Issue #7 15th - 20th November 2002
They don't give medals, part 2
Trumbo, Fast, and a guy called Spartacus
Memories Filled With Music
A letter, the Clientele and London
They don't give medals
Patient #S - day two. 9 a.m.
I don't know how I expected to find him. Sadder, maybe. A little pathetic -huddled into himself, rocking slightly. Nothing so cliched. He has showered, tied his long hair back from his face and shaved his beard. He has refused the food offered him, although it seems he has eaten - the wastebasket contains a soya milk carton, and several wrappers of some sort. I bend down to examine them, but -
'At least wait until we're not in the same room'
I meet his gaze, and am surprised to find myself apologising.
'I'd tell you what they were, if you asked me.'
No need. The contents will be examined later, and then destroyed.
He pulls a chair from the small circular table which, apart from the bed in the corner, is the only item of furniture in his room, and he opens a bottle of mineral water. The night of rest, real rest, has done him good. I can feel the power that underlies his presence for the first time. Stronger, more confident. More like a super hero
'Any news of Ruth?'
I was contemplating my list of questions, and am momentarily left without an answer to his question:
'Ruth Birman? The woman you were looking after for six months, before.... Before whatever happened to her?'
'No... Not yet. We're still looking for her'
He opens his mouth and inhales, but the words do not follow. Instead, he sips he water and looks away before:
'I miss her.'
I try to smile supportively, as I pick up my pen and prepare to make notes.
'We weren't allowed to have relationships. They interfered with our training. And, anyway, that sort of bond... Well, it gave one all sorts of weaknesses that it didn't do to have when you were fighting...what we were fighting.'
'I suppose me and Ruth were comrades. Partners, even. That type of partner that one doesn't see outside work and with whom one remains truly professional. It was only in the later years.... We were both in hiding, but we'd managed to stay in touch.... That I saw beneath the catsuit.'
'No, I'm not being vulgar. I'm speaking figuratively. What happened, physically, is between me and her, and it will always stay that way.'
(Here he looks me directly in the eye, as if challenging me to say otherwise. I say nothing. It seems he has decided to take charge of this conversation. This is a positive step. It means he is opening up.)
'You know the legend behind the Birman? The breed of cat, I mean... They would keep these cats in the temples in Burma, back when the old wars were occurring there - the ones you read about in history books, not the ones you never hear of. The cats - they used to be white, with yellow eyes. One day a priest was killed in front of the statue of...a goddess... I forget which one, anyhow it doesn't really matter- The cat jumped up to its master, touching the idol, and it turned from white to gold, and its yellow eyes turned to sapphires. The priests, well they took it as a miracle, of course. A miracle that encouraged them to fight off their enemies. From that day on, all temple cats took on the colour of this one... Well, it might be true, I suppose. I've seen stranger things. But I suspect they started off a little irregular and were bred to become more that way.'
'It was the same way with Ruth. I remember her at 15... although they'd had their claws into her long before that... the unnatural grace - god, she could have been an athlete - a gymnast. Perhaps in another country where they bred athletes, she would have been. But they had bigger plans for her. She was to be a hero.'
'I don't know if it's true about the feline DNA. She always said she couldn't remember any experiments, but its true that one day she went from being an unnaturally agile, strong...(not to say 'striking')....woman, capable of remarkable acrobatic feats to... well, quite literally, to something of legend. At the age of 18 she could leap up to twenty times her own height. More importantly, she could jump from such a height, land with ease, and stroll off into the crowd... and, once in that crowd... She was a mistress of disguise. If she didn't want to be seen, nobody saw her. I suppose that's what kept her alive so long, after the hero project was terminated...'
And now... you've lost her. Easily done. You aren't the first. I just hope you aren't the last.'
'If they catch her, they'll kill her. I have no doubt of that. When the project was terminated, all traces of its existence were to be terminated with it... I must say, I don't really understand your cause here. If you're caught helping me, they'll destroy all evidence. Not just of the written variety.'
He pauses, sips the water again, and, unexpectedly, smiles.
'But I appreciate it.'
Patient #S day two - 2 p.m.
He has finally been persuaded to eat the food we offer. This, after scraping half of his meal onto my plate, and insisting I eat it first. Clearly, he appreciates us without actually trusting us yet. One cannot be surprised at this, given the events of the last ten years. Since the cessation of the Hero Project ten years ago, he says he has lost count of the number of attempts on his life. New identities, new lives have solved little, and he has been hampered, in part, by his refusal to break communication with a certain Ruth Birman. His employers were correct when they said any such tie was a weakness. Perhaps he has judged that, perfection no longer required, he deserves a weakness or two. Those who are not imperfect in some way tend to attract attention. I allow myself to dwell on this as I pull nicotine smoke into my lungs, inviting death in where the armed patrols cannot protect against it.
The craving assuaged, I join him back in his room. He has requested that I do not smoke in his presence, saying he spent years being pumped full of artificial substances, and doesn't want to encounter any more. He is humming quietly to himself as I enter, studying an object in his palm, which he conceals immediately.
'You know that song? It's called 'They don't give medals to yesterday's heroes'.' A smile, with no warmth: 'Burt Bacharach wrote it. He didn't know the half of it'
'Ruth liked to play it. That was her sense of humour. I never found anything remotely funny in our situation. We lived together for a year. Knowing the risk, and believing it to be worthwhile. One day, I'd been out - working on a building site, I think - and I could hear her. It sounds... it sounds almost funny but when she got angry, or scared she would.........hiss.'
'...So, I stood outside the window, two stories below, and I heard hissing... and a gun shot. I ran up the stairs to find one unidentified man, quite dead, on the floor and Ruth, with her nail to the throat of another, the gun discarded, out of reach.'
'We had to move, then, after the shooting. They had found her because of me. Somebody recognised me. I don't know who, or how. I thought I was being very careful. But they had a picture with them. A picture of my new identity. And they almost killed her. I left her, then. I had to.
That was seven years ago. Since then, there's been nobody. There couldn't be. Nobody comes into my house, unless I've planned it in advance, nobody sees beneath the surface. It has to be that way. From what I hear, me and Ruth - we're the only ones left.
Except, now, Ruth has gone. And maybe there's only me.'
I give him what I judge to be a kind smile and I ask if he can give us any idea where she might have gone, but he isn't here any more. Oh, his body is there, but he's looking away, staring into air, seemingly unaware of my presence. I know, despite this, that if I were to make any sudden movements, his whole body would tense and he could break my neck in less time than it would take me to get to my feet. So I push my chair back slowly, and I leave the room, as he forms words with his mouth, words that I believe once had a tune...
''Cause yesterday's over/ and I've got to live for today"
Perhaps those words meant something to him once, though it isn't a choice he has any more. The door closed behind me, I reach in my pocket for the cigarette packet, then think better of it. Today is a good day to give up.
Two minutes later, I am standing outside, buttoned up against the frost and trying not to show my discomfort as I watch the new guard being put through his paces. He seems an improvement on his predecessor. I don't think he will let us down. And I have an instinct for these things. I've had to develop one.
The lighter warms my hands momentarily as I lift it to my mouth. Some of us are allowed weaknesses. We should enjoy them, while we can.
To be continued...
It's truly nice when there is good stuff to look forward to, like the appearance of your arriving shadow against a bright and alarming background. You told me, firstly, that I'd never believe you, but that you'd honestly misplaced your home. It had been a place with plates on the wall, dimly lit, on an obscure block near a multi-mall complex. You also admitted, slowly, reluctantly, as I drove you around, that you'd stolen your own house. "Took the keys and ran," you'd said. It seemed, though, that the home had caught onto your crime and commenced a long spell of punishment. You probably would have laughed if I'd suggested such a thing.
Whenever I am away from you, I try to imagine the images and dialogue that'd make you laugh--your high-pitched, scaly laugh that scurries up and down your own voice, which sometimes seems to get muted into a drone that sounds feigned and conjured. You always insist that it's genuine laugh, not one that's been harvested throughout years of constant unfunnyness.
What is it that I know about you and your home? I can't even predict what you look like anymore. A ball of light always dances on the end of your nose, like that shiny curvature is the site on your body which catches the most light. Once you showed me photographs of you as a teenager, and now, when I see you, I cannot help but see you as your seventeen year-old self. Seeing you in the present--it's alarming. It takes me a moment to remember you're not that person in the photograph, and haven't been for tens of years.
Like you, I, too, have forgotten most of what I had catalogued about your home. I remember nothing, except a wrought-iron fence and those collectable plates on the walls. You once promised me that you'd take pictures of your own bedroom so I could see where you slept. You wouldn't allow me to see such a thing in person. Is there something too personal about the thrown-around duvet of others? If I were to trace my finger in a circle of dust on the mirror, that'd be a mirror that breathed in your own image; I would have to look back surprised at myself. Because when the light is just right, as it settles down, I can see the texture of paint against the farthest-off wall, swirls of paint that indicate such a painter was bored, swirling his brush in figure-eights along four square feet of wall. Outside those four feet: white flatness, hurried-ness. After the light has disappeared completely, I could run my hands over the texture and know what it would be like to see you all the time.
Maybe it's all coming back now, all these details about your home. You and I used to drive around town together, searching for anything that looked familiar. It was like all things were fading into unfamiliarity. We stopped at various places to eat, and you ordered extra cayenne pepper on all of your dishes. Maybe you wanted things spicy so you could remember the details later on. When you could taste cayenne pepper, you'd be reminded that you were eating food--that you were you, that I was me, that we were where we were. It seemed like a good-enough system to me, but I couldn't stand all that redness blinking back at me. I liked my spices ordinary and camoflouged. You really seem to enjoy taking the best half of yourself and leaving it behind somewhere, usually in a place where it will be forgotten. To that half, I say "yes," without really knowing what such a word means.
Trumbo, Fast, and a guy called Spartacus
The ancient tale of Spartacus and the Roman slave revolt has been a focal point of dissent throughout the ages. This is especially so in modern literature and the visual arts. Those who have tried to tell his story and keep alive the struggle for freedom and democracy have found themselves under attack from those who own and control the society they, and we live in (just like Spartacus). In the 1950s American anti-communist hysteria whipped up American Political conservatives and big business led to the blacklisting and jailing of Hollywood's finest and most talented script writers, authors, directors and actors who by telling the story of Spartacus and the Slave Revolt were also telling their own tale of struggle for freedom and campaign for democracy.
A Bit About Dalton:
Dalton Trumbo was a left-wing writer and filmmaker who transferred 'Spartacus', Howard Fast's 1952 novel, to the big screen. Trumbo was a member of Communist Party from 1944-57, but quit after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. His novels were extremely popular in left-wing circles in America and around the globe. He was a war correspondent in the Pacific during World War Two and a special consultant to United Nations Conference in 1945. Throughout the Forties he was active in communist circles in LA and California. He wrote the screenplay for the war movie 'Thirty Seconds over Tokyo' (1944) and later on in his career wrote a powerful anti-war novel which inspired the film, 'Johnny Got his Gun' (1970). Dalton was a part of the 'Hollywood Ten' investigated by the McCarthy-inspired House of Un-American Activities Committee looking into communist infiltration of the United States government and the American film industry. He was imprisoned in a Federal Prison in Kentucky for not co-operating with HUAC and banned for 12 years for suspected communist activities within the film industry, and was accused of soliciting membership for the Communist Party in California, and of trying to form trade unions on movie lots. He was forced to write under the assumed names of Sam Jackson, Robert Rich or, occasionally, his wife's name. Incredibly, Dalton won Oscar as "Robert Rich" in 1956 for best screenplay for 'The Brave One', which he wrote, like the vast majority of his scripts, in the bath, chain-smoking, with his typewriter on a metal tray. That well-known political activist, Kirk Douglas (I jest, dear reader), significantly helped to break the ban by adding Dalton Trumbo's name to the credits of 'Spartacus' (the British members of the cast refused to keep Dalton Trumbo's name a secret) and for this audacious act the American Legion (veterans association) picketed the opening of the film in LA.
It is interesting to note that the film's director, Stanley Kubrick, often claimed that this was not a particularly good film. One wonders whether this is Kubrick's objective view of the piece or rather, it was borne out of political and ideological motivations. For one thing, Kubrick was unable to completely control the making of the movie (something he usually revelled in), and for another thing, he was actually uneasy about Trumbo's name being added to the credits.
Regardless of Kubricks own views on 'Spartacus', today it is often viewed as a superior epic and perhaps one of the best films Hollywood ever made about the ancient world. It is based upon a true story of a slave revolt, led by the Thracian gladiator slave Spartacus, which threatened Rome about 74-70 BC. Spartacus is a slave who is taught martial skills at Lentulus's gladiator school in order to be sold and then to entertain the Roman crowds in the Coliseum in fights to the death. Dalton's Spartacus is a born revolutionary whose fierce belief in freedom and human dignity compels him to rise up in revolt against the oppression of slaves like himself. His personal revolt ends up as an Italy-wide rebellion of slaves who form a slave army to challenge the authority of the slave owners and the Roman state (represented by Crassus, Gracchus, Caesar).
In next weeks issue we delve deeper into the ancient mire of the Spartacus legend, and take a closer analysis of the left-wing author who inspired the film version of 'Spartacus'...
Memories Filled With Music
My sister gained a bit of a reputation as an alcohol expert whilst in university: "At the age of 5 or 6 I learnt about red wine from my grandparents, my granddad poured single malt whisky into my ice cream whilst nobody was looking, and I drank champagne cocktails with an elderly aunt." For some reason people found this strange. I, on the other hand, found it strange that this is not normal. I had a similar revelation when visiting friends house's and realised that their parents didn't listen to music or at least not in the same way that mine did. At the age of 25 I am coming to the conclusion that my relationship with music has something to do with my upbringing.
Culprit Number One-My Dad:
One memory immediately springs to mind:
Culprit Number 2- My Mum:
My mum's attitude to music was always slightly different. Whilst my dad reinforced the fabric of the house, piling shelves high with vinyl, CDs and cassettes, my mum collected very few. And of those she did have there would always be the one chosen tape that would be played repeatedly for weeks on end and she, in a steam filled kitchen, sang to it. Strangely enough she never did seem to learn the words, but the obsession was catching and soon my sister and I would find ourselves randomly humming lines.
These two people are responsible for my obsessive attitude; they laugh at me now and blame each other for the misguided child they brought up. My obsession for music shares traits inherited from both parents. I collect music because of the stories within it but equally importantly I collect it for the music itself. Sometimes I find myself singing along without having a clue what the words are, other times I sit in quiet concentration wondering what was going on in the lives of the characters in the song.
Music is a big part of my life. It adds colour to even the darkest of days. And although they might not realise it, I am proud to have been taught to appreciate it from to out and out fanatics.
Thessaloniki, November 14th, 2002
The idea of travelling can come to you any time. It can be anything, from an article in a magazine to a film set in a foreign city to your favourite band playing a concert somewhere or your far away friends talking about what you would do if you were together. Or it can be a song. Suddenly your mind is filled with pictures of your life in these places, all the fun you could have, the things you could see and the excitement of it all. Before you know it you're thinking about train tickets, airfares, and just how much money you could save if you tried really hard.
You pine and dream and plan, and if you try hard enough your plans may even work, not matter how impossible they had seemed in the first place. Pining and dreaming can take up a big part of your day; planning can take a long time, too. And yet when the time comes and you find yourself standing on the pavement in front of your door waiting for a taxi, or at a train station, or an airport, the feeling is always brand new.
I've been trying to put this feeling into words for a while, and it wasn't working, until, as it happens, someone else did it for me. This time it was a stranger: "Maybe you planned this ahead of time but you didn't plan for this", he said, and I knew exactly what he meant and I felt so grateful I wanted to email him and let him know. I never did.
Instead I sat remembering the sweet October Sunday afternoon I spent in someone's back garden in North London. I remembered leaning against a wall, using a windowsill as a table and looking at the cypresses lining the back fence. The wind was moving them, the setting sun reflected on them and the clouds above and behind them were turning pink and orange. And as if this wasn't perfect enough the boy that lives in that house played us half a Clientele record.
In case you don't know, the Clientele are obsessed with rain and the days of the week. "As if we've exhausted our emotions, there's only time and weather left", they say. They also talk about London a lot.
The taxi lights were in your eyes
I understand. Me, too, I'm obsessed with the weather and the setting. I think they define us, much more than we think they do. They are also very inspiring.
But I digress. Leaning against the windowsill looking at North London skies I remembered all the times the Clientele had made me dream of London. I had pined for moments like the ones described in their songs. And then there I was, right in the middle of one of them - I had London, evocative weather, a glass of wine in my hand and a boy leaning against the wall next to me looking perfect. And it wasn't without some surprise that I realised that a year of pining and dreaming hadn't prepared me for this. At all. I held my breath and smiled, and there could have been tears in my eyes.
Travelling is what takes you from on place to another - a place more or less different than the one you came from - and it makes you feel it on your skin that the world is a very, very big place. Also, it makes everything feel unexpected and new and therefore worth your interest and appreciation. And the best part is you can really spoil that no matter how much you try.
Just like the river never prepared you for the view of the sea and my letters will never let you know what it's like to be here. You'll never know until you book a flight and buy a train ticket.
Love and all the things that make you feel and care,