What was all the fuss about? As she sat in front of the artist, she wondered why her husband wanted her portrait painted. To have another man look at her with such intensity and scrutiny for long periods of time filled her with embarrassment, forcing her to resist the urge to turn away, to scratch her nose, to blink her dry eyes, anything to avoid his glaring blue eyes. The woes of being a woman, she thought.
Nearing the end of the first sitting, for but a single moment, the sun reversed its path in the heavens and then continued its normal routine. At the time, the artist was focused on his palette and when his gaze returned to the subject, her face was pale and tears flowed down her cheeks. She was looking past the artist’s right shoulder; her eyes gazed somewhere distant, somewhere unseen.
“Is there something wrong?” the artist inquired.
Her response was that of alarm, as though awakened from a dream, and in a flash, she fled from the chair and ran out the door. He turned too late and caught sight of her shawl falling down her shoulders.
On the second day, she arrived early and gave a heartfelt excuse for her behavior. She then sat in the same pose as the previous day. Her face was blank and her body unmoving. After two hours, her eyes glistened, and with difficulty, she swallowed her sadness.
The artist put down his brush and approached the woman. Her breathing was shallow and heavy.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Am I offending you?” he asked.
“No.” She wiped the tears from her eyes and cheeks. “All is well. Please continue.”
The artist gave a nod and returned to his easel. Painting continued, and that day’s session ended with the subject still seated in her chair.
At the third sitting, an hour passed, and the artist stole a closer look at the woman’s face. The corners of her lips were curved upward, ever so subtly. Her eyes came alive; once again they gazed beyond his right shoulder. The artist turned to see what she was looking at but all he saw was an open window.
He asked her, “Signora, what are you looking at?”
She blinked and glanced at the artist.
“My mother,” she answered.
“Yes. She is standing outside. She has visited each day that you have been painting me.”
The artist walked over to the window.
“I don’t see anyone.” He turned and faced her, blocking the view out of the window.
She smiled. “I am blessed to see her. My mother died many years ago.”
As Da Vinci stared at Lisa’s face, he saw the duality of suffering and joy as if it were painted by a divine brush. He never forgot that smile.
The procession of floats through Bains les Bains each year was a sort of social high point in the wider area around Fontenoy. As I said above, all the local villages built some sort of a float for this very important and much loved event in the yearly calendar. I took part in this for most of the roughly 10 years I lived in Fontenoy, dressed in a variety of costumes appropriate to that year’s float. One of my favourite ones was when I was pulled behind a tractor in a huge double four poster which I was sharing with a splendid old lady, who was notably short of teeth, called Antoinette. Rural France is remarkably prudish sometimes, and the sight of the two of us happily in that bed pleasantly scandalized the public who stood beside the road as we passed by…. I was teased about my romantic and erotic involvement with Antoinette for many years after that one. Another very happy memory, and Antoinette was a simply delightful woman to talk to, and as I discovered, to share a bed with…. Even if all we did was talk to each other.
Anyway, by means of my very active involvement in the Associations in Fontenoy, and by being prepared to help anyone who needed a bit of help – going up onto the forest to gather their allocation of winter firewood, helping repair a roof, whatever was needed, I rapidly became accepted as one of them, a real honour I felt.
In the course of all of this, I made some extremely good friends, as Fontenoy seemed to have more than its share of good hearted people in it. People such as Gerard, who used to own the one garage in the village, and was a rather rotund and red faced but utterly likable and reliable man, all the various active members of the Associations I belonged to. Also there was Roger (Monk) Llewellyn-Smith and Marion his wife who arrived after us, and who became great and important friends to us, which they still are. And of course, Jean Pierre’s wife, Marianne. The list of friends we made there is simply too long really to put here, but there were many of them, and the friendships we made mattered to us, and still do in many cases. While Fontenoy had its less pleasant inhabitants, as everywhere does, the great majority of the people there were actually remarkably pleasant and friendly to us.
When it came time for us to leave France and go off to work in Angola, I was given a surprise farewell party and honour in the town hall. How they managed to keep that a secret from me was a minor miracle, as in such a village, the saying that “if you dropped your hammer at the eastern end of the village, people were talking about it at the western end before it had even got to the ground” really did apply.
Anyway, I was sort of tricked into going to the town hall that night by Oscar, who told me that there was a special meeting of the town’s folk to discuss something or other of importance, which I should take part in. So as he had grabbed me while I was still working, I was in my dirty work clothes when we arrived at the town hall, and I was surprised to see that just about everyone I knew in the village was there, all dressed in their Sunday best.
On entering the hall I was grabbed, pushed out to the front, and the good lady Mayoress – Francoise – started to make a speech aimed at me…. And to announce that I was to be given the Fontenoy Medal – an honour that Fontenoy had instituted to show appreciation to people who had really contributed in a very notable fashion to the community in some way or other… And that apparently was me!
After which a number of friends made speeches extolling my many virtues (in their eyes at least). I was totally overcome by the entire thing. Never having been at the receiving end of such public acclaim in my entire life. I was also doubly honoured by the fact that I was not a native of the village, and not even French for God’s sake, but of all things, an Englishman….!
I am overwhelmed as The Mayoress tells us all how wonderful I am…
Not sure I believe what they are saying about me
An astonished me, with the Fontenoy medal in my hand. Note that I am leaning on the table. I needed to.
Lotty was working in Geneva at the time, so it was arranged that she would phone during the ceremony to give me her thoughts as well…
That is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. It had real significance to me, as I truly loved Fontenoy, those people who had befriended and helped me while we were there and I was actually very sad to be leaving a place in which we had invested so much work, thought, dreams and hopes. But, that party at the end was amazing, wonderful and unforgettable.
When we got to Fontenoy le Chateau (a small village in the low Vosges) in 1997, we knew absolutely no one, and to be honest we had moments of wondering what on earth we were doing, coming to a small community in a country we really only knew from holidays (and in my case, a rather large number of relatives clustered in Paris and around Lyons). We did more or less speak French, and had gone to a lot of trouble to try and find out about banking, bureaucrats and other “official” things. But simply living, making friends and becoming part of the community, well that was quite a different set of problems.
A short video to give you an idea what Fontenoy looks like:
After we had been there for a few months, I became aware of the existence in the village of what in France are called “Associations”, which are groups of people who have got together, formed a club of sorts in order to pursue some common aim. These Associations have a legal existence and are all properly registered in the head office of the Departement, which in the case of Fontenoy meant Epinal, a nearby city of some 100 000 souls.
Anyhow, I thought that by joining one or more of these Associations, I might be able to sort of break into the village community and become part of the daily life there, and almost more importantly, make some friends.
In the event, I achieved all those aims and much, much more, and ended up being a very central part of the life and soul of Fontenoy along with a fair number of other highly active (both physically and organizationally) local citizens.
Thus I first joined an Association with the resounding name of Des Amis du Vieux Fontenoy, which devoted itself chiefly to the restoration of the ruined 11th Century castle that explained the “Chateau” part of Fontenoy le Chateau’s name.
This restoration mainly consisted of keeping the grass and weeds in and around the very thoroughly ruined castle under control, and organising a student work camp each summer holiday, where students came, lived in one of the remaining sections of the medieval wall that used to surround Fontenoy and slowly carried out a mix of archaeology and restoration work on the castle.. But to be honest, this is really a 100 year project as the castle was very big in its heyday, and is pretty conclusively ruined now. And most of the stones that originally constituted the castle have over the centuries been stolen and used to build the houses in Fontenoy itself. Including the imposing church too, by the way.
And whilst the more fanatical members of the Association were fully prepared to demolish all those houses and even the church to get the castle’s stones back, there was a certain reluctance on the part of the good citizens of Fontenoy to allow that to happen. Stalemate thus.
Actually the castle became a ruin not by the jaws of time, but was captured by, of all things, a Swedish army that happened to be operating in that area during the 100 years war, and who upon capturing the castle, forced the good burgers of Fontenoy to pretty conclusively demolish the castle.
When I joined this Association, its Chairperson was the highly energetic and impressive Veronique Andre, a good soul who became a very good friend over the roughly 10 years we spent in Fontenoy. Vero, being the sort of person she was, I also found very much in evidence in the several other Associations I joined shortly after becoming active in the Friends of Fontenoy.
In the course of my Fontenoy period, I was a very active member of as above, the Friends of Old Fontenoy, also of Les Amis de L’Ecole, an association who busied themselves chiefly with fund raising for the local primary school in the village through all manner of events, chief being the now famous all over France Feu de St. Jean and making and processing the float for Saint Nicholas on 5th December every year, and last but by no means least, sending that float to the Carnival procession in the nearby town of Bains les Bains where all the local villages and small towns processed through the town on their various floats with bands and all other good things as part of the Catholic Carnival (Mardi Gras).
The creative and organisational driving force in that association in those days was another truly good friend of ours, Jean Pierre Remond, who was a real jack of all trades, could design constructions superbly, understood the mechanics of large constructions, and was a very good organiser of labour and material suppliers too.
Being of a creative bent I also joined the Association called Village de l”Ecrit, which as its name would suggest, busied itself with all manner of literary matters, including giving an annual prize to what their jury considered to be the best book of the year written by a Vosgean writer. Sort of local equivalent of the Booker Prize really.
This one was led by an equally energetic soul, the good Michou, who used to be a teacher but was by then retired. She also became a pretty good friend over the years I worked with her for that Association. This work consisted mainly of creating an enormous number of plywood “Speech Bubbles” each year on which we carefully painted quotes from all manner of authors, in French (of course) but also in honour of the considerable number of Dutch folk in the area, and who passed through on their holidays, in Dutch and as a sort of small gesture to those Brits, such as Lotty, Roger Oscar et.al who were hanging around, in English. And occasionally in German too. Particularly the heavier and darker of the Germanic philosophers.
These we hung up all over the village, so almost every house, shop and public building had at least one of these panels decorating it for the entire summer. It is indicative of the cohesive nature of such a village that everyone was very happy to have one or more of these panels hanging on their house or fence, and as Michou, Daniel (another village stalwart who became a real friend over the years) and I hung these panels, we had long and enjoyable conversations about the quote that was being hung up. Like all good villagers all over the world, most people in Fontenoy always had time to stop and chat.
Occasionally this could be mildly irritating to me, as they were perfectly happy to do this when driving their cars through the village going in opposite directions, if they came upon each other, they would cheerfully stop, blocking the road completely and chat amiably away for a quarter hour or more… And no one worried.
People around there lived very long lives by and large. And I suspect that this very relaxed approach to life had a lot to do with that. That and the way they always recognised each other’s existence. Walking though the town could take time, as one had to greet almost everyone by name, and at least pass a couple of minutes discussing the weather or whatever… I liked this a lot.
This is a short story about environmental devastation, selfish greed, pleasurable desires, living intelligently, and taking dynamic, selfless actions.
When a recent wildfire destroyed a flower farm, the owner was devastated. The only item he saved from the fire was a large bag of sunflower seeds which he and his three employees had recently harvested.
Looking out at the blackened fields, the owner had tears in his eyes. He turned to his three employees and said, “My business is now ruined. I will need to close it down and let you all go. The only possession I have is this bag of sunflower seeds. So I will divide it into three and give one share to each of you as final severance for working here.”
The employees agreed in distress. Though they had lost their jobs, their boss had lost his property and possessions.
After wrapping the seeds in old newspaper, the employer gave one parcel to each employee.
The first employee took the seeds home and stored them in the bottom drawer of the kitchen. She thought they may come in handy in the future. Feeling tired and upset, she went to bed early that evening but couldn’t sleep as she was worried that someone would steal the seeds. Every hour or so, she got out of bed to check that they were still there.
The second employee decided to sell the seeds and hold a party. He thought that life was too short to hoard possessions. He might as well have fun while he can. With the money earned, he bought a small keg of beer and invited his friends over to help him drink it. By four the next morning, he was so drunk that he couldn’t remember his own name or his misery of losing his job the previous day.
At first, the third employee wasn’t sure what to do with the seeds. As she drove home from work, she was pondering what she should do. She knew that everything that happens presents us with a golden opportunity and it was as though she had been given the seeds as a divine gift. If she was dynamic and wise, she could change her destiny. Then an idea struck her.
Three months later, the employer rang each of the former employees and asked if he could see them. The three of them went to the abandoned flower farm.
The employer was waiting at the front gate when the first employee arrived looking anxious and upset.
“What did you do with the seeds I gave you?” the employer demanded to know.
“I kept them in the newspaper that you gave me. I thought that the seeds would be useful in the future, but the newspaper got wet and the seeds became mouldy and spoilt.”
“Oh, I see,” the employer said to her.
When the second employee arrived, the employer asked him the same question. “What did you do with the seeds I gave you?”
“I sold them and had a great night. I can’t remember much about it now but it was fun at the time.”
“So, you didn’t keep any of them?”
“No, you said they were like a severance payment, so I spent all the money I made from selling them. Life’s too short to hang onto things.”
As the third employee arrived, the employer was beaming in delight at her. “I know what you did!”
“Me? I didn’t do anything,” she said looking surprised at her former boss.
“Come with me, and you can all see what she did!” he said.
As they walked up to the rear of the property, a mass of bright yellow sunflowers were standing tall, gently waving in the breeze as if to greet them all.
The third employee was smiling at the sight. “I planted the seeds, but Mother Nature was the one who did all of this, not me.”
“That may be true,” the employer said, “but you had the insight to see the sunflowers in the seeds, and the foresight to turn their hidden treasure into something of use for everyone.”
If we all work together in new dynamic ways, we can let go of our anxiety and greed and desire for pleasure, and transform our devastation into paradise.
If someone refers to a battleground as “A Green Hell” the normal assumption is that they would be talking about jungle warfare, perhaps Borneo, Kokoda or Vietnam. But on this occasion it refers to the battle of Hurtgen Forest. It is the most important battle few people have heard about.
Hurtgen Forest lies on the German side of the Belgian/German border. It covers about fifty square miles (130 sq Km). Its steep ravines and gullies are densely covered with mature pine trees, so much so that the ground is in permanent shade. It is a dark and foreboding place.
The Americans attacked on the 19th of September, 1944 just as one of the worst winters for many years was kicking off. The ground was so hard that the entrenching tools were unable to break the surface although some units were lucky enough to get dynamite to help dig their foxholes. Their commanders must have been puzzled at the fanatical defence the German General Model put up. After all, once the D-Day beaches were stormed, the only significant resistance the Allies encountered was around cities and towns. This was just a small unimportant forest. It seemed hardly worth the effort. Their initial objective was to tie down German resources that could be used to reinforce the current battle for the city of Aachen – a particularly tough nut to crack. Little did they know that the battle was going to cost 33,000 Americans killed and wounded and drag on to be the longest single battle in US history as well as the longest battle on German soil in WWII. One particular death became famous around the world – Private Eddie Slovik was shot for desertion and became the first US soldier to be executed for the crime since the US Civil War. None of the other 27,000 American convicted deserters in WWII faced the firing squad.
The reason the Germans fought so hard was that Hitler had one more surprise for the Allies. The Battle of the Bulge. For months Hitler ignored his Russian Front commander’s warnings about an upcoming winter offensive and quietly built up his forces for one last thrust into Europe in an attempt to recapture Antwerp an Atlantic Port, and hopefully force the Allies into making Germany too hard to capture.
In a big offensive like the Bulge, forces are placed in staging areas behind a line designated as the start point for everyone. This combined with coordinated time keeping, ensures that everyone attacks at once and along the same start line, maximising the effectiveness of each unit. Unbeknown to the Americans, if they had taken the forest as easily as they expected to, they would be in a position to swing around the start line, disrupting the staging areas and worst of all, attack the attacking Germans from their rear whist simultaneously cutting off their supply lines.
So the Germans fought, and fought hard. In one section 4500 Americans died in a single month, capturing only 3000 yards of this Green Hell. When the American 1st Army stepped out of the forest on the other side, Hitler had only four months to live. The Americans had lost men at a similar attrition rate as the prisoners on the Death Railway in Thailand – one for every yard.
Even though the American forces were on paper at least, stronger, the battlefield favoured defenders as their air superiority counted for nothing if pilots could not see through the trees and snow, nor could artillery be effective as the trees disrupted their normal arc of fire. Tanks and other vehicles could operate on the tracks, but these were easily and effectively mined.
At great cost in men and time, the Americans prevailed. General Model did not issue an order for surrender, his men were doing that in droves. It was the beginning of the great wave of surrendering Germans, one lone American private set off to find the MPs with 78 prisoners, by the time he found them his charges had grown in number to 1200!
Towards the end, General Bradley offered a Bronze Star for any soldier who brought in General Model – dead or alive. All they managed to find was his Mercedes. Model told a group of soldiers looking to him for orders “Go home boys. The war is over for us.” He then took an aide out into the forest, said “Bury me here” and blew his brains out.
The newspapers of the day were full of stories from the Battle of the Bulge so Hurtgen Forest and all those wasted men were quietly forgotten.
This is a beautiful Triumph motorcycle. A symbol of fine British engineering. The Triumph must be one of the most important brand names in Britain, recognised around the world, it stands with Rolls Royce, Harrods and Stephen Fry as one of the great British icons.
It might be a surprise to discover that it was named after a parade.
A Roman Triumph was a city wide event granted to victorious generals on their return home. Modern parades are long if they go for an hour or so, but these went on for days. They were usually awarded to Generals who had killed at least five thousand of the Rome’s enemies.
The parade began with captured enemy leaders, their families and the leaders of their allies, all usually naked and in chains. Most of these would be executed when they arrived at Tullianum , Rome’s only prison, some were kept as hostages. If the defeated leader was dead there would be a life size model to be ritually slaughtered instead. It is thought that the reason Cleopatra killed herself was to avoid being paraded for the Roman crowds. Prisoners came next, also in chains and these were destined for the slave markets, further adding to the profitability of the campaign. Behind the prisoners came their arms – cart load after cart load of spears, shields and swords. Behind that was the loot. Gold, silver, precious gems, statues, paintings – basically everything that could be moved and stolen from the losing countries was piled into dozens of wagons and displayed. The valuables were distributed after the parade to every Roman – even slaves got some. After one triumph so much money flooded the Roman market that land prices shot up and interest rates plummeted. Exotic animals – elephants, giraffes even rhinos were there too and what could not be moved was displayed in paintings, floats and tableaux, all designed to impress the crowd.
All the city’s politicians came next all on foot, Senators Tribunes and Consuls all in their best whiter than white robes – the Latin word for ‘Bright’ is ‘Candida’ and that is where we get the word ‘Candidate’ from.
The general came next. He would have his face painted red (which apparently was to make him appear more god-like) and in the most prestigious of triumphs he would be riding through the city in a chariot pulled by four horses. A slave would stand immediately behind the general holding a wreath above his head and would occasionally whisper into his ear “Remember, you are but a man.” His soldiers marched behind – by far the biggest contingent of the parade. Roman law said that they could not bear arms in the city and on most occasions the law was obeyed. As the soldiers marched they sang dirty songs describing their general and his prowess.
The official parade concluded at the top of the Capitoline Hill at the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. Here two perfectly white and unblemished bulls were sacrificed and various propitiations made. Everyone then dispersed to attend banquets, games, performances and entertainments – at huge expense – all paid for by the general and extending over days. The extreme extravagance was legendary – in some cases fountains flowed red with free wine, everybody ate, drank and celebrated. It was a party on a scale that few people have seen since. I imagine it was like a combination of Oscars night in LA, the last night of the modern Olympic Games and Woodstock all rolled into a few days of celebration.
And for the day after they had a number of hangover cures not seen today – deep fried canary anyone?
The Toyota Hilux bumped its way along the dirt track that leads to Lakruja Village on the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu. We were a group of twelve from Brisbane, en route to visit the French school in the remote village. We had set out from where we were staying in the Village de Santo Resort on the outskirts of Luganville, the only major town on the island, in two vehicles, the ubiquitous pick-ups where passengers ride in the open back tray. Many in the group are not as young as we used to be, and it was a struggle for some to heave themselves over the side. On the way to the village we crossed one of the four airports built by the Americans during World War Two. The blue/black macadam was barely visible under the invading canopy of regrowth that was reclaiming the land.
We passed the occasional native hut ensconced in the forest. In parts, wide expanses of large-leafed macaranga draped in vines formed impenetrable walls on either side of the track. The sky was grey, but the rain held off. In early August, the air was heavy with humidity and the smell of raw vegetation and wet earth, while the temperature sat in the comfortable mid-twenty degrees Celsius range. More evidence of habitation became visible, we passed a tiny yellow concrete building which announced itself in bold letters as the shop. Everybody was relieved when we pulled to the side of the road and stopped. A timber-framed shelter stood in the large cleared area directly to the left; further along was a building we presumed to be the school. A number of adults were herding children dressed in uniforms of yellow shirts and green or red shorts/skirts into some semblance of order, their huge eyes fascinated by the sight of a motley crew of whites emerging from the vehicles. Sore backsides were rubbed, muscles stretched, necks un-kinked.
The school we were visiting had been going for a year and had 41 students enrolled in Kindergarten and Year 1. The project is being financed by the Millennium Cave Tours run by the villagers. “Education is far from free in Vanuatu and the cost is prohibitive for children in the outlying villages where the people grow fruit, vegetables, chickens and pigs to survive, and have little in the way of money,” our guide Sam Andikar explained. However, the villagers are recognising the necessity of education if they are to be part of the world they see changing around them.
Our trip had been organised by Bev Anti from the Resort, and Sam, director of the cave tours. Rose and I had been in Vanuatu the year before, and the idea of bringing a group of Rose’s French students to the island took root. So here we were, students – two with their husbands in tow, a friend and ourselves, waiting by the roadside to be greeted by the pupils, their teachers and the chief of the village. Finally, all was ready. “We can go in, now,” said Sam, ushering us across the track. We advanced one by one and the children draped colourful leis of native plants around our necks. We placed the gifts we had brought with us on a table in the open and were served green coconuts with a straw to drink the delicious and refreshing milk. Sam introduced us to the villagers and the chief, who welcomed us to the village. “Put your hands on the donations,” Sam told us. “It is part of the custom when giving or receiving gifts that both parties do so.” We nudged forward with the two lady teachers, Madam Irene and Madam Germaine, and stretched out to touch the books, dictionary, scissors, crayons, paint brushes, rubbers and various other items including a small laptop computer we had brought along. “The village has a generator, so they will be able to use the computer,” Sam assured us.
After the presentation we proceeded into the school hut which was set up with small tables, each surrounded by four chairs on the concrete floor and a black board at the front. White pages covered in coloured words decorated the walls. The hut was about eight metres long by five metres wide and was built in the traditional way from bamboo with thatched roof and walls. One of the women from the village had earlier demonstrated how palm leaves were threaded together to form an impermeable layer. The inspection over, we moved outside where we were offered fresh coconut meat.
A short time later we were invited into another building behind the school. We were led to chairs at the front facing back towards rows of benches filled with the children, and adults behind them near the door. The children sang songs in French and Bislama and our group responded with a few songs in French led by Rose. We also sang “Waltzing Matilda,” which I was obliged to translate into French. The villagers sang the Vanuatu national anthem and then lunch was served. It consisted of an entrée of paw paw, a local variety of apple, cucumber and grilled corn on the cob, followed by a Boonya, a traditional dish wrapped in leaves and cooked in a fire in the
ground. Rose, Jan and the teachers held the food bundle between them to mark the sharing of the meal. Two ladies unwrapped the leaves to reveal large violet chunks of taro, orange sweet potatoes, cabbage leaves, jellified cassava and chicken. A huge tub of rice was placed on the table. The children sang as they watched us eat and it wasn’t until we had finished that they were allowed outside where they were fed from cooking pots in the shade of a large tree in the centre of the ground. Some of the adults shared the leftovers in the school. The school ground had once been part of an American military base, but the villagers had had to clear the jungle that had buried it. Among the many stumps that remained sat rusted crumbling bundles of barbed wire left by the Americans.
After copious goodbyes, we climbed back aboard the vehicles and continued a few kilometres along the track to another village. Here we were shown into a small hut that served as a preschool and met Madam Rolando, the teacher. The room was much humbler than the one we had just seen. The children sat on woven mats on the uneven earth floor and resources were virtually non-existent. Once outside, Jim engaged the kids in a game of soccer – it was something to see the smiles on their faces.
This experience was an eye-opener for many in the group. Here in Australia we take education for granted, yet still rail at the cost of uniforms and books. We never question our right to a school, teachers and resources. In Vanuatu, education is reserved for those with money, which means for most, having a regular, paid job. However, eighty percent of Ni-Vanuatans rely on subsistence farming and there is insufficient money to send kids to school. This initiative by the villagers to create their own school, and therefore a better future for their children, needs support. Our support, to help make it happen.
No one knew me, but everyone worshiped me. I reveled in their reverence; they embraced my creed with all their hearts, minds, and souls. The world that I envisioned was slowly taking shape.
Each day more compounds were constructed, swallowing up masses of land to confine the hordes of prisoners. I coerced more commanders to control the compounds and disseminate my aspirations. For decades, nothing could stop the juggernaut I had created.
The trains were one of the measures to transport prisoners to the compounds. Life in each compound was torturous as people waited out their eventual demise. Long days of labor and poor conditions wore the prisoners down. I watched and laughed as they hung on tight to a hope that one day they might be released from the torment. How pitiful they were!
Yet everything changed in that single moment. One day, during the transportation of prisoners to their compounds, I became aware of a crack in my fortified master plan. The train left early that morning. As the guards watched the prisoners, they stood erect like steel needles, and death was mirrored in their eyes. The smell of apprehension wafted throughout every inch of the train. Did the prisoners really know where they were going? Or were they just following orders, doing what was needed to survive? Or were they simply beguiled by my magnificent and all-pervading propaganda? My regime was relentless; the war continued every day for as long as everyone could remember.
Prisoners didn’t ask questions; acceptance was their creed. They were herded onto the trains, some with a little nervousness but most with an omnipresent dread. A fake smile here, a muffled conversation there, followed by a stern look from another. A pleasant environment it was not, but they all pretended to believe whatever was necessary to distract them from the truth.
The whistle blew and parents held tight to their young ones, hushing any slight murmur. These children sat in blissful ignorance of their impending destiny. I always thought that parents ought to know better, but they didn’t. The blind led the blind, and they all would ultimately fall into the same ditch. I should not have been surprised though; it was my pure brilliance that blinded them.
Their dreams were shot down like warplanes in the sky. For most prisoners on the train, their heartfelt yearnings had barely sprouted, let alone begun to grow into reality. I liked to think of the trains as dream catchers, swallowing whole any semblance of a bright and sunny future.
As each station passed, more prisoners trudged onto the train with their meager belongings. The shackled hand of destiny nudged them onward. Seats were taken with minimal eye contact. Some people made secret acknowledgments which were made in a moment and lost in the next. The train sped forth. The eyes of the guards surveyed their human cattle, and the wheels on the tracks made a violent rattle.
From then on there were no more stops, and the free world outside whizzed by like blurred nightmares. A few seats remained empty and the aisle ways were clear. Some prisoners fell asleep. It was the only way they could drown out their unknown future and surrendered past. Dark clouds hung in the heavens, gripping to an empty gloominess.
Silence suffocated the will to speak but intensified inner verbosity. The awake prisoners performed mental gymnastics of repetitious what if’s and why me’s. As each second passed, hope faded faster than mundane memories. A few prisoners wondered if they would ever see their loved ones again, while others were happy to be rid of them.
And then, in one of the carriages—as though inspired by an even greater power than me—a six-year-old girl escaped the hold of her sleeping mother. She walked into the corridor and stood still for a moment. Some prisoners watched her; the guards did not notice the little one as she was hidden from their view by a large, tall man. Her slender body was adorned with a faded gray dress and her long hair was split into two rearing ponytails.
The girl began to twirl with her arms held outward at an angle. Her dress floated in the air; she was a whimsical whirling dervish. More prisoners began to watch as the girl performed her hypnotizing movement. A merry-go-round of innocence was on display before them. Her eyes were closed and her spirit traversed galaxies. She twirled on a pinpoint. One of the male prisoners who until that moment had been wholeheartedly brainwashed by my worldview could not stop staring at the girl. As he watched, centuries of visions—past and future—formed within his mind. Thoughts thundered through him.
Hypocrisy and democracy. Do as I say and not as I do. The beauty of life overtaken by insatiable greed and the need to toe the line. The flock of sheep bleat to the beat of a materialistic drummer boy. More, we want more; it’s never enough. Why bother anyway?
WHAT’S THE POINT?
In that single moment, the male prisoner caught an unconscious glimpse behind the veil of my ingenious illusion. The twirling stopped and the girl remained motionless. She opened her eyes; they glistened and glimmered like dew kissed by solar rays. Her unblinking eyes stared for miles into the distance. She saw a field of daisies caressed by the breeze. Butterflies frolicked from bloom to bloom, befriending each flower with their unbridled joy. Sunshine graced the earth with untold blessings. The girl saw a different world fed by different desires.
As a single tear escaped from the corner of the girl’s left eye, rain began to strike the train windows. She fell down on her knees, bowed her head, and clasped her hands together in front of her heart. The rain intensified and the little girl prayed. It was a prayer that heralded a shift in the power of my regime. When her supplication was offered, she rose taller than a giant sunflower and walked back to her seat where her mother was now watching her.
The train shuddered and stopped and then lurched forward again, bringing the male prisoner’s awareness back to the carriage. Shaken and stirred, the man sighed. The darkness in his eyes had changed; a sliver of light peaked through the window of his irises. In years to come, this male prisoner would escape and lead the downfall of my regime. He didn’t know it yet, but Mitch Matthews, as he would later become known, would be chosen to lead a revolution.
A heaviness of heart descended upon the prisoners as the train arrived at its final destination. The mother whispered to her daughter, “Sweetheart, what were you praying for?” The girl considered the question for a moment and many of the prisoners stood up to leave.
Looking out of the window, the mother saw the rush of commuters at central station. Men in suits and women in fancy skirts and high heels carried laptops or talked on mobile phones. They walked to the beat of my hypnotic mantra and acted like model prisoners as they headed off to their compounds for a long day’s labor. The mother was still waiting for her daughter to respond. Finally, the little girl answered, “May we all wake up. May we all wake up.”
“Civilisation begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos” or so said Will Durrant American historian and philosopher. But what do you see when you hear the term civilisation? Ancient Greece, a modern European city, your creation on Forge of Empires? The oxford dictionary defines civilisation as “an advanced stage or system of human social development”. The next question is of course; what does advanced refer to? Does there have to be the use of tools or technology, or does man need to have risen above his base nature – be intellectually separated from his physical needs and desires. Or does it just refer to built structures and the formation of cities and laws to govern operations within it?
Is order established and chaos banished via the rule of law, through education and the cultivation of morals and ethical behaviour or through fear and power? Anaximander, a pre-socratic philosopher pondered that there were many forces in the world that were often in opposition and balance/order could only be maintained while no one force dominated. Philosophers went on to argue over what these forces might be and how we could observe and measure them to establish truths and laws. This could be seen as an advancement in our knowledge but somehow the importance of balance was lost along the way in pursuit of the segments.
While to civilise means to lead people to an advanced state, to be civil refers to an ordinary citizen or to be polite and courteous. Is a civilised state more simply one where people behave well towards each other? Where we recognise our place within society and our responsibilities relevant to it? Is a genuine civilised society one that is concerned with balance and advancements in technology, laws, education and civic structures and driven by this goal?
Many years ago, about 1966 or thereabouts, I was asked by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band to do the lighting for their part in a concert that they were going to take part in at the Royal Albert Hall.
This was to be a large scale concert, with a load of bands and performers who were popular at the time, such as The Doo Dah Band as mentioned above, also The Small Faces, Joe Cocker and many others, and of course as you will have guessed from the title of this post, the extra-ordinary Tiny Tim.
How Lighting worked at the Albert Hall.
Before I get onto Tiny Tim, I should mention how lighting was handled in the Albert Hall in those far off days before the advent of simple touring lighting control boards and rock tour lighting rigs. Back then in halls such as the Albert Hall, one had to work with what they had rigged, and the actual control system consisted of huge mechanical dimmers down below in the cellars of the hall. So “Lighting Directors” such as I had to sit upstairs in a small booth high above the audience with one of the Albert Hall electricians sitting beside me who had an old fashioned telephone to pass on to the guys in the cellar what I wanted to have happen with the lighting…
So for example I would ask for the main lighting to be dimmed to create a bit of atmosphere, this command was duly passed onto the electricians in the cellar, who then dashed around setting up the dimmers, so that on my word of command which would be relayed to them by the electrician sitting next to me, they could crank all those huge mechanical dimmers into their new positions, thus changing the lighting on the stage.
Cumbersome to say the least….
Anyhow, on the day of the concerts there was a general rehearsal of all the performers and their sound and lights people, including me of course.
There was also a small backing orchestra there for any performers who might need a bit of support – which included Cocker, and obviously, Tiny Tim.
Cocker did his rehearsal perfectly, not surprisingly, and in due time it was Tiny Tim’s turn.
He came slowly onto the stage with two “handlers” in suits, one of whom carried his ukulele for him. They walked one on each side of Tiny Tim, each grasping him by his arms, and led him up to the microphone he would be using, and handed him his ukulele and stood a bit back from him. The orchestra commenced to play his music, and at the right moment, one of his handlers tapped Tiny Tim on his shoulder, and like a sort of performing robot, Tiny Tim went into his act, which he did impeccably.
Then when he arrived at the end of his act, he simply stopped, and stood there immovable. His two handlers took him by his arms again, and started to lead him off-stage. I was standing nearby as all this was happening, and as Tiny Tim was led off the stage, he asked in a sort of little boy voice “Where are we going?” To which one of his handlers replied in a gentle voice “we are going home Tiny, home….” And off they went.
My overwhelming impression at the time was that he was a very sad and strange creature, and I have had no reason to change this impression since. When you see interviews with him, and look at his very odd shape and appearance (the original pear shaped man), this feeling is only made stronger. He was seriously odd, but when he wasn’t singing in that memorable falsetto, he actually had a very pleasing baritone voice, as you can hear of you check out a video of him singing “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime” on Youtube.