Saturday 16 July 2011

Holy Guns and the Liberal Scum

Not all that long ago, in a galaxy not too far away...

...there was a country called, let’s say, The Indispensable Nation (TIN). It was so called, because it had been blessed by the Deity of the major religion of that nation with a special status, which meant that every law and every decree, every war and every action by its rulers came about due to that Deity’s direct and personal approval.

Now, one of the cherished laws that that Deity had given to this nation, this TIN, was one saying that the people would have the right to bear arms. This being a Deity-delivered right, of course, it became incumbent on every True Believer to own at least one firearm, and preferably a hundred.

Unfortunately, sad as it is to relate, there were liberal scum and suchlike traitors and infidels who refused to join with the rest in their project of Holy Gun Ownership. These apostates even mocked at the True Believers, and attempted to restrict their right to own as many guns as they wanted, firing in as many automatic modes as their hearts could possibly desire.

So invidious were the efforts of these liberal traitors and freedom-haters that the True Believers had to set up a National Firearm Association, all the better to defend their rights to own as many millions of guns as they pleased, and to prevent traitorous liberal governments from creating horrifying laws stipulating perhaps that a man might be only able to purchase a single gun instead of a dozen in the course of an entire day. And the Holy Gun Manufacturers worshipped at the altar of this National Firearm Association, for the liberal traitors were hurting their Deity-given right to earn a livelihood manufacturing ten thousand different models of guns.

But more and more oppressive grew the liberal scum, and greater and greater the assaults on freedom, and more and more shrill the canards that guns put dangerous weapons in the hands of unstable people and criminals; but the True Believers stood firm, and dared the liberal scum to take the guns from their cold dead hands. And the liberal scum wavered, and fell back, for the Deity showered Its favour on the True Believer, so that a Gun-Loving President and Congress came to office.

Then it was that laws were made, that in every state in all the territory of TIN, each and every person had to purchase a firearm; and, more, that each child, when old enough to be able to grasp a pistol or revolver, should compulsorily be given one, and to carry it everywhere, even into school; and that any child not packing heat should not be allowed admittance into the classroom; and this was done. Soon, the main class at school, indeed virtually the only class except Historical Mythology and Deity Worship, was Gun Class, of which more anon.

Withal the Deity was pleased, and caused new laws to be promulgated, which said that anyone not owning and carrying at least one gun at all times, even to bed, should be treated as a Traitor against TIN, and suffer the consequences, as enemies of freedom and flag-bearers of socialism.

And those liberal apostates who refused to accept such orders were rounded up, very easily indeed because they did not own guns, and were confined to gun ranges, and expended as targets for schoolchildren (sometimes their own children) at Gun Class.

And so the Deity’s will was done.

One of the Deity's Temples, and a High Priest

The smell of rotting fish

Sometimes it doesn’t help to have a nasty suspicious mind like mine, because it so complicates things.

As most of us are probably aware, there were three bomb blasts in Bombay a couple of days ago, in which upwards of twenty people were killed and well over a hundred injured. And, almost by reflex, the Indian government insinuated that a Muslim terror group, the Indian Mujahideen, was responsible.

Now, before I go any further, let me say that I have no proof that the Indian Mujahideen was not responsible. Let me, in fact, fully admit the possibility that the Indian Mujahideen was indeed the guilty party.

And then, let’s play a completely harmless mind game, in which we imagine that the guilt of the Indian Mujahideen, or some other Muslim terrorist group, is not a proven fact. Since we’ve already admitted that the Indian Mujahideen is in fact, responsible, the game is completely harmless. Right?

Well, now, let’s see why the Indian Mujahideen or any other terror organisation should want to carry out these blasts.

As I believe I have said in the past, terrorism is a tactic, like any other, and a tactic is geared to a definite end. It’s all very easy and facile to say, like the politicians and media morons do, that terrorists are mindless evildoers, but of course that’s rubbish. Nobody wakes up in the morning and decides, “Well, today I’m going to do terrorist things and blow up a building or two”.  Terrorist acts are geared to some purpose, and terrorists have no use whatever for psychopathic loose cannons. So, why on earth would the Indian Mujahideen want to blow bombs up in Bombay at this particular time? What would they gain?

You know, come to think of it, the answer is nothing at all!

In fact, assuming that the official propaganda is true and the only purpose of these terrorists is to harm India, the last thing they should do is carry out a few low intensity bomb blasts. Said blasts will of course, achieve precisely nothing at any time, but at this of all times, would be distinctly counter-productive.


Well, the reason lies in the abysmal political situation in India at the moment, where the worst government in this country’s history goes into the last two utterly corrupt years of its current term. The so-called “prime minister”, a man who has never won an election in his miserable life, has packed his government full of hacks who are incompetent and/or corrupt to the core, and the whole government is completely in thrall to Big Business in every way one can imagine.

Meanwhile, as prices rise to the stratosphere, the people of the country are finally beginning to come to the conclusion that they are sick and tired of the whole damned mess, and are demanding some kind of accountability. Now, in Indian law, as it now stands, corrupt people can legitimately keep their ill gotten money – the law has no provision for recovering it from them, and the current government is determined to protect the corrupt in every way it can as long as they are politically useful. And, starting 16 August, the stage’s all set for a major showdown between the government and anti-corruption campaigners led by a man called Anna Hazare, who has the support of the average Indian.

Now, you tell me, why on earth would terrorists want to distract attention from the government-versus-civil-society showdown by letting off a few small bombs which would achieve nothing at all?

After all, it’s not as though these bombs – made of fertiliser and fuel oil – were even very high tech. It’s not as though these terrorists got hold of RDX from Pakistan and had to set the bombs off before the law laid its hands on the explosives. The blasts could have been carried out at any time over these last months, or postponed by a few. So why now?

Why, indeed, unless these Muslim terrorists were (gasp!) secretly supporting the government, or (even more gasp!) the bombs weren’t exploded by the Muslim terrorists at all?

 Now let me take a moment’s break to say something: there’s this remarkable tendency of the Indian government’s “intelligence” (a counter-intuitive term) agencies and police to ascribe any and all bomb blasts to Muslim terrorist outfits, such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Student’s Islamic Movement of India, and most often recently the Indian Mujahideen. So knee-jerk is this reaction that even when mosques are bombed, the police immediately blame Muslim outfits, without making any effort to explain why they should detonate their own places of worship. It’s just part of the unacknowledged but very real second-class citizen status of Muslims in India.

At the same time, everyone but the Hindu Right now admits the existence of Hindu terrorist outfits, which have now been shown to be responsible for many of the bombings earlier blamed on Muslim terrorists. Far be it from me to say, of course, that Hindu terrorists planted these bombs, though the crude fuel oil/fertiliser bomb is much more characteristic of Hindu terror than the usually sophisticated Muslim bomb. But just for fun, let’s imagine they were responsible.

Why would they do this? Well, remember how the popular attention needs to be diverted from the anti-corruption crusade I mentioned? The left-wing Anna Hazare isn’t the best anti-corruption crusader from the Hindunazi point of view; that role was supposed to belong to the right-wing yoga guru Ramdev, but he was rather easily neutralised by the government, and Hazare has far greater popular appeal. The Hindunazis wouldn’t be unhappy to see Hazare fail.

Then, what about the government’s own agencies? The Indian government is one of the most callous in the world where the lives and livelihoods of its own citizens is concerned; it has no qualms in throwing people off their farms at gunpoint to hand over the land to industrialists to build factories making cars or electronic goods, for example. The jails of this nation are packed with people still awaiting trial who would have been free long ago if they had served the maximum sentence for their alleged crimes. This is a government whose police forces exist, as in the British times, explicitly as a force to keep the population in line and subservient to the rulers. It’s not a nation which values its citizens’ lives, as long as said citizens aren’t influential.

So, just imagine a scenario where the government’s agencies either planted these bombs, or stood by nodding approvingly while Hindunazis did the job. Since Bombay is a cosmopolitan city with a huge Muslim minority, the actual bombers might even have imagined they were targeting Muslims. Does it make sense?

To a nasty suspicious mind like mine, it does.

Of course, I can’t stress enough that this is only a mind game. Repeat after me: the Indian Mujahideen, or some other Muslim terror outfit, planted these bombs. We know they did.

The government of India told us so.


The call to the dawn prayer wakes me, sounding tinnily from the loudspeakers over the wire. I turn my back to the sound. We’ve all decided to ignore the call, because it’s only a recording, and there are errors in it, perhaps deliberate ones. Besides, it’s they who play it, and we aren’t going to be beholden to them for anything.

The dawn is already warm, promising another day of the enervating heat. Earlier, when I’d been held in the isolation cell in Camp Echo, I’d become so used to the chill of the air-conditioning that I still haven’t been able to adjust fully to the heat out here in the cages of Romeo. And my cage is actually smaller than the tiny cell, so small that it’s only two and a half paces long.

In a few moments, Fahim over to my right will give the call to prayer. He’s got the best voice, loud and penetrating and yet not harsh, and all of us had chosen him to act as the muezzin. He’s just two cages over to my right, and yet I’ve almost never seen him face to face. There’s a wall of plastic sheeting in the cell next to me, so that we can’t see one another.

Lying facing the wall, my eyes closed, I think over who I am, and who I used to be. I don’t know if we are the same person, not any longer. I used to be Adnan Hussein, student and musician, with a future ahead of me; someone who wasn’t even particularly religious, with parents and a sister and a love of cars and driving.

Now I’m a number, referred to as a number, with no identity to our captors but as a number. I’m not even human any longer, just an item, numbered 714. 

Somewhere close by, I hear a noise, the sound of someone clearing his throat. That will be Fahim, readying for the call to prayer. It’s only since I’ve been here that I’ve begun to pray regularly, and with the others. It makes me feel like a part of a whole, like a community. It’s one of the few things that makes me feel human.

I swing my legs off the bunk and sit up, hunched slightly over so I don’t have to look at the watchtowers with the men in uniform staring down at us. I don’t know who they are this time, regular army or National Guard; the duty roster was supposed to change today. I hope it’s National Guard. Unlike the regular army, they aren’t brainwashed into hating us on principle. Most of them are beginning to doubt their own part in this, profoundly, and want nothing more than to go home.

Yesterday, Sergeant Kimberley had been here to see me. She and I had had many interesting discussions when I’d been in the isolation cell at Echo. She’s a tall black woman, from the National Guard, and desperately unhappy in her job; she’d told me that she was planning to quit at the end of the rotation if they would let her go.

“Adnan,” she said, holding her fingers to the mesh, so I could touch their tips with the tips of my own. She calls me by my name, something that makes me feel as though she sees me as a human being. “Adnan, I’m here to say goodbye. We’re leaving tomorrow.”

“You’re finally quitting the job?” I’d asked. “For real?”

“I’ve applied for release.” She’d sighed, this handsome black woman who’d confided to me the secret of her lesbianism, and how she felt harassed and in a prison of her own, even though she was on the other side of the wire. “After you’re released, will you come to see me?”

After? Don’t you mean if?” I’d raised my hands in a gesture to encompass the metal mesh all around.

“It won’t be long now,” she’d said. “They’ll let you out soon.” But she wasn’t even trying to sound convincing.

The others, my fellow prisoners, don’t understand why I’m a friend of someone like Sergeant Kimberley. They don’t understand – having been around one another since they first arrived in Guantanamo – how it is in isolation, where I’d literally not seen the sun in over a year. The only human interaction I’d had was through the mesh walls of my cell, with the guards. And some of the guards were the only thing that had kept me sane. People like Sergeant Kimberley, for instance.

I remember how they had lent me books, quite illicitly; books that actually were worth reading, on world history, the exploration of space, even philosophy; books I devoured, trying to memorise all I could, and returned when done. And I remember the conversations about everything, including the wars. Those books and the conversations, they were what kept me sane, in those years when I never left the room except weighed down with shackles, to be interrogated, and saw nothing but steel mesh and artificial lighting.

In the moments left to me before Fahim begins the call for prayer, I reflect on how I could have so easily turned to blind hate of all Americans, everywhere. After all, they have taken my life from me, stripped me of my freedom, clothed me in this hated orange jumpsuit and put me in a cage which they’d have deemed unfit for a zoo animal. And the way they have treated me, and all of us, from the first days of our capture, has been quite as bad as they’d treat animals they hated and feared.

Fahim’s voice rises, calling the faithful to prayer. I kneel on the mattress, which I’m using as a prayer mat, and join in.

Afterwards, unwilling to talk, I take up my Koran. I’m trying to memorise it, more for want of anything else to do, but it’s difficult for me. I cannot read Arabic, and the transliteration into Latin characters is extremely difficult for me to pronounce. Before I open the book, though, I pause as usual to look at the cover. There is a large stain on it. It was made when the guards handing the Korans out threw them on the floor, and, laughing, kicked at them.

I could have had the Koran replaced; the block commander had offered that by way of apology. But I prefer the stained cover; it reminds me that the reason I’m here is my religion, faithless though I am. After all, it’s not as though I have done anything else.

Lying down on my bunk, waiting for breakfast, I look up at the sky. It’s still a luxury, being able to see the sky, after all the months indoors, both in Echo, and before that in Bagram, where I was confined to a squared off area of factory floor, surrounded by razor wire and forbidden to speak to other inmates on pain of “punishment” – at the least, a beating.

It was in Bagram that I realised something that made me look at Americans with new eyes. They were actually terrified of us. These huge men, covered in Kevlar helmets and body armour, weighed down with weapons, were terrified of old Afghan villagers, pudgy Central Asian doctors and teachers, and Pakistani adolescents, all unarmed and in chains. It was pathetic, and would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so deadly.

I still remember the exact moment that realisation had come to me. It was while I was lying on a concrete floor, with my hands cuffed behind my back and shackled to my legs, and a hundred kilograms of Marine kneeling on my back and screaming threats and abuse in my ear. What was my crime? Unable to tolerate the stress position for a moment longer, I’d moved. It wasn’t as though I could have harmed any of them; I was shackled, handcuffed, and they’d made sure I hadn’t slept in two days. But here was this man screaming in my ear, and sounding frightened of what I might do to him. No, I couldn’t hate him any longer. He was a machine, programmed to fear us and hate us; that’s what I realised in that moment. One might as well hate a landslide or a flash flood as such a person.

I learned a lot of things, there in the old factory in Bagram. I learned that you might find brotherhood in the unlikeliest of places, that the kind of person that you’d never think of as being in the same world as you might turn out to be one of your closest friends. I found out that there were depths to my own character that I might have never discovered, if I hadn’t been arrested and handed over to the Americans – for no reason I know of, to this day.

I was lying on my mat, staring up at the ceiling of that old factory, trying to ignore the stink of the toilet bucket in the corner. I didn’t really see the ceiling – my eyes, staring at it, yearned to see the blue sky beyond, the sky I had then not seen for a week. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the idea that I wouldn’t see the sky again for over two years.

Half a millennium ago, my ancestors had come sweeping down from Central Asia, under that same hard blue sky, trampling the dust under the hooves of their horses. I imagined their faces, under the brims of their helmets, their implacable eyes and trimmed beards, the pennants flying in the breeze. What would they have thought of their descendant lying helplessly in a box of razor wire, beside a stinking toilet bucket, for a crime he hadn’t even been accused of, let alone committed? I thought of this, and the tears ran down my cheeks.

“Don’t cry, brother.” The voice had been a whisper in my ear. I’d looked over at him, the thin Afghan farmer with the missing eye, who had been thrown in here that morning. He’d spoken to me in Urdu, stumbling over the words slightly, obviously unused to the language. “Don’t cry, because we have to bear it, for the sake of our dignity.”

“And everything will be all right?” I’d asked him, sceptically.

“I can’t tell you that, brother,” he’d replied. “I cannot tell you if anything will be all right. But our dignity is all we have, and our self-respect.” He’d paused, this illiterate Afghan peasant, for a moment. “They can disrespect us, and grind us down, but they can’t make us disrespect ourselves.”

His name was Habibullah, and he’d been arrested as a member of the Taliban. As he said, he had never been a member of any militia, neither the Taliban nor the Northern Alliance, or any of the warlords’ private armies. But he had a cousin who had wanted his property, and had denounced him to the Americans. He had no idea what had happened to his farm. If ever he was released, he didn’t have any idea whether he would get it back.

“What about you?” he’d whispered in my ear. We had had to talk carefully, in bursts when the guards weren’t looking, because being caught talking to another prisoner would at the least get you a stress posture as a punishment, if not a savage beating. “How do you come to be here? You’re educated.”

I’d shrugged, remembering how I’d been arrested from a friend’s house in the middle of the night. “I don’t know why. I was staying in Lahore, with my friend from college days, and the police came in the middle of the night and took me away in handcuffs. The next day I was on a plane to Bagram. I still don’t know what I’ve been arrested for.”

And to this day, over two years later, in my cage in Guantanamo Bay, I still don’t know.

I remember some of the interrogations. There have been many, upwards of a hundred, but some of them have stuck in my mind. There was the time someone called “Mike”, who I gathered was from the FBI, informed me that he’d be shipping me off to Cairo to be tortured because I wouldn’t tell him what he wanted to know. Many other times they showed me pictures of people and demanded that I tell them who they were. They all kept asking me about Al Qaeda members I knew, and when I told them I didn’t know any, they told me I’d rot in prison till I died.

I still remember the time I was first waterboarded. I still wake up in the middle of the night, shuddering, with the memories of it. I have a horror of drowning, and after the first time, I’d have been willing to tell them whatever they wanted – but I had no idea what they wanted. I knew no Taliban. I knew no Al Qaeda. I’d never been to a training camp, or handled a firearm, and I didn’t know what would satisfy them. So I got waterboarded again, and again.

Let me tell you this: no matter how many times it happens, even though you know they won’t drown you, you never get used to it.

I remember how Habibullah had wiped my face dry, after they’d thrown me down into the cell after a session, the shackles still on my wrists and ankles. I’d only been semi-conscious, and Habibullah had held my head in his lap, defying the regulations and risking punishment. But that time the guards had done nothing to him. Perhaps they were ashamed.

They had shifted him out of the cell the next day, though, and three days later he was gone. I’d never found out what had happened to him, whether he was released and if he’d ever got his farm back. Whenever I remember him, I think I ought to go to Herat and look for him if ever I’m released.

“Come and get it!” a voice calls. “Hey, you lot of animals, feedin’ time!”

The guards are coming down the corridor between the rows of cages, pushing the breakfast trolley before them. At least here we get something approximating real food, unlike in Bagram where all we got was packages of dried food which had already been taken apart by the Americans. They’d given us non-halal meat because, as they said, we didn’t deserve any better, and they’d removed the chocolate and anything else that looked even remotely tasty – because, they said, we had lost the right to anything that was such a luxury. And, while herding us to a bath in freezing water once every two weeks, they’d talked to each other about how lousy their lobster dinner had been the previous night.

I see the first of the new guards, and my heart sinks towards my shoes. I know this man. His name is Davis. He was a guard in Bagram, and he was one of the worst there, taking a brutal and sadistic delight in tormenting the prisoners. I remember him, oh yes.

Towards the end of my time in the old factory in Bagram, they had brought in someone the guards called a hardened Al Qaeda member. They’d called him the Beast, because he was such a menace, and had put him in a cell of his own. The Beast, as it turned out, was completely insane; someone who spent his time gesturing and talking to himself. Davis had enjoyed tormenting the Beast, because talking was banned in the cells, even talking to oneself. Davis had come round every day, and bent the Beast in hoops with the help of some chain and shackles. I can still hear him laughing.

Davis had helped load us on the plane while we were being flown to Guantanamo. I remember being strapped down to the floor, Davis tightening the hood around my face until I could scarcely breathe, the constant flash of soldiers taking trophy pictures like distant lightning through the thick cloth. “Goodbye, motherfucker,” he’d said in my ear. “You’re going to rot in Cuba. Hope you enjoy it.”

And now he’s pushing a trolley along the corridor towards me. Davis, looking suddenly much older, his face wrinkled round the eyes, his hair gone grey. He sees me and stops, staring.

“Seven one four,” Davis says, surprise in his voice. “You’re still here?”

I shrug. “You told me I’d rot here, Sergeant. Looks like you were a prophet.”

To my astonishment, Davis looks almost ashamed. “It’s been a while,” he mumbles. “Things have changed.”

“You mean?” But he doesn’t answer me, just shakes his head and moves on past. Another soldier pushes my breakfast through the slot.

Later in the day we have mail. It’s been a long time since I’ve got a letter, and this one was written over a month ago. My sister wrote it, and I can see the determined cheerfulness for what it is, as she writes of things that she knows might have interested me, hard rock music and books. I haven’t told her that after being kept awake days on end by heavy metal played at ear-splitting volume, I can’t even think of music any more without distaste, and she tries hard to please. Only at the end does she show something of the strain she and my parents are under, when she says that they have been begging the American embassy to produce me in court at least. I know that won’t do any good. Once I might have hoped, but not anymore.

I clear up the remains of breakfast and put it all on the plate. There’s a small bottle of water, and I’m glad they haven’t stopped that. Each time the staff is rotated, it seems to me, the rules are changed, tightened up, and only relaxed little by little, once they realise we aren’t going anywhere. This time they haven’t decided to starve us. Not yet, anyway.

“Maybe they’re getting soft,” I say aloud.

“What’s that?” Fahim asks. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing,” I tell him. “I just had a thought that maybe they’re getting tired of the whole thing.”

“Don’t you believe it. What these guards here think doesn’t matter. They’re pawns just like us. It’s the top lot who make the decisions, and they aren’t about to let us go. For instance, they won’t let you go.”

We both know this is true. Letting me go would mean admitting that they made a mistake, that my entire lost freedom had no meaning, and they can’t afford that. Besides, I’m only a Pakistani. If I were a British or Australian citizen, maybe they might have let me go. But I’m worth less than nothing.

“Well,” I tell him, “we’re in it together, aren’t we?”

“As long as you’re with me, brother.”

I don’t actually like Fahim. It’s something I’ve taken a long time to admit to myself. I don’t like him because he’s a doctrinaire. The world for him is divided into black and white. He’s completely oblivious to shades of grey, and he’s the sort of person I’d have avoided like the plague if we had a choice of who we’d associate with. I keep hoping they’ll release him if not me, because I don’t want to quarrel with him. It’s difficult enough to keep my cool when he begins with his bigotry.

It’s evening now, and I lie down, watching the stars. Bats are flitting through the air, chasing the big fluffy moths. I can hear distant music, from the guard towers; they’re not as frightened as they were once, and they’re beginning to loosen up.

I feel a sudden surge of optimism. If even Davis can halfway apologise to me, I think, then things might not be so bad after all. It’s a ridiculous thought, of course; Davis is only a pawn, as I am. We are all pawns.

But pawns can get together against the manipulators of the game. Someday, the pawns will all realise that they are pawns, I think hazily, and then the kings and queens will not stop them.

In a few minutes Fahim will begin the last of the day’s prayers. I should get up now, and roll out the mattress, but for a few moments I linger. There is a time for prayer, and a time for enjoying the beauty of the evening. I think of it, and shake my head. I must prepare for the prayer.

After all, I will still be here tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and Allah provides us with an evening every day.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

Note: This is not intended as an indictment of the Empire. I believe the Empire’s actions are indictment enough.

However, it is true that:

1.     Nobel Peace Prize winner and duly elected US President Barack Hussein Obama has reneged on his signed promise to close down the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay.

2.     As of this writing, 171 prisoners remain in Guantanamo Bay, most of whom have been charged with no crimes, and who have not been produced in US courts.

3.     The vast majority of detainees who were released after years of imprisonment were never charged with any crime and were let go without explanation or apology, and -

4.     All instances of prisoner abuse described in this otherwise fictional piece happened, and that I have actually toned them down for the purposes of this story.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Not Quiet On The Western Front

Sometimes, you can see a disaster in the making, connect the dots so far in advance that you wonder why the people involved can’t see it too. Are they blind, or perverse, or do they have a death-wish?

Those of us with historical knowledge (I don’t know how many of those there are) will know that the First World War, for instance (the war that formed the modern world more than anything that went before or since, in my opinion) was utterly inevitable as soon as the European powers of the time set up their webs of alliances; they were just looking for an excuse to fight. The path to the trenches of the Western Front was laid years before the first shot was even fired.

I’m talking about the Western Front, specifically, because one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, All Quiet On The Western Front, is set there. I’d probably assume that most of you have read it, or have at least heard enough of it to be aware of the plot[1], so I won’t repeat it here, except to say that that little novel by a soldier of the Kaiser’s army stands, to this day, as one of the greatest novels ever written. The Nazis even burned it; what greater accolade can you have?

Now, this book’s been turned into a movie twice: in 1930, a black and white version[2] which won the Academy Awards, and a 1979 version for TV which was quite unnecessarily Americanised to a considerable extent in character styling but which was still quite faithful to the original. Now, apparently, they’re going to remake it, with Daniel Radcliffe (that one, the ex-Hairy Crackpotter Daniel Radcliffe, the one who also turned up nude with a horse) in the character of Paul Baumer, the novel’s narrator and protagonist.

When I heard this, I was fairly excited (and was prepared to ignore Harry Potter playing Baumer). I wanted to see how the film would be; in 3D, perhaps, with the trenches brought to life by the miracle of modern special effects, a movie that would remind people of why nations should not go to war. I was excited, right up until I read this:

(The makers)

“...want to use the novel as a jumping off point. Paterson says "By creating new storylines ourselves, we believe this modern rendition will encompass greater depth and historical context, but still remain congruent with the spirit of Erich Maria Remarque's work." [3]

What the hell? Greater depth and historical context than was achieved by the guy who was there, lived through it, and wrote a book that has more than passed the test of time?

You can see the disaster in the making as clearly as I can, can’t you? By the time these people are through, you’ll find the original anti-war message (and its warnings against cheerleading from those who stayed at home) subverted into some kind of Hollywood brothers-in-arms trash. John Wayne or Rambo; Support our Troops, and all the rest of that shit. It’s obscene, and I tell you, I’m out-effin-raged.

If I were Remarque’s ghost, I’d be picking up a hand grenade about now.


Where have all the writers gone?

Those of us who love to read (which means pretty much anyone who gives enough of a damn to be online on meaningful sites, and not chat-trash) will understand what I’m talking about when I ask this question.

Remember when we were beginning to learn to love reading, and the authors we cut our literary teeth on? Where are the new writers who could have matched the greats of yesteryear? Where are the modern Sholokhovs and Dickens, the Hemingways and Kurt Vonneguts? Is literary talent extinct?

Where, for instance, are satirists like Joseph Heller, fantasy writers like Lord Dunsany, humourists like Mark Twain, or anti-war authors of the calibre of Remarque or Mailer? Instead of imaginative horror writers like Sheridan Le Fanu, we have formulaic, utterly predictable hacks like Stephen King. Instead of the visionary (if not particularly well-written) science fiction of Arthur C Clarke or Ray Bradbury, we have people with unmemorable names whose tales are so involved that you finish reading them still unclear what the author was talking about. Instead of real detective fiction from writers like Baroness Orczy, we have John Grisham. Instead of suspense, we have zombies.

What the hell is going on?

Obviously, it’s not true that the talent isn’t there. If anything, more people than ever before are writing, and the laws of chance will mean that all other things being equal, we should see more, not less, great authors. So why aren’t we?

I suggest that the primary reason is the publishing industry. Books are nowadays thought of in purely marketing terms, and publishers will ignore literary merit entirely for “saleability”. That, in turn, means being acceptable to the lowest common denominator; literary pap, to be more succinct.

Any one of us who’s ever tried to publish anything will have come across the publishers’ demands about what’s “suitable” and what isn’t; the current favourite genre seems to be something called “Young Adult” fiction, as though late teens can’t read anything more mature. I wonder how we managed to consume Melville and Dostoyevsky as teenagers without our brains imploding, then.

So, since the vast majority of good writing isn’t writing aimed at the market, you no longer get good writers getting published. Good writing has always been edgy, out of the common herd; it has to be, to stand out. Often it’s been controversial – Lolita for example. Anyone here thinks Nabokov would have found a publisher today?

Then, there’s the fact that less and less reading is actually getting done. There’s too much TV feeding pre-digested garbage into people’s brains. There’s too much channelling of kids into reading “useful career-oriented” material rather than “story books”, at least in India where today’s children can scarcely call a minute of their time their own. There’s too damn much background noise for writers to be heard, unless, of course, they go with the flow.

Is there a way out? Funnily enough, I think there is. Once global warming and the decline of fossil fuels reach their logical conclusions, the modern frenetic pace of society will quite definitely break down. There will be chaos, social disorder and civil war, but once that phase is over, the remnants of civilisation will pick up the pieces and the survivors will return to a quieter and more sustainable mode of existence. And then, there will be an enormous amount of material to write on, too, as there was in the years when we were growing up.

So, we shouldn’t give up writing. The flame needs to be kept burning, even if it’s only going to kindle a blaze decades after we’re gone.

And meanwhile we can re-read Quiet Flows The Don or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. At least we know we have quality there.