Nine- Shadow Syndicate

This month, Buxton’s Festival Fringe (4th-22nd July) has taken hold of the town and I went along to review a show.

Shadow Syndicate’s ‘Nine’ couldn’t feel fresher, with its exploration of the current Syrian conflict lending a streak of individualism to the recent news reports on the region. Also refreshing is its unfamiliar focus: the play avoids the exhaustively-covered cities of Homs and Damascus, instead taking us down into uncharted cellars, where British journalists lie captive.

As I entered the Orchestra Pit, I felt immediately uncomfortable. A dark stage, void of any decoration, loomed with all the reassurance of a lone magpie, perched on a wedding cake. Acting to heighten the ominous atmosphere, Laura Turner and Jessica Millott held (for an extraordinarily long time) frozen postures of resignation as we became seated.

And the tension only mounted. Both actresses displayed remarkable characterisation in their raw presentation of the effects that torture can have. Their depiction of the psychological and physical traumas suffered by captives in Syria was performed to such a convincing degree that I was left recoiling in horror.

Fuelled by the human instinct of self-preservation, each battled with the internal dichotomy of friendship versus independence, as demonstrated by the deceptively-harsh, rehearsed words of concern used by each to assess the physical harm suffered by the other: ‘Show me your hand…wriggle…bend.’ Yet in spite of this need for companionship, it was disturbingly easy to empathise with the concept of sacrificing another to save oneself; it is testament to the ability of both actresses that they were able to draw such repulsive and suppressed notions from their audience, such that would only truly manifest under the strain of torture.

The theatre was utilised to its greatest potential, juxtaposing a clamouring claustrophobia (induced by the dim lighting and tight performance space) with the concept of sanctuary (created by the horrific sound effects which came from the outside world.) Not only were the characters desperate to get out, they were also desperate to remain in their chains, with the alternative being torture. Thus, the audience was kept in an impossible state of fraught discomfort; an astounding feat, considering the entire play rested on only two actresses. And so, for several minutes after ‘Nine’ had drawn to a close, the audience remained silently stationary, contemplating what they had just witnessed.

Although it is needless to highlight the ages of Turner and Millott, I shall do so for precisely that reason. Reviewers of youth productions habitually comment on how remarkable young performers are… ‘for their age’ (just so you know, we find that very patronising.) In this case, both actresses (aged 17) performed to such a high level that they were simply remarkable, full stop.

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Eddie Carbone: a tragic hero?

‘The tragic mode is archaic, fit only for the very highly placed, the Kings or the Kingly.’

Traditional tragic heroes are characterised by several components, one of which is their noble status. Aristotle emphasised this in Poetics, specifying the tragic hero as ‘one of those who stand in great repute and prosperity.’ This defining quality is a vein which runs through the works of original Greek playwrights such as Sophocles and Aeschylus to Shakespeare to the Neo-classical Racine. Yet by the eighteenth century, a Bourgeois uprising was beginning to taint the tragic hero’s nobility of blood, with George Lillo’s The London Merchant defying convention and creating a protagonist as mundane as its title. Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge also boasts a tragic hero of modest background: longshoreman Eddie Carbone. Whether such ordinary characters should be permitted a title so long associated with nobility is subject to debate. However, with Carbone conforming to every other characteristic of the tragic hero, this discrepancy may be forgivable, or perhaps even welcome in our modern times.

In the first scene, Miller’s protagonist is ‘highlighted’ amongst his friends through a symbolic utilisation of lighting. We go on to witness the reverence with which Carbone is regarded in his own home, as niece Catherine greets him excitedly before seeking his opinion on her new skirt. In light of his disapproval, Catherine is ‘almost in tears’, revealing the importance of his judgement. Not only is Carbone loved by his family, he is also a respected figure within the Red Hook community, for his adherence to its Italian values. We see this in friend Louis’ admiration of his willingness to conceal immigrants, Marco and Rodolpho: ‘you got a lotta credit comin’ to you.’ Thus it is clear that, as with all other tragic heroes, Eddie is a highly-regarded character. Admittedly, Carbone is less powerful than the monarchs of Macbeth and Antigone, but we must bear in mind that the capacity to influence is relative to one’s society; within the tight-knit, isolated Red Hook community, Carbone is of the highest esteem possible, making him just as suitable for the role of the tragic hero as any Greek King.

Carbone’s importance is underpinned by lawyer Alfieri, who acts as the Greek Chorus of A View from the Bridge. His narration rarely strays from Carbone and only incorporates other characters on the basis of their relationship with him. A cardinal function of the Greek Chorus is to bridge a connection between the audience and the protagonist; the tragic hero must be one with whom we can relate, as Aristotle said. This is certainly true of Carbone, who Alfieri eulogises as having ‘allowed himself to be wholly known and for that I think I will love him.’ In this respect, Carbone could be at an advantage over the likes of Oedipus and King Lear: the very fact of his ordinariness enables greater scope for audience empathy. After all, our ability to relate to prestigious tragic heroes is limited by their rank and situation; only their inescapable humanity enables us to identify with their plight.

Vital to the tragic hero is their fall. And one cannot deny the thoroughness with which A View from the Bridge skins Carbone of his glory. By the end of Act Two, having informed on Beatrice’s cousins, he is despised by both Marco and Rodolpho; Catherine has finally shaken her dependency on him; Beatrice, although still faithful, has lost all respect for him. He is pathetic- a fact enhanced by the symbolic stage directions, whereby his former sponsors gradually abandon him: ‘LIPARI and wife exit…EDDIE calls after LOUIS and MIKE.’ Even by his own standards, he is repulsive (earlier in the play, he condemned a similar betrayal by young Vinny Bolanzo who ‘snitched to the Immigration.’) And then comes the ultimate downfall: the hero’s demise. Carbone’s death leaves no doubt as to whether Miller has fulfilled this particular criterion of the tragic hero. Yet there is still a point of contention: how far can an ordinary person really fall? Arguably, the degradation of nobility, as witnessed in traditional tragedies, exposes Carbone’s descent as a mere trip off the curb; he has much less to lose than, for example, Oedipus. Nevertheless, in any fall from grace, it is those closest to the subject of defamation that are most important: although Oedipus may feel shame before his kingdom, it is the reactions of his family and friends which cause the audience to cringe on his behalf. Thus, whilst traditional heroes may experience dishonour on a grander scale, the likes of Carbone provoke just as great an audience reaction.

Hamatria is also intrinsic to the tragic hero: translated as ‘the tragic flaw’, it is what causes the great man’s fall. Carbone’s hamatria lies in his incestuous feelings for Catherine and, perhaps more importantly, his denial of them. Having suppressed these unnatural urges, Carbone feels justified in his struggle against Rodolpho; it is possible that he has convinced even himself that his objections to his niece’s engagement are innocent. Were he to acknowledge his perverse desires, it is possible that Carbone could prevent his downfall: he is not a bad man so, if enlightened, may coax himself out of any feelings of jealously. As it is, Carbone succumbs to the ‘battle to secure his rightful place in the world’ (what Miller deems the generic hamatria), thus signing his own death certificate. This concept is captured in the symbolism of Carbone dying, literally by his own hand: ‘MARCO grabs [EDDIE’S] arm, turning the blade inward and pressing it home.’ To presume that only a figure of nobility can have such fatal flaws is clearly mistaken: ‘in no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts and such actions’ (Arthur Miller.) In this respect, therefore, Carbone is just as fitted to the role of the tragic hero as any Shakespearean conception.

From the play’s first utterance, Carbone is fated to fall. Alfieri’s opening narration predestines a ‘bloody course’ and this ominous atmosphere is later reinforced with the assertion that he could have ‘finished the whole story that afternoon.’ Meanwhile, Carbone’s discussion of the aforementioned traitor, Vinny Bolonzo (in which we learn that ‘they spit on him in the street, his own father and his brothers’ before he was never seen again) overtly foreshadows his own humiliation. Of course, this is essential to the tragic hero, for there is no tragedy in chance misfortune: it must be inevitable.

It is plain, therefore, that Eddie Carbone epitomises the tragic hero in all but rank. Yet this seems to matter little: the concept of nobility representing ‘the people’ is of dubious relevance today. When aiming to create a microcosm of society, contemporary writers are now inclined to use ordinary characters, as opposed to royalty. Thus it seems that, whilst Oedipus may have thrived in Ancient Greece, Carbone is of far greater relevance today: he is the modern tragic hero. If theatre is to retain a high level of significance within our world, the rules of tragedy must be regarded as flexible. And Miller seems to agree, slipping Alfieri the ambiguous line: ‘the law has not been a friendly idea since the Greeks were beaten.’

‘Don’t need money, don’t need fame, I just want to make a change’

Taken from Marina and the Diamonds’ early single Oh No!, these lyrics now ring hollow as the band finishes its Electra Heart UK tour. Having frankly admitted her frustration with the response to her debut album The Family Jewels,  Marina last year declared ‘I want everyone to love me.’  To what sacrifice, though? Marina and the Diamonds’ second album has certainly succeeded in gaining her a larger audience, reaching Number 1 in the UK official chart, whilst her first peaked at a disappointing Number 5. And yet, Electra Heart is all that her debut scorned, simmering with Hollywood-infected lyrics and pulsating with abused house beats. Were it not for the deep cynical quirk still present in her vocals, Marina’s latest album would lounge unobtrusively amongst the swathes of production-line music currently dominating the charts.
Admittedly, the theme perpetuated by both albums is fairly consistent: each deals with a thirst for success. However, their approaches are markedly different. The Family Jewels explores Marina’s craving for the extraordinary in an almost therapeutic way, acknowledging, and sometimes mocking, the neuroticism which accompanies any pursuit of greatness. It retains a refreshing uniqueness, not only in its honesty, but in its nonconforming sound, making it one of my most-played albums. For Electra Heart, though, Marina seems to have dissected what it is to sell big, rearranged the components and created a disc which fits snugly into the Top 40 conveyor belt.
And so it seems that Marina has achieved both money and fame. However, with repetitive, meaningless lyrics about radioactive humans (although it is possible that she is prophesying a nuclear disaster due to Tory idiocy, in which case, I take my hat off to the lass), she shan’t be changing much anytime soon.
 

Project Disillusionment: Towns of Yesterday

Yesterday, a leaked document by the education department revealed Michael Gove’s latest plan to meet his three objectives as Education Minister:
1. Demoralise youth.
2. Recreate 1950’s Britain.
3. Achieve a class divide of which Thatcher would be proud.
By 1916 2016, GCSE’s will be obsolete. In their place, a resurrection of the two-tier examination system used in the mid-1900’s, with the bottom 25% of 16 year olds taking CSE’s, whilst the more academic sit O-Level’s.
  Conceived in 1984, GCSE’s provided hope for greater social mobility (admittedly, this hope was meagre under Thatcher, but let’s think long-term) by creating a full-spectrum qualification which would support the aspirations of all young people, not just the elite. Thirty years on and regressive thinking by the Tories threatens to segregate society once more;  2016 is sure to see the remaining sinews of social mobility perceptibly tauten. CSE’s are destined to become the qualification of the lower classes and, by corollary, the qualification of the North; Liverpool and Hull are already down as the ‘CSE towns of tomorrow’, according to figures by Chris Cook of the Financial Times.
  Aged 14, most young people have barely begun to seriously consider their futures- their main focuses in life are their friends and hobbies- and yet, according to Gove, this is the point at which we should effectively cut off the bottom 25%. How, when the futures of these young people are still so malleable, is it possible to gain any suitable degree of accuracy when determining their potential? Figures show that of those in the bottom 25% aged 11, one-third will have broken out by the time they are 16. Under Gove’s plans, such promise of development will be choked off at the midway point.
  Arguably, though, the pressure of a deadline may generate a more positive response to education, resulting in swifter academic development. Be that the case, why stop there? Let us end play fights and instead clobber our youth with textbooks; let us tear down the river ropeswings and drown them in Radio 4; let us pop those dastardly footballs, to be replaced with quick-fire mathematics. There’s no such thing as ‘too young’! Who needs childhood, anyway, when there’s a sparkling adulthood of affluence awaiting?

Curiously punchable

  Unfortunately, there is a flipside to that inspiring vision: a country simmering with dejection and resentment. To simply be told that your aspirations are now worthless and to be unable to revoke that decision, to claim back your future, is an extremely disempowering concept. Friendships, which are so important in youth, could be torn apart, not only through physical segregation, but through mental reassessments of status. Moreover, a child who has the potential to reach a grade C at GCSE level may, in 2016, find themselves moved onto the CSE curriculum. With the only possible outcome being a ‘dead-end’ qualification, why should they even bother? I know I’d give up. Admittedly, under the current system, we have ‘Foundation’ GCSE papers for those who are aiming at a grade C. However, unlike the proposed CSE’s, the grade isn’t belittled by the means through which it were achieved: there is no record of the person having taken, what could be seen as, a less-prestigious paper.
As for the longevity of these plans, don’t depair just yet: Mr Clegg has promised to block Gove’s proposals just as he did with Trident, and wind power, and Proportional Representation, and tuition fees, and… Oh dear.

 

‘I don’t mind’

Mum: I’ll bring Chloe home when they’ve finished playing.
Chrissie: Oh no, no. Don’t worry about it- I’ll pick her up.
Mum:  You can’t do that! You brought her down; I’ll bring her home.
Chrissie: Honestly, it’s no trouble.
Mum: Awh, are you sure? (Chastises self) No, no, no, I’ll bring her…

As a child, I was often witness to the Wimbledon-esque barrage of platitudes which seem intrinsic to adulthood. I would shake my head despairingly as my mother battled with friends’ parents over travel arrangements and money. It seemed all wrong; each was desperately grappling for the short straw: what are you doing Mother?! She’s offering you a tenner, you massive idiot! Take it! Take it and run!

And so, with crossed arms and a self-assured feeling of superiority, I vowed never to become the confused creatures before me.

A decade on and I am fast becoming one of the worst culprits. I forever ‘don’t mind’ and, with a passivity of which the parents would be proud, I seek to know the preferences of others before expressing my own (which unerringly reaffirm theirs’.)

Conversing with similarly-stunted humans can be tricky. As the hours tick by, with no conclusion to the discussion yet met, nonchalant smiles battle against a tirade of thoughts: Just say it you bastard! I know you want to go and see Avengers so why don’t you just fucking say it? Never once do you think to mention that actually Snow White and the Huntsman looks quite good and, anyway, you’ve heard Chris Hemsworth is fitter than Robert Downey Jr.

What is there to fear? It most certainly isn’t challenge; anything is better than the endless smiling silence, saturated with unspoken frustration. Instead, there is a fear that your equally-inhibited friend will now be subjected to two hours of Chris Hemsworth whilst she was really hoping for Robert Downey Jr. Whilst it may seem admirable to put others before oneself, the self-sacrifice of the Appeaser is, in fact, annoying, especially when the cinema is now shut and you still haven’t decided what film to see.

Thus I reiterate the vow of my youth: you shall never catch me groveling to pay for my child’s ice cream in the face of a competitive investor.

A night in the life of an A-Level student

A-Level (n.): a protracted method of twisting that which is beautiful into a cage of tedium.

Exam season has arrived, drawing swathes of once-vibrant youths to the limit, as they battle to jump through the cast-iron hoops of their examiners. Myself included.

Months of revision, months of dogma, months of pep-talks: we have been led to believe that our entire lives hinge on this one week. We have decided on our favourite university, our favourite course; we know what is needed to get us there.

And so the day before that all-important history exam arrives. You’ve done all the revision you can so you have a break, take it easy…
8.30pm Have a relaxing bath.
9.00pm Go to bed early, read a couple of chapters of Breaking Dawn.
9.30pm Lamp off, eyes closed, think of anything but tomorrow.
10.00pm It’s hailing.
10.30pm Still hailing.
11.00pm Ok, this is ridiculous. Move into spare bedroom.
11.10pm There’s no way I’ll get eight hours sleep now… It doesn’t matter. You can still get seven- what difference can an hour make?
12.00am Need a glass of water… Don’t think about it.
12.15am But I’m so thirsty…
12.30am Right, I’m getting some water.
12.45am Seven hours isn’t going to happen… Six will be fine.
1.00am Toilet.
1.30am I literally can’t sleep… Shut up and put a relaxation CD on.
2.00am ‘Feel your whole body settling into the ground… your whole body…’
2.30am ‘your whole-‘ CD player finds itself hurled across the bedroom floor.
3.00am I am literally never going to sleep. What if I don’t sleep?… Well if you keep thinking about not sleeping then you’re on your way to finding out.
3.30am Counting sheep.
4.00am Stopped hailing- I’ll go back in my own bed.
4.30am Oh my God: I cannot remember how to sleep! What do you even do? Is there a special way? Is it just close-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best?
5.00am May as well not go in tomorrow. Have essentially failed anyway… Stop being immature.
6.00am Just manage one hour- one hour of sleep, please!
6.30am What am I going to do? I have an exam in less than three hours.
6.45am Maybe if I pretend I have the onset of some awful disease…
7.00am *Alarm*
……………
……….
11.00am Throw university prospectuses out of bedroom window.

FREE FALL

PROLOGUE

Crusted with rust, the track waits. I follow its path with my eyes, out of the miserable station, choked with goodbyes, to the emerald landscape beyond, its plane dotted with sparse trees, somewhere between life and death, stretching their recumbent limbs in anticipation of a long sleep. And then I lose sight of it. It merges discretely into its surroundings, as if to evade the question I am trying not to ask, yet am desperate to know the answer to…
I wrap my arms around myself; whether for warmth or comfort I’m unsure. Is it the faint breeze that makes my eyes water? Or the knowledge that my life is being dragged away from me?
A hesitant sun peers out from behind a cloud, apologetic, as if she knows she shouldn’t be here. Her rays attempt to thaw the frozen air, lancing down and casting spotlights on the platform. Even through my mosaic vision, I pick his face from the stagnant crowd in a matter of moments, leaning as far over the bridge’s railing as gravity will permit; our three years of marriage have yet to dull the explosion at my core, triggered by his presence.

The train arrives at the platform.

FRANCE, NOVEMBER 1918

I was too impatient to wait for the maid. I flung my legs out of bed with surprising energy, considering I had barely slept, and skipped over the cushioned carpet, barefoot, to draw back the curtains. Miniature suns glimmered in each bead of condensation on the window pane, their rays infusing me with unseasonal warmth.
After dressing with a careless rapidity, I bounded down the stairs, crashing into the maid at the bottom. She stuttered a few words of contrition which, to her confusion, were met with a glowing smile. ‘Breakfast is on the table ma’am,’ she whispered as she passed me with a curiously unreadable expression.  Perhaps it was the excitement seeping through my every pore, pumping from my heart, coursing through my veins, which enabled my mind to skate over the atmosphere clogging the house: that of a wake.
Breakfast, in the scheme of things, seemed unimportant, and I flirted with the idea of skipping it. However, the grandfather clock in the entrance hall decided otherwise: I had another hour until his train arrived.
My eyes were trained on the long hand of the clock face as I picked at the bread before me. Forty minutes to go, thirty nine, thirty eight… I let them wander for a moment, hoping that the next time I looked it would be time to leave. They skimmed the room, absorbing articles which held no interest for my otherwise-occupied mind: the daily newspaper, a sheet of paper torn to haphazard pieces, a vase of fresh flowers. Thirty seven.
I grabbed my coat.

Impatience crawled and wriggled beneath my skin. I tapped my foot, tattoo. I bit my lip. I pulled at the skin on my finger. Drew Blood. Boom boom.
And then my breath caught in the back of my throat as the shrill cry of the train’s whistle swept over me, through me. I stood up instinctively as if propelled by the fizzing, bouncing, dancing particles now vibrating within me. Immediately, I wished I hadn’t: the platform whirled before my eyes and the party in my stomach threatened to toss out the little food I had managed earlier. Breathe Marie.
Eight million screams issued from the track as the train stopped.  The door nearest slid open, pushed by a familiar hand. And then he was there: olive skin, dark hair, chiselled jaw, Roman nose, squared shoulders, muscled arms, broad hands, black eyes, blazing. I wanted the moment to stretch out; I wanted time to take all of him in, inch by inch. But the crawling beneath my skin won out as he took me in his arms and the years apart were obliterated his touch.

Days which had previously been filled with menial tasks- going to the florists, visiting the theatre with friends, reorganising the wardrobe for the fifth time- were now filled with him. Slipping back into our old life was like sliding into a warm bath: all the aches, repressed for the sake of ‘being a good, patriotic wife’, were soothed.
I looked at the other women in the street, swathed in black, their bewildered, red eyes on the ground, and guilt pricked at my skin; it could easily, so easily have been me. But more than guilt, I felt the habitual panic, built through years of suspense. Each time there had been news of a death, the village had held its collective breath, then pitied the newly-blackened figure, then thanked God it wasn’t them. Even worse, when the deceased was verified, there was an overriding, yet irrational, contentment that you were safe for a while; probability ruled that there would be a gap of about two weeks between each death in the area. Inevitably, as the time dwindled, you were desperately looking at the other parents, wives, children, hoping they would be next- anyone but you.
‘Ben?’ I whispered, suddenly.
‘Mmm?’ he murmured somewhere between the sleeping world and this.
‘Am I selfish?’ I asked, searching his face, almost pleadingly, for reassurance, ‘I mean, is it wrong that I should be so happy, whilst everyone else around me is grieving?’
His eyes flickered open, gluey with dreams, and he rolled over to face me, ‘Of course not. You didn’t fire the bullets that killed those men; you were just as likely a victim as anybody else. You were under so much strain. Your body has a right to be relieved,’ he smiled crookedly, adding, ‘Anyway, I would be offended if you weren’t.’
I snorted and rolled my eyes at his mock vanity, the eddying current of worry now stilled by his words.

The next morning I was awoken by a dream, immediately erased from my mind at the opening of my eyes. A nightmare, I was sure. A relentless pulse throbbed in my ears; sharp, shuddering breaths shook my whole body; sweat stuck, cold and clammy, to my nightdress. It took a moment for me to calm myself, to reassert my breathing. When I was quite still, I realised I was crying.
I reached my arm across to the other side of the bed, searching for the comforting contours and heat of Ben’s body. But it was cold. And empty.
I padded downstairs. All of the curtains were drawn shut so it must have been early. What was he doing up?
I went to the dining room first, then the drawing room, then his old study, then the bathroom. My movements were steady, my thoughts rational. Yet I was still crying. Hot tears gushed over my cheeks and onto my night dress, leaving darker patches on my chest where they fell.
‘Ma’am?’ A voice, trickled with trepidation, drew me from my confusion, ‘Are you quite alright?’
Embarrassed, I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand and gave a mechanical nod. The shock of being interrupted had halted my free-flowing and unfounded tears. The maid made to turn away.
‘Have you seen Ben?’ I asked, hastily.
Something akin to panic flushed her face, red, ‘No, ma’am.’
I closed my eyes and drew in an audible breath through rounded lips, ‘I shall take breakfast in an hour.’

Each bite of croissant was an effort. My throat was tight so the lumps of dry bread which squeezed through caused me to wince.
I concentrated on organising the turbid thoughts churning in my mind, attempting to pinpoint the sense of foreboding which lay heavy in my every cell. It was futile. A blanket-like smog clouded whatever it was that lay beyond my reach; each time I tried to penetrate it, I felt myself reclining, basking, in its all-too comforting warmth.
Frustration ebbed below the surface of my skin. It was ten ‘o clock and Ben still hadn’t returned. On impulse, for no conscious reason, I grabbed my coat and left the cosy haven of my home in exchange for a biting December morning.

The air was alive with brisk hands, slapping my face awake as I walked, seemingly with purpose, although there was none which I could find. Blood poured forth to my cheeks, protection against the clarity of the winter wind. I breathed through my mouth and the unwelcome icy drink which froze my insides made my eyes sting with water. Recoiling, I nuzzled my head to my chest where I discovered its warmth was dwindling.
‘Good morning Mrs Bernard.’
I looked up. The face only barely registered, drawing out a watery memory of a dinner party. One of Ben’s friends, probably.
‘Good day…’ I avoided supplying a name, ‘How are you?’
I hated such formalities; pointless exchanges of hollow, rehearsed words. How many hours of my life had been taken by such ridiculous conventions? I itched to get away, to continue with my directionless pursuit.
‘Very well, thank you,’ he replied, and then tilted his head to the side, with what could only be described as sympathy, ‘How are you holding up?’
Ice crept from my core, stretching out its brittle, frozen web to my arms, my legs, my throat. ‘What do you mean? Do you know something?’ I choked.
The man shrank a little, beneath the confrontational barrel of my words, ‘I only meant… what with Ben being gone and all…’
Biting back on the acrid bile in my throat, I tried to placate the waves of ridiculous dread building in my stomach with soothing thoughts, but none came. And then my hands were on his jacket, desperately grappling at his tie, ‘Is he having an affair? Has he left me?’ I was almost begging, as he shook his head, wide-eyed. My voice trembled an octave higher, ‘Don’t pretend… don’t act like you don’t know. Don’t…’

Air came into my lungs sharp and fast. As did the memories.
The maid’s panic at my questions. The caution with which she regarded me around the house. The torn up letter on the table. The letter. Delivered on a glorious, silver, shining plate. A thick envelope. My address on the front. Sharp slanted writing. The grating sound of the knife as it sliced it open.
Dear Mrs Bernard,
I am most sorry to have to inform you that your husband has gone missing in action. He was…

An oppressive blackness roared around me as I soared through the barrier in my mind, free fall.

EPILOGUE

The troops board the train, a collective mass of khaki moving in unison. My eyes are trained on him, only him. For a fleeting moment, I think he looks up at me; I raise my arm in greeting but let it fall as he reaches the train door. Ben.
The vision falters, blurs like a mirage, then slips away. A family stands on the platform, waving eagerly to someone in a nearby compartment. The youngest, a small, blonde girl, stretches up on tiptoes and cranes her neck to get a better view. Funny, I’d never thought about having children. I suppose it would have happened someday, were it not for…
A rumble from below shakes me from my reverie. Lethargically, the train pulls away.

And I follow, free fall.

The Story of Burnt Njál

My first journey down the Rangriver of the Icelandic Saga hasn’t been easy. Chapter One of The Story of Burnt Njál greeted me with…

Thorgerda was the daughter of Thorstein the Red who was Olaf the White’s son, Ingialld’s son, Helgi’s son. Ingalld’s mother was Thora, daughter of Sigurd Snake-i’-the-eye, who was Ragnar Hairybreek’s son. And the Deeply-wealthy was Thorstein the Red’s mother; she was the daughter of Kettle Flatnose , who was Bjorn Boun’s son, Grims’s son, Lord of Sogn in Norway.

I literally gasped aloud. And then began a family tree which, two chapters in, had run off the page, onto my duvet.

Íslenska : Möðruvallabók (AM 132 fol.13r) Bren...

At this point, I reached a dilemma: panic and reason began an internal battle, the former telling me to slam closed the hideously-confusing book, riddled with aeons of genealogy, and never return; the latter gently ordering me to get a grip. Which I did.

Twenty ‘Sigurds’ later (this bloke is the ‘John’ of the tenth century), my initial reservations have quieted. I have come to the realisation that, unless you are studying Icelandic lineage, the footnotes can be overlooked; the plot remains unharmed. And the plot is fantastic.

Again, I was initially worried that the sparseness of the prose would be uncomfortable but, to the contrary, the pages turn as fluidly as those of an elaborately-crafted thriller.

Perhaps it is the idea that this actually happened that spurs me on, into the night, pursuing Hrut’s travels, Hallgerda’s marriages and Gunnar’s feuds. Not only is Njál’s Saga a piece of prose, it is a piece of history, ‘handed down by word of mouth, told from Althing to Althing, at Spring Thing and Autumn Leet, at all great gatherings of people, and over many a fireside, on sea strand or riverbank.’ (George Webbe Dasent)

Read it!

Is war poetry ‘all the same’?

AN IRISH AIRMAN FORSEES HIS DEATH

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
 My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
W.B.Yeats

A photograph of William Butler Yeats on 24 Jan...

A photograph of William Butler Yeats on 24 January 1908 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Almost a suicide note, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death perversely juxtaposes inevitable death with a lighthearted tone, engendered by its use of iambic tetrameter and alternate rhyme.

As an Irishman during a time of sectarian tensions within Ireland, we could assume that the persona is a nationalist, which may explain his lack of British patriotism: ‘nor duty bade me fight.’ Yet there is just as little Irish pride as there is British; the only sense of duty he betrays is that to his hometown of Kiltartan: ‘My country is Kiltartan’s cross.’ Therefore, to so rashly pigeonhole the persona may be misguided.

We are thus left with the question: if not for patriotic fulfillment, why has this man signed up to what he acknowledges will be his end? The answer: for ‘A lonely impulse of delight.’

Having just stomached an anthology brimming with jingoism and sickly English pride, such frivolous sentiment is somewhat refreshing. On the one hand, the persona’s twisted outlook is repulsive (whilst he aims to satiate a selfish desire for excitement, those below are willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe to be the good of their nation), yet on the other, it is strangely compelling. The frankness with which he declares life as no more worthwhile than death- ‘In balance with this life, this death’- stamps a unique fingerprint, unburned by the glory of war, on Stallworthy’s anthology.

Also striking is Yeats’ avoidance of the persuasive tone perpetuated by most war poetry, whether in the aim of recruitment (Brookes, McCrae, Housman) or the exposure of its horrific truths (Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg.)

An Irish Airman… implores us to construct a character for its narrator in ways unattainable by the impersonal tones of, for example, Sassoon’s The Rear-Guard, whose persona epitomises all 100% of soldiers who, at some point, actually quite detested the perilous squalor that had come to define their lives. For me, the Irishman is an introvert who has become disillusioned with life, having watched the object of his affections fall dazedly in love with a newly-enlisted soldier down the road; suddenly the world is mundane and shallow: ‘The years to come seemed waste of breath / A waste of breath the years behind.’