Richard Flanagan (2013) The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

narrow road to deep north

I had never heard of Richard Flanagan until I watched Imagine on BBC 1 that celebrated the writer and his work. I bought a few of his books and started in on the 2014 winner of the Man Booker Prize. I expected great things and I was not disappointed.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a metonym for a place and time on the Line, a railway built by an estimated 250 000 Burmese and Chinese coolies and 60 000 prisoners of war though impenetrable jungle with little or no food and little or no resources. The story of the Line is the story of the men that built the line. A story of fiction and friction. ‘For the Line was broken, as all lines are finally are; it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remains.’ The Line is also about something bigger than man and lives transformed. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the title of Basho’s great haibun. The caricature that is Colonel Kota and Major Nakamura temporarily put aside talk of the Line to discuss the common ground on which they can meet to celebrate the purity and superiority of Japanese poetry, literature, and its spirit that would build a railway all the way through Burma (Thailand), all the way to India, a spirit that would conquer the world. The Line is a testing ground that asks the question, what is a man?

The answer depends where you stand on the Line. For a hollowed out Dorrigo Evans it is the lie that holds most true, in Auden’s words ‘you must love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart.’ The Line is love and hate and all the primordial things they create, a stripping away of self and a revelation of who we really are. Dorrigo Evans earliest memories are of light, a theme that runs through the book, ‘of sun flooding through a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother’. Running in and out of the light and the welcoming arms of women. Flash forward forty years and Evans is lauded, a national hero and serial philanderer still running in and out of the arms of women, but feels he is a fraud about to be found out, as so many other men are. For he has been tested on the Line and found wanting.  But like the Greeks, and the poets he admires, he finds time is not fixed, but elastic. He also finds his wife to be Ella’s welcoming lips as dry as dust. He loved once; Amy with his heart. She was never just a place to park his cock, another conquest, but he believes she died in a house fire. But it is the darkness of self, like the other men on the Line, he always returns; the darkness of rain cloud and tropical rain that demands ‘dominion over all things’ and the mud and the shit. The decisions he had to make as a commanding officer; a surgeon, making do, with sharpened spoons as scalpels; when the right decision is wrong and the wrong decision never right. A place where 1000 men like him rose up every day – Lazarus arising with hunger eating him alive like an animal. ‘You are never free of the world,’ he reasons, ‘to share life is to share guilt’.  He remonstrates with Major Nakamura who demands more and more hours of work from fewer and fewer men. He tells him that four men had died overnight. That left 838 POWs. Seventy seven had cholera. Another 107 were in hospital. Another 176 were too ill for work, (eg. malaria, ringworm, podagra, avitaminosis, beriberi, gangrene, foot and leg ulcers that eat bone) other than light duties. Major Nakamura demands 500 fit men.  Evans cannot find one fit man, but offers Nakamura, 363. But prisoners of war are not men, they have behaved in a dishonourable way and surrendered. If Evans cannot find 500 fit men, Nakamura will.

Richard Flanagan is best in the jungle with Dorrigo Evans and his brothers in arms, men like Darky Gardner, beaten to death by Japanese guards, as the men in the Line were forced to watch. Sheephead  Morton, Tiny Middleton, Rooster MacNiece, Jimmy Bigelow, Lizard Brancussi; all names that resonate with a certain kind of Aussie (or Tasmanian) maleness, reduced to something less. It was no victory worth talking about and best forgotten if the war they fought was reduced to being a slave for the yellow man. ‘What was a prisoner of war anyway? Less than a man’ to the Japanese way of thinking. What springs to my mind is a radio interview of British veterans of these camps. They retuned on old ships, docking at Southampton docks, kissing the ground and rubbing our home soil into their face.

The book becomes less sure-footed in following the Japanese soldiers in the aftermath of the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and later, mainland Japan, in which tens of millions starved, among them Major Nakamura. His exploits are more B-movie than ManBooker Prize winner. Similarly, Dorrigo Evan’s denouement and his car chase through a burning- bush fire in Thailand to save Ella and his family, seems too large for a single life. But then again most lives are.

Flanagan has a point to make. The victims were not all on the allied side. Dorrigo Evans comes face to face with Japanese-military might, a boy soldier in the Burmese jungle on his way to fight on the front line, wherever the front line could be found. Even in his dilapidated state Evans could see the boy was little more than a bag of bones wearing the uniform of the Emperor. He felt sorry for him. The boy’s officers slapped and kicked him, hurrying him alone. Binto, the ritual abuse of slapping and hitting, was part of the soldier’s training as monsoon season was to the jungle. This brutalisation in the name of duty, honour and deference to the emperor’s will extended to the lowest of his subjects, which included the Koreans, mobilised, not as a fighting force, they weren’t pure enough for that, but as comfort women and as prison guards. The psychopathic Goanna, Choi Song-Min, executed as a Class B war criminal is also a boy soldier on the Line. But his backstory is not always convincing. For example he shows his psychopathic traits (as out of any trait handbook) by killing a dog and selling it to a butcher for ten yen, even though it was owned by the family he worked for. The point he makes while imprisoned for the brutalisation of men on the Line, and the death of Darky Gardiner is, however, valid. Where was the Emperor? Why wasn’t he being hanged? Why was the prisoners mainly Korean? Where were the big-wigs? Colonel Kota who openly admitted to cutting the heads of prisoners and of eating Americans POWs, hides in plain sight, and uses his ties with old moneyed soldiers to get a job for his junior, officer, Nakamura. Later Kota is revered as a great Buddhist poet; his death a sham. As Sato, who had helped in live human experiments of vivisection on American POWs, explained to Nakamura, the Americans want to forget about it and so do we. It’s business as usual.

‘We too are victims of war,’ says Nakamura. He goes to visit an officer below him on the Line, Tomokowa, whom he thought a bit stupid. He reminds him that they did their duty. It couldn’t have been that bad, with all the prisoner’s singing. And in Manchuria you were encouraged to kill and rape; you could have as many women as you liked. Don’t tell his wife but ‘It was the happiest time of his life’.  Nostalgia and remembering changes the man and is a form of forgetting, epitomised by Hykakka:

Winter ice

melts into clear water-

clear is my heart.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, stark and true.

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Celtic’s season is finished before it starts

celtic flip flops

I’m in mourning. Celtic’s season is finished. Sure we can go on to win the Scottish treble. Sure we’ve got the Europa league to look forward to, which at least gives us European football until Christmas and that much needed income stream. But it’s bland and boring as chewing cardboard. Success is measured by zadoc the priest and the sound of Champions League music. For the second year in a row all we will hear is grumbling, discontent and the same old shit excuses. Legia Warsaw beat us easily over two legs a year ago, only for us to be reprieved by the miracle of a technicality. Maribor scored at Parkhead to put us out and drop us into the nether land of Europa league. A level we were more suited to.

This time it was supposed to be different. The management were ready. The team were ready. Malmo finished bottom of their Champions’ League group. They were third or fourth in the Swedish league. We laughed. They even had Berget, a kind of Cat Weasel, whom for some reason Ronny Delia brought on loan to Celtic, but supporters were just as glad to say adieu, without having paid any fee. Try before you buy. If we could do the same with Boyata Celtic would be a richer club. The catnip is Berget scored two goals, his first a beauty; his second in the 95th minute at Parkhead, the result of a mix up, in which the Celtic defence thought they could defend corners. It put Malmo in the driving seat.

We consoled ourselves that they were not Barcelona, or Bayern, but from what we had seen, a not particularly good Swedish team. A team we could and should expect to beat, even on their home ground. But Malmo bullied Celtic from corners, a team filled with players taller than their opponents and conceded three goals in two games from the simplest of free kicks. Sure Nir Bitton got a ‘goal’ chopped off, just before half time that should have stood. The Serbian referee, like Celtic can now expect to ply his trade in the lesser leagues after missing both a handball from a Malmo player and the follow up of a perfectly legitimate strike from a Celtic player. But that’s to make excuses. All over the park Celtic, with the exception of Craig Gordon in goal and the excellent Janko at right back (see you later the injury-prone Lustig) we had a team of frustrating failures. It was a gamble playing Mulgrew instead of the more attack minded Izaguire, at left back based on the logical reason Izaguirre is prone to gift forwards space and make more mistakes than Boyata or even Ambrose. Mulgrew played like a man with his two feet tied together. Scot Brown did a bit of snarling and little else. Nir Bitton had one of his poorer games and should have been off before half time. James Forest at least tried to attack their defence. As did Stuart Armstrong, but for such an intelligent boy he kept running into the opposition players, highlighted by a slide tackle he was forced to make after trying to run past one of their players. Leigh Griffiths had no great service. You couldn’t really fault him, except for you can. He could and perhaps should have been sent off for stupidity, shoving a player away from a free kick. Johansen ran about a lot. That’s all.

Commons came on at half time. He should start. He’s Celtic most intelligent player and he scores goals. Perhaps I’m just biased. I like attackers that can pass the ball and score goals and not the ones that can shuttle from one opposition player to another in the shortest possible time. I like defenders that can defend. I like midfielders that are creative. We’ve come a long way since this time last year, but we’re in the same place. Let’s get up for a big game against St Johnstone on Saturday at Celtic Park. Fuck off!

It’s education – stupid!

old etonian

School Swap – The Class Divide. ITV 9pm

I like Nicola Sturgeon, and I did vote for the Nats, knowing well that we’d get Cameron and Osborne, the Oxbridge educated elite whose scare tactics worked a treat in getting enough people on their side to elect them. One of the refreshing aspects of watching the 56 SNP members of Parliament filling their seats in the House of Commons is that some of them actually are common and none of them (as far as I’m aware) have had the merits of an Oxbridge education. Equality of opportunity in education. As Gradgrind says in Charles Dicken’s Hard Times “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

But don’t let facts get in the way of a good story. Mr Tulliver in The Mill in The Floss wanted to have his bread and eat it by having his son educated in an academy so that he wouldn’t have any bright notions of pushing him out of the mill, when he was older. The fact that his daughter Maggie (I’d guess based on George Elliot herself) was the one that took to book learning like a duck to water, whilst poor Tom struggled to stay upright, was of no concern. Education was wasted on girls. Fifty percent of the population excluded at a stroke. Fact. People keep having the wrong kind of children. Many of them are poor. In fact most of them are poor. And like their mothers and fathers they are likely to remain poor and uneducated.

The Joseph Rowntree Report in Scotland for example in 2014 stated: ‘There is clear evidence of a persistent gap in attainment between pupils in the richest and poorest households in Scotland. The gap starts in pre-school years and continues throughout primary and secondary school. In most cases it widens as pupils progress through the school years. Most importantly, the poverty attainment gap has a direct impact on school leavers’ destinations…’ Poverty equals poverty and it runs through those from the poorest areas like the lettering through Rothesay rock. It’s education stupid!

But we’ve already had this debate. In nineteen thirties Britain, for example, George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London thought he’d be picked on when he went to the spikes to get his ration of bread and sweet tea to survive another night. He was largely ignored, fitting in with the other of society’s drop-outs, but when he was singled out, usually because of his accent, he was seen as a gentleman down on his luck and treated better. The others, in contrast, were seen as part of a diseased body that had to be inoculated against. Fools that had fallen into bad ways. In Britain then only 1 in 1000 had a university education, far less than the ratio in France of even Nazis Germany.

Post-war we had a chance to make lasting changes in education. Private education, paradoxically, of public school boys was on its knees. It needed massive injections of government cash.  Masters of Wellington, like T.C. Worsley made the case quite plainly: ‘we are what we are, and shall be what we shall be, owing largely, if not wholly, to the privileged education, which the ruling class has received in the last forty years.’ In other words, pay up and shut up and we’ll give you the prime minister, government, judges and judiciary,  the privileged land-owning class and captains of industry. Butler blinked and we have it, no foolish taxes, such as VAT, on private education and they retain charitable status. Even Charles Dickens couldn’t have made that one up.  The public and private badge of privilege worn by Cameron and his cronies opens doors to the very select few and excludes the wrong kind of child.

It’s all about standards the privileged like Worsley say, buttressed by that old chimera from the Black Report (and, for no reason, Auden’s ‘seven stars go squawking/ Like geese across the sky’)—falling grades. Scare stories from the nineteen seventies like Panorama’s that focussed on educational fads like child-centred education, indiscipline and chaos of comprehensives such as Farday High, a kind Grange Hill for older folk, but without the merits of Tucker Jenkins.

I shouldn’t really watch programmes like Class Divide ITV 1.  It doesn’t teach me anything and is bad for my health. These are testing time and the Rowntree Report shows that in Scotland only 28% of children from the poorest families, such as those that attend Drumchapel High up the road, perform well in numeracy, compared to the cohort from more privileged schools in our fair cities West end.  In my childhood years I fell into that convenient stereotype, white, working class and male; sure to fail. I wasn’t particularly good at school. The old Scottish adage; they pretended to teach us and we pretended to learn just about sums it up. If I’d really stuck in at school I could have got a degree and became a history teacher and worked my way up to become head teacher of Warminster public school, featured in Class Divide, where annual boarding fees are around £27 000 (fling in a few extras, hey, who’s counting?) or I could have become an astronaut or became Sean Connery.

In the first programme we have headmaster Mark Mortimer accompanying Xander, Katy and Jon to Bemrose. The kids are pleasantly surprised. Xander sums it up. ‘It’s not as bad as he thought it would be’. All three test with ten other new starts. The private school pupil’s reading age is assessed as that of an eighteen-year old. The average pupil at Bemrose reading age is that of a seven-year old, but remember English is often a second language. But it’s more than that. Look at Xander, he’s physically bigger and more mature than his peers. It’s a throwback to reports of malnutrition in the troop intakes and an inability to perform simple tasks that continued up until the Second World War. Xander seems like a nice young Tory peer and I’m sure he’ll look back at his time with poor people with some fondness as he subjects them to yet more government cuts so people like him don’t suffer.  Bemrose as a school shows well. But a dory can’t compete with an educational frigate, nor should it be compared to such. The lessons learned don’t add up.

Education is one part of life’s equation. Educational and economic opportunity is the larger part. As studies such as Robert D. Putnam’s show Our Kids are taking a hell of a beating. Life chances are they’ll end up like their ma and pa. The rich such as those attending Warminster School will go on to one of the top five universities. They will get an internship (bidding starts at £16 000 for the type that mummy and daddy don’t mind paying for) and will go on to have a well-paid career.  That’s what private education gets for you. It offer social connections and wealth offers a buffer against economic and individual shocks. For example, allegations of a leak of where and when Ofsted school inspections would occur were linked to Ms De Sousa and a chain of academy schools, giving them time to prepare their best face, gain a favourable report and boost their league status. You couldn’t imagine Jo Ward, head teacher of 700-pupil secondary comprehensive–and counting they have a statutory duty to take children, many of them immigrants with English as their second language – Bemrose High in Derby, being in the loop and forewarned of an Ofsted inspection. Nor the head teacher of Drumchapel High. And the question needs to be asked, would it really matter?

We live in a more-it-tocracy in which the rich get richer, demand more through their monopoly of the key institutions and get it and the poor get poorer. Both are in the same sea of education, but Bemrose is a dory plucking kids from the waves and Warminster is a frigate intent on getting its charges from A to B and completing its mission.

It’s disappointing to hear Sturgeon talking of failing schools and their pupils needing more tests, starting with those in primary schools.  What we need to do is stop subsidising the rich and privileged. We need to take away their charitable status. We need to stop paying for Catholic and Protestant schools. We should merge them and offer no government support for those that want to set up their own schools. We should offer a clear path and grants for those from the less privileged schools in return for a fixed number of years in the educational districts in which they were educated. What we don’t need Ms Sturgeon is more tests. I thought you were smart enough to know that. D grade.

Emma Sweeney RIP

mrs sweeney

I attended a reception and vigil at Saint Margaret’s church in Whitecrook for Emma Sweeney (nee Hegarty). We used to call it taking the coffin into the chapel. I had to google Saint Margaret’s, it just shows you the last time I’ve been in a chapel. I found out it was my old school stamping ground of Whitecrook, old habits die hard, I took a padlock bigger than my bike. My plans were to pay my respects, slip in and out and hand one of the family a condolence card in the passing. I got to North Elgin Street and Mrs Sweeney’s hearse was in front of me and it slowed to funeral pace. I had to get off my bike and walk behind it. A cortege of one. So much for a quiet entrance. The family must have wondered who the baldy old guy in a pair of shorts and t-shirt was trailing behind the coffin.

I gave Hugh, the oldest surviving son, my condolence card. He said it was cancer and it was fast. His mother had been in Saint Margaret’s Hospice and looked up to see him sitting at the side of the bed and said ‘I’m still here’. Sense of humour and self-effacing the things that glue us.

I didn’t know her first name, because you always just called her Mrs Sweeney. That’s what we done in those days when we were sixteen or seventeen and old people in their forties were like trees, something you looked up to and took for granted. But we called Mr Sweeney, Sporter. He was married to the same sweet colleen for sixty years. Clichéd I know.  More Irish than St Patrick and the Irish shamrock. He was Irish before Bono was Irish. And the house on Shelley Drive was a proud little Dublin enclave on the banks of Clydebank High.

Mr and Mrs Sweeney were always glad to see you and their traditional New Year Party stretched back to a time Shirley hadn’t even married yet, and good Catholic girl that she was, she got married at thirteen or thereabouts. The New Year Party stretched back to a time when the Bermuda triangle of Jas was there and Billy Quinn and my own unexploded brother Stephen (Sev ya bass!) were there sinking drink and making their lives disappear with a gallus don’t-give-a- fuck nonchalance that no longer exists. Hugh was too sensible. He got out before it swallowed him.

Neil was my mate and I trusted him enough to cash my giro on a Thursday and share with him, because he got his giro the following Wednesday. We had to buy three cases of beer at New Year for the party in his house because the shops the next day weren’t open. Mate or no mate, he made sure I understood he wasn’t sharing if I ran out. But in the Sweeney house you always had a full glass.

The price was too high of course. Mrs Sweeney and her cronies urging you to sink a glass and sing a wee song. Neil had a voice like a bandsaw with no teeth, but he didn’t let that stop him laying it on. He knew every rebel song since cool ma cool. Even drunk the price was too high for me. You’d get let off with a courtesy yellow card and a warning it would by your turn to sing the next time. Aye, right.

You end up talking about something else than Mrs Sweeney, end up talking about yourself and your family. Because that’s the way it is. Self-effacing. Mrs Sweeney was her family. Your mum is the one you love. I don’t know if you understand that better when you’re younger or older, but when she dies then you understand best that love does not die with her. Resurrection comes in many flowers. In our hurried lives I’ll be taking time to attend the funeral of a remarkably unremarkable woman that gave all to her family and never stopped giving. RIP.