving me a headache. Wish he would shut up.”

“Good idea. Watch this. Stupid Simba, you should have been quiet.” Boeta got up and beckoned the loudly complaining man over. “Stand over there, you dumb fucker.” He pointed to the edge of the bridge and waved the man to stand there.

Pete, one of the commandos who happened to have been at school with me, but was two years my junior, got up and went to join Boeta.

“Man, I can’t believe that nutcase. Surely the bloke can see it coming?” Harry puffed blue clouds of smoke.

“Don’t think they will do it, will they?” was my anxious complaint.

Boeta and Pete suddenly put up their rifles and fired from the hip, on automatic, long bursts. The complaining man was smashed forward and then lifted by them and thrown over the edge into the swift water below.

“Is that not better?” Boeta called. “No more fucking whining.” (ch. 10, pg. 137)

As Smith notes wryly at the beginning: Boeta became a mercenary because “in the Congo there was no law.” Did the two of them become friends because there was some echo of Boeta’s psychopathy in Smith? I’d assume so, although Boeta nicknamed Smith “Smiler” because of “my sometimes fixed smile” when frightened (pg. 44).

Smith was frightened a lot at the beginning and you can understand why. His childhood and education in South Africa had taught him to shoot and his work in a copper-mine had taught him to face violent death. Or so he thought: “This memoire is … a brief record of a few months in the life of a cocky young man who thought he was afraid of nothing, but who soon learned all about fear.” (Introduction, pg. 6) If the Simba had been better shots or less superstitious, he might not have got out alive. But they were bad shots and reckless fighters, because they often believed that the spells of “medicine-men” had rendered them invulnerable to bullets. Big mistake. In The Godfather (1969), men “sleep with the fishes”. In Mad Dog Killers, they lie with the butterflies:

At the scene of the first contact with the medicine man and company, a fluttering vibration filled the air over the bodies, which were oozing dark blood from multiple gunshot wounds. Busy clouds of brilliant butterflies were whirling over the scene and dense concentrations of the insects sat sipping the oozing blood. The salts in the blood attracted them and the green flies. The butterflies always appeared in a very short time after blood was spilt in the tropical forest. The still moist air quickly took up and conveyed the smell of fresh blood. That cloying scent along with the sharper reek of cordite was filling my lungs as I watched the fluttering insects; they took me back to childhood, to the happy hunting of the earlier days. Then it was back to here and now. (ch. 5, pg. 55)

That’s a surreal description worthy of J.G. Ballard. Africa is a cruel and beautiful place, and the Congo is the dark heart of Africa. The mercenaries often behaved badly in the Congo, but the Simba and the black soldiers in the official Congolese army were usually far worse. Both the Simba and the Congolese army routinely “liberated” towns and villages by murdering the men and raping the women. As Smith says, he spent only “a few months” fighting there, but they’ve stayed with him for the rest of his life. Regrets? He has many. Killing in the hot blood of a fire-fight was one thing, but killing in cold blood was another. Sometimes he’s not sure why he remembers some deaths and not others: “Whatever it was that bothered me about that line of running men still haunts me more than fifty years on. Yet they were just a few of the many I killed.” (ch. 8, pg. 99) Unlike Smith, Boeta enjoyed killing anyone anywhere anytime. That’s why he stayed in. Smith got out.

At least, his body got out, but his mind has often returned. Decades later, he written this book about it, trying to exorcise his demons. The old black-and-white photos add to the sense of another place and another time, but the Congo is still at war and horrors are still taking place there. First come the bullets, then the butterflies.

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George Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

I didn’t find this a very well-written or coherent book, but I thought it had one big thing in its favour: it doesn’t treat Orwell like a saint. The world-famous author of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) was not an infallible prophet nor a flawless logician. He contradicted himself. He criticized people for saying things that he would later say himself. He often got things wrong.

But who didn’t, particularly before and during the Second World War? And the irreverence shown by Robert Colls towards his subject seemed to me to deepen into hostility at times. Does the South Shields lad Colls have a chip on his shoulder about the Old Etonian Orwell? I don’t know, but all biographies are also autobiographies. If an anti-hagiography is the opposite of a hagiography, then Colls seems at times to be writing one. That’s definitely what John Baxter was doing in his biography of J.G. Ballard, but English Rebel is a better and more interesting book than that.

It’s also much more eclectic. I like books that can quote from the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety at one moment (pg. 224) and from Richmal Crompton at another:

There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ ’em jus’ a bit, but not so anyone’d notice, and there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves. (ch. 3, “Eye Witness in Barcelona”, pg. 95, quoting “William’s friend Henry” in Crompton’s William the Bad, 1930)

As a summary of politics in the 1930s, that isn’t so far off the mark. It certainly captures the spirit of Communism at a time when many intelligent and educated people thought that Communism was the only and ethical hope for the human race. Orwell agreed with Crompton, not with the intellectuals. As Colls points out, he disliked and distrusted intellectuals while being one himself and moving in intellectual circles.

But there’s another connection between Orwell and Crompton: they were both very good writers, still delighting and diverting readers long after their deaths. Orwell was the greater and more serious of the two, but literary criticism can’t explain either of them. It can’t say why they were such good writers and such pleasures to read. All it can do is discuss their ideas, their influences, their culture and their life-histories. That’s not enough and although Colls is a cultural historian rather than a literary critic or (worse) a literary theorist, English Rebel fails to explain Orwell’s greatness just as surely as every previous biography and literary analysis.

And “Englishness” is not a very interesting topic. England and the English can be, but that’s partly because they’re so varied. You might also that Englishness is unconsciousness. The people who want to analyse it or feel the need to go in search of it are outsiders in some way. Orwell was born in British India, which made him an outsider in one way. He went to Eton on a scholarship, which made him an outsider in another. And he had French ancestry, which made him an outsider in yet another.

But I’ve never seen any critics or biographers of Orwell make much of his Frenchness. It’s there in his features and must have been there in his brain and psychology too, because genetics influences both of those. And that’s where Englishness can get interesting: at the genetic and biological level. You won’t find any of that here and bio-criticism isn’t a big subject anywhere yet. It will be, sooner or later, and that’s when Orwell will be better understood. In the meantime, books like this are here to speculate and make suggestions. And despite his irreverence and hostility, Colls does seem to appreciate the greatness and the moral stature of his subject: “Orwell spent his life fighting those who wanted to ‘control life’ and ‘entirely refashion people’ ‘with an absolute authority which penetrates into a man’s innermost being’.” (ch. , “Life after Death”, pg. 224)

That final quote is from the Jacobins and the Jacobins are still with us, using ever more advanced technology to satisfy some very primitive urges for power and domination. Orwell understood the urges and prophesied the technology. This book isn’t worthy of Orwell, but I’m not sure any biography or critique could be. It’s eclectic and interesting all the same. And it’s got a good index and some photos I’d never seen before.

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RSPB Handbook of the Seashore, Maya Plass (Bloomsbury 2013)

Possibly the best short guide to the seashore I’ve ever seen. There’s a good balance between informative text and attractive images. And while the photos are good for identification, the detailed and attractive line-diagrams by Marc Dando are good for understanding, whether it’s the internal anatomy of the green sea-urchin (Psammechinus miliaris) or the life-cycle of the common prawn (Palaemon serratus).

You don’t get so much interest so easily on land. Apart from insects, the strangest and most interesting terrestrial life tends to be microscopic. That’s not true of marine life and the seashore, where the outré is almost everyday. It’s a Lovecraftian place, from surreal sea-slugs and seductive sea-anemones to highly intelligent octopuses and highly idiosyncratic crabs. There’s beauty, like star ascidians (Botryllus schlosseri) and jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis), and grotesqueness, like sea-spiders (Nymphon gracile) and their relatives the barnacles (which are crustaceans, not molluscs). As Darwin wrote of barnacles: “The probosciformed penis is wonderfully developed… when fully extended it must equal between eight and nine times the entire length of the animal!” That quote begins the section on “Echinoderms” and Maya Plass has found a similarly quirky or enticing quote for every other section, whether it’s poetry by an obscure Victorian naturalist or prose by Dickens and Shakespeare.

Plass is not only writing in a long tradition of natural-history guides: she’s paying homage to that tradition. And I was glad to see a a chrestomathic crustaceologism from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) heading the section on lobsters. His book celebrates the variety and variousness of water and the life it nourishes. More than a century later, the RSPB Handbook of the Seashore does exactly the same.

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