Much like Randy Newman, I love LA. Since moving to my adopted home, I have a new appreciation for the sound of Los Angeles. If a band is from the City of Angels, chances are good that I like them ten times more now than I did before I lived here. Still, like 12 million other people, I was deeply disappointed by the LA Times Magazine list of the best LA bands.

It’s rare that a list of the best anything results in anything more than eye rolling and fist shaking. As a rule, journalists don’t have a clue about music, music journalists doubly so. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I don’t love The Monkees, but the ninth best band that LA ever birthed? Surely you jest, LA Times.

There’s also the small matter of deciding what a “Los Angeles band” is. Transplants are part of what make “El Ay” what it is, and bands flock to the city from far and wide. To that end, I have compiled a list of a dozen bands that take the Los Angeles experience and give it a sound and an image. Let the complaining begin.

I’ve been meaning to post here at TNB for a while now. Today seems like as good a days as any… it’s not like it’s a public holiday or anything. It’s actually one of those rare days in the calendar where absolutely nothing of historical interest has ever happened in all the thousands of years of human existence… Well, there was that trivial little incident in 1776, but I’ve bored you enough with the history of cricket.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been drafting various posts on a range of topics. I never got around to finishing any of them because I was too busy being awesome at L.A. Noire and going to a cricket match. Seriously— this isn’t one of those jokes where I make fun of how English I am; I actually went to a cricket match. It rained, England won, and there was a ‘Tea Bar’ inside the ground. It was utterly spiffing.

I was going to write a long post about a play that I wrote, directed, and delivered a tour de force performance in a three minute cameo. But now it’s being staged again at a bigger theatre later in the year so I’m saving it for that.

Then I was going to write about how I quit Facebook and consequently became a better person. However that’s a subject that’s been pretty well covered recently, and far more intelligently than I could hope to be.

I even considered writing a lame emotional piece that would have been undercut with funny set pieces that would make it sort of like Bridget Jones’ Diary but with an actual English person and not a pretend English person with an American accent and the most French name anyone has outside of France/half of Canada.

But then I decided today would the perfect day for me to write an essay on all the things that make Britain great. I know most of you reading will be American and may find excessive displays of patriotism somewhat distasteful and unseemly. I can only apologize in advance, and include a link to the song Danger Zone for you to listen to if it all gets too British for you.

It’s not that I don’t love America. I love cheeseburgers, and I think my appreciation for Die Hard has been well documented. I’ve been to America and met many Americans, and I loved every moment and every person. I’ve been to Canada and even though we own it, it’s not nearly as nice. Everyone in Montreal is surly because they’re secretly French and the people of Toronto just haven’t been the same since Rush left.

I don’t have a bad word to say about America, or any of the Americans I’ve met. Of course I didn’t meet anyone like Charles Manson, Sarah Palin, Richard Nixon, or the new crazy Republican lady who should get Ted Turner to run as her VP candidate and use both Takin’ Care of Business and You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet as campaign songs. As far as I’m aware ‘70s rock musicians love it when right wing politicians appropriate their songs.

I genuinely love America, and I’m not just saying that because it’s your birthday either. Britain loves America like the accidentally conceived child it is. It’s okay, you might have been an accident, but at least you’re not adopted… like Canada…

Sure you could argue about historical facts and the cultural intricacies and immigration from other nations, but ultimately just as Davros created the Daleks, Britain created the nation of America… but in a good way. I’m not looking for thanks here. Casting Alan Rickman is Die Hard was all the thanks we could hope for.

I’m something of a history enthusiast, and one of my favourite historical events is the formation of an independent America…

Once upon a time we discovered America and then proceeded to populate it with potato starved Irishmen, the poor, the persecuted religious, and a couple of rich people to make sure no-one got out of hand. Unfortunately the horrible warmongering, America-hating French soon turned up and tried to kill all the Americans. Luckily Britain courageously fought the dirty French back so that all they had left was the shit half of Canada whilst we kept the half with Neil Young (and started spreading rumours that Chad Kroeger is actually from Montreal).

Britain and America then lived in peaceful co-existence where we agreed on everything from how awesome tea is, to how much tea should be taxed. Then one fateful day a shipment of tea disappeared from Boston harbour. The British were so impressed by the anger and frustration of the Americans reaction to this great loss that we decided you were finally ready to break out on your own. Shortly after that Britain gladly handed the USA independence.

But whilst you slowly developed into a mightily impressive nation, Britain is still superior for these four reasons:

1. Tea

Sure coffee looks cool. It sounds cool. It even tastes pretty good, and many, many diner scenes in movies and TV shows would lose a certain something if the waitress was pouring tea out of a dainty little teapot, but tea is still better.

For final proof, people often use ‘all the tea in china’ as an example of excessive reward that would still be too small to tempt them. There is no equivalent for coffee, because it’s not as good, and no-one actually knows where it comes from.

2. Action Heroes/Acting

American culture is littered with action heroes from the various ranch hands played by John Wayne to the sensitive amnesiac Jason Bourne. Between those two icons you’ve had John McClane, Johnny Utah, John Rambo, Chuck Norris, and the many roles of Arnold Schwarzenegger. A lot of them feature in pretty decent films. I love both Die Hard and Point Break.

In Britain we only have one action hero. We only need one action hero. We got the violence/sex/horrendous pun formula right the first time. Who wants to see Bruce Willis shouting obscenities in bare feet and shooting vaguely German terrorist when you can watch a fifty year old Roger Moore flapping his saggy jowls over the body of a twenty year old and making crude sex jokes?!

No American has ever played Bond. Meanwhile the three best known American comic book characters are all played by Brits because we’re all better actors than you. Yes, even Keira Knightley.

3. Colonization/War

We had an Empire. Despite our aesthetically displeasing dentistry we still managed to get our hands on most of the world and mercilessly exploit the local populations.

You can try and claim the two World Wars, but that’s like when you’re trying to open a jar, five people give it a go and then the sixth personally finally manages and takes all the credit and makes hundreds of movies about how great he is at opening jars. We were loosening those jars for a long time before you showed up.

The only war you ever won was against yourself. The War of Independence doesn’t count because it didn’t actually happen. Any evidence to the contrary is simply photoshopping and hearsay.

4. History

We Brits have history. America is part of our history. A fairly brief and unimportant part too, hundreds and hundreds of years after our Roman ancestry and walls to keep the Scots out.

The most important parts of American history aren’t even taught in our schools. I only know about it because I studied it a bit at university and read up on these things purely so I can make jokes about not being interested in the information I’ve researched.

Seriously though, it’s just sort of glossed over. Sometimes a teacher might tell the story about the shipment of tea failing to arrive if a student asks, but mostly we’re too busy learning about our rich cultural heritage, drinking tea, and dashing outside to play cricket during the brief periods when it stops raining.

So there you have it; indisputable scientific proof that my country is better than yours. Huzzah for Blighty! Let’s all celebrate with tea and scones! Spiffing!


I could have come up posting today and been very bitter. But today shouldn’t be about bitterness, it should be about celebration. I prefer making tea with tap water rather than sea water but… whatever… enjoy your cawfee…

But seriously, Happy 235th Birthday America— you’re looking good for it.






I don’t know much about the First World War. I know about Ypres and the Somme, and that it was started with Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand… but the details are sketchy and vague… my knowledge of The Great War is a fraction of what I know about The Second World War.

The Second World War is generally considered somehow more exciting. It’s certainly more cinematic; there are hundreds of films set during WWII, and hundreds more that feature Nazis as the villains. I suspect this is largely because the Nazis are easily identifiable villains locked in a clear battle between good and evil. The Waffen SS— literally Nazi death squads— wore, as well as the black uniforms with sinister slashes of red on the left arm, skull and crossbones on their uniform in an almost comical caricature of villainy.

The start of WWII is also easier to understand. Although a lot of Hitler’s military actions were driven by the desire for revenge over the terms of the German’s surrender and Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, put simply the Nazis invaded Poland, Britain declared war on the Nazis, and every country in Europe (aside from Ireland and Switzerland) picked a side. Once the party was in full swing the US turned up fashionably late, just in time to inject new life into proceedings.

Although a lot of British people still don’t like to accept it, the Allies would have lost the war without American intervention. Without their troops, funding, or munitions we would have run out long before the end and we wouldn’t have been able to keep mass producing the Spitfires and Hurricanes that won the Battle of Britain.

The high involvement of the US in WWII probably explains the high ratio of Second World War to First World War films. The U.S contribution to WWI was vital, but their role always seems less prominent. They were also much more reluctant to get involved the first time around. Although these days American foreign policy has ramifications on a global scale, under Woodrow Wilson the U.S government followed a policy of isolationism. Essentially this made their foreign policy ‘well, that’s not our problem…’

I feel quite guilty about my WWI knowledge gap, particularly given the vast amount of time— in and out of school— I’ve spent learning about WWII. I’ve been to Nuremburg, seen the sight of the Munich putsch, and I’ve been inside the attic that Anne Frank hid in. I’ve spent hours at the Imperial War Museum marvelling at Spitfires, and recreations of the trenches.

I watch a lot of documentaries. I’ve seen one about a man who broke into Auschwitz and survived. He still has nightmares some sixty years later. I’ve seen a documentary about four Jewish men who escaped by stealing SS uniforms, equipment, guns, and a car. It was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.

War is a terrible thing, but it unites and brings out the best in people. Whilst the Nazis were displaying the absolute worst humanity was capable of, so many in the Allied forces were demonstrating the absolute brilliance humanity was capable of.

That brilliance lives on, even today in the 21st century. There aren’t many left, but those who are meet up occasionally— men from both sides. One of the best things I’ve ever seen is a wheelchair bound ninety-four year old Englishman called Henry Allingham sitting in a room with a ninety-four year old German man sharing memories of the war. At one point they realized they were both fighting in the same battle, firing shots across no-man’s land at each other. And they both laughed; they found it hysterically funny, and joked that neither of them could have been much good with their weapons.

They laid a wreath together at a local war memorial to remember the fallen. I’m sure that even if Henry had the mobility to dance he wouldn’t have danced to the deaths of the German’s former comrades. I’m fairly confident that when the Allies finally won the war Henry danced to the end of the war, not celebrating the end of people’s lives… revelling in the end of the suffering, rather than the thought of it.

We have Remembrance Day in Britain primarily to remember those who sacrificed themselves in the World Wars. There are very few towns in the country that don’t have memorials to those who died. Some are bigger than others. In the village where my parents live there’s a very small plaque and although there are fifteen different Christian names, there are only four different surnames. The majority of the names are from the First World War.

The guns fell silent across no man’s land twice during that war— once on Christmas day when the two sides played a game of football, and for a final time at eleven a.m on the eleventh of November 1918.




There was one surviving veteran of World War One.


He was Claude Choules, a British man who was known by his comrades as ‘Chuckles.’ He joined the Royal Navy at the age of fifteen, and served on the HMS Revenge where he personally witnessed the surrender of the German Imperial Navy.

He later transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and saw active service in the Second World War. 

He died in the early hours of Thursday May 5th 2011.


And now there are none.




Shortly after writing this I learnt that Claude Choules never celebrated the Armistice, and refused to participate in memorial marches. After witnessing so much suffering and death he became a pacifist; he objected to violence and the glorification of war. I don’t really know what to make of that. I just know that it makes me feel incredibly glad that the last man standing was a good man.

One of our best. 




They come from bars and frat houses,
Chins sporting the last chug’s dregs;
They’ve shut down the POTUS block
Down lawn chairs! Time to tap the kegs!

“Na na na! Hey hey hey! Goodbye!”
Caught in the unstoppered ear—
Perspective fails the sloppy street
It’s just one terrorist’s career!

What giant wheels when Brezhnev sent
Red troops into Afghanistan;
House of Saud and CIA,
Tipped shots to Charlie Wilson’s plan.

river praying for strangers

Read one of River Jordan’s four novels, and her first memoir is no surprise. Spend a few minutes in her company, and it seems inevitable. She’s a person of depth and gentleness, a warm spirit who knows the power of words—spoken, written, or uttered in silence.

Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit was a resolution before it was a book. At the end of 2008, she knew her two sons—her only children—would be deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that quiet way ideas come upon all of us at times, River received her resolution for 2009. She was to pray for a stranger every day. This would be her way to focus on matters other than fear and worry.

Encouraged by her husband to keep notes, River chronicled her encounters with strangers. She shares the stories of some of them, most who received her offer with gratitude. During that year, she learned about the connections we all share as human beings and what a gift it can be to one’s self to reach out.

Here are some quick, belated thoughts on why the Star Trek universe (which should be celebrated) is appropriately analogous to Columbus Day (which should not be celebrated):

One of Star Trek’s main purposes is to revise the tenets and practices of imperialism and colonialism, to promote the idea that humans can perhaps explore the world (the universe) around them without actually conquering it.

So, why Afghanistan?

That’s something I’m always asked and I don’t really have a compelling answer, other than the country was a place I’d long been interested in visiting. I guess there was an element of trying to test myself. After lengthy and very challenging journeys in Mongolia and Tibet, I wanted see if I could cut it in a place that was actually at war. Could I personally handle being there? Aside from that Afghanistan is a country that has made almost daily headlines for the last decade and I wanted to see for myself what it was like there — what were the people like, how would they react to me, what was it like to walk on the streets of Kabul? It was something I wanted to find out for myself.

 

And how did you spend your time there?

I flew in to Kabul from Islamabad in Pakistan and stayed at a guest house in the city where I was hosted by a group of French journalists and photographers. I spent probably half of my three months in Afghanistan in Kabul but also visited the cities of Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Bamiyan, and spent three weeks travelling alone by horse in the remote Wakhan Corridor in the country’s north-east.

 

Was it easy to get into the country?

Yes, very, I was given a one month tourist visa from the Afghan Embassy in Australia, I had to provide a letter of invitation from the French production company but other than that there was no red tape and no questions asked. Once inside Afghanistan it was easy to extend the visa, or just let it expire and pay a fee for an exit visa.

 

And what was the average Afghan like?

Very friendly, very hospitable, welcoming and warm! I couldn’t count the number of invitations for tea I’d receive in a day! No one seemed to care that I was from the west, which I guess could be painted as being the enemy, no one cared that I wasn’t Muslim, people were open and tolerant which is perhaps not what one would expect given the reputation of the Taliban.

 

Any hostility?

Definitely there was, but for the most part it’s not openly expressed, I did meet people who weren’t overly pleased to see me for whatever reasons they held personally. And those reasons might be justified — after all Afghanistan has been meddled with by foreign powers for centuries. It was rare, however, for someone to be openly hostile to me.

 

So is Afghanistan a dangerous place to travel?

Yes, it is! There is no escaping the fact that Afghanistan is a country at war and it is a country with a violent element of extremism. While I was there, there were regular incidents such as suicide bombings, kidnappings, murders of foreign aid workers, in and around Kabul and at times quite near to where I was staying. On the other hand as long as I was careful, and a little lucky I guess, I was able to travel through much of the country without incident.

 

What was the closest you came to real danger?

Travelling anywhere by car is the most dangerous thing you can do — the driving there is insane! Apart from that I was in a town in the north which came under rocket attack one night, someone having a go at the local governor. It was amazing, two rockets were fired in the middle of the night which must have woken the whole town but no one even got out of bed to investigate, I was expecting to hear sirens in the street or people running in panic but after the booms died down there was silence, the next day no one even seemed interested, just another night in Afghanistan! The other brush I had was when we were tipped off that the guest house in Kabul was to be targeted by the Taliban in a plot to kidnap or kill us. Everything was packed and moved in two hours to a safer address. That really brought home the precarious position foreigners live in there and it made me wonder as I strolled the streets of the city if I was being watched or followed.

 

Let’s talk about the horse trek….

The Wakhan Corridor was one of the main reasons I went to Afghanistan in the first place, it’s that odd little tail on the end of the country between Pakistan and Tajikistan. The region is incredibly beautiful, lying between two mountain ranges, it’s also the safest and most stable part of the country and has never been fought over in modern times, there are no insurgents there, no landmines etc. I had to get a special permit to travel there which was extremely difficult and I was very lucky to get one at all. At the entrance to the corridor I bought a local horse, borrowed a saddle and set off. Along the way I camped or was hosted in villages by ethnic Tajiks. About half way up there is an almighty gorge which I had to trek through on foot as it was too steep to ride. Foolishly, I didn’t bring much in the way of supplies and so spent three days with a very empty stomach. However, the top of the corridor opens out in to the Pamir grasslands inhabited by Kyrgyz nomads who live as herders of yaks, sheep and horses.

 

What concerns did the Afghan people express to you?

Naturally the main concern the average Afghan has is peace and stability. Many Afghans have grown into adulthood and know nothing but war; first the Soviets, then the civil war, then the Taliban and now the coalition forces. Ironically the time of the Taliban was probably Afghanistan’s most stable — petty crime was almost nonexistent — but of course the human rights abuses were extreme. I don’t think Afghans have ever expected a lot, they just want some security and a reassurance that they have a more positive future.

 

Do you have any opinions as to what the solutions might be?

The problems Afghanistan, and any other country involved with it, face are mind-boggling and extremely complex. The problems extend beyond the borders of Afghanistan itself and into Pakistan and the wider area, so solving Afghanistan’s problems is never going to be enough. One of the main dilemmas is that the nation of Afghanistan is made up of a dozen ethnic groups none of which feel any particular loyalty to any other and in fact they might have been tribal enemies for hundreds of years. One day someone drew a line on a map and said ‘OK, now you’re a country’. The problem is that you can’t have a president or even a government that is universally accepted by everyone. It made me wonder if the western ideal of democracy can actually work there? Personally I don’t have much in the way of opinions, what I wanted to get from Afghanistan, and express in Tea with the Taliban, are the opinions of Afghans themselves, whether they are right or wrong. When I was there local people talked about including elements of the Taliban in a future government, it’s not something many would want to see but as it seems virtually impossible to defeat the Taliban then many people said if including them is the answer to peace then why not? The inclusion of Taliban ministers in an Afghan government is now being openly discussed by the United States government and other coalition states.

 

Would you go back?

I always answer yes and no! Yes, because I’d love to go back to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and travel to all the places I couldn’t get to, to experience the warmth and hospitality again. And no, because a peaceful and stable Afghanistan doesn’t look likely for some time.

 

And why write Tea with the Taliban?

I wanted to portray the country from the point of view of an ordinary traveller, like any other travel book, but set in the extreme environment of Afghanistan. Most books which have been published recently have been written by Afghans in exile or by foreign ‘experts’. I wanted to produce a book by an ordinary guy who just went there to see what it was like.  I wanted to tell the stories of the Afghans themselves as they were told to me, the average Afghan I met on the street or in tea houses everyday. I wanted to show the way local people live there against the backdrop of violence and chaos.

 

 

The Dogs of War

By Slade Ham

Humor

Character is what we are in times of crisis or when no one’s watching or some other strange set of criteria. For the last week I have been plagued by visitors in the night, sent to attack me and me alone, determined, I believe, to watch me in action and see how I respond. It feels like a psychology experiment gone bad, like the Milgram Experiment or that Stanford Prison thing. Maybe not that bad, but I still feel as if I’m being toyed with.

I lay in bed at night and I hear them coming. Whispers and clicks in the dark, the invaders peer through the inky black and wait for exhaustion to drag me into an uneasy sleep. They organize and plot and look for the perfect opening, and then they come for my socks.

These fucking squirrels.

But it’s not just the squirrels. The entire animal kingdom seems out to get me. Whether it’s rabid cats, mercenary mosquitoes, or obnoxious birds, I’m like the opposite of Dr. Doolittle.

I moved in late summer to a garage apartment, a perfect little spot for a constant traveler. It’s big by apartment standards and comfortable. There’s a place for my car and my motorcycle and all of my stuff fits exactly as it should. My bookshelf is full of the volumes I’ve collected in the last year punctuated by a thousand trinkets and memories from my travels. My desk sits on one side of the living room, my dual monitors surrounded by speakers. This is a place I can get stuff done. My bedroom faces south so the sunlight is constant. I opted not put up blackout curtains so that it would jar me out of bed and into productivity on most mornings. My brilliant plan to surface at eight or nine has been preempted though.

My apartment sits isolated from my neighbors in the middle of four intersecting backyards and one of those backyards is home to a rooster. A rooster, a rooster, a ROOSTER, inside the loop in Houston, Texas.

It’s more elusive than one would expect a rooster to be, too. It is borderline ninja and I know this because I’ve tried to kill it. I have a really hard time contemplating hurting an animal. I’ve never been hunting and I’m a total sucker for the animals of any sort. I could cause harm to a human much more easily than I ever could an animal, but it’s not a human standing in the backyard cock-a-doodle-doo-ing at 5:00 am, seven days week.

The woman that owns that house is bat-shit crazy. She won’t answer her door for me or the police. For all I know she could be dead herself. The wooden fence around her yard is painted with bright red hearts and catchy little hippie phrases like Animals Are People Too! and One Planet, One Love. The sign on the door that I have beat on every morning for the last month reads I maintain this house for the comfort of my cats. If you can’t deal with that, you can’t deal with me. She places the welfare of these animals above my own, and for that I hate this woman. She is a hopeless PETA-head, and that is why I bought the slingshot.

I’ve collected a good number of small rocks (ball bearings would look too much like evidence) and from my bathroom window I can see into her backyard. The rooster prances up and down a particular path, hidden almost entirely behind the branches of a low-hanging tree. It knows it is safe, but that hasn’t stopped me from rifling pebble after pebble through the leaves in an attempt to hit him. He of course knows this, and waits until I have shut the window and given up. Then he runs up to the fence and lets out another mad cackle before darting back to the cover of the brush. THWOP, THWOP, THWOP. Three more rocks rip through the air and hit nothing. “Goddamn bird!” I yell. “I’m gonna shoot you in your little rooster face.”

I want to drag its carcass to the hippie’s doorstep and bang away until she’s forced to answer. “Looks like people can be animals, too!” I’ll say, with wild eyes and chicken blood running down my arms. What criminal mind houses a yard full of birds and a house full of cats with such disregard for others? Probably the kind of person that would raise an army of attack squirrels. I bet my invaders are the product of her animal friendly lifestyle as well. She probably hand fed them and took them in, and now that she has sixty-three cats they need a new place to hang out, hence the velvet rope and the bouncer outside the squirrel dance club that my attic has become.

And now I am not safe inside.

A few days ago I woke up to the morning crowing and stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. Bleary-eyed and headachey, I poured my first cup. As I started to gain my focus I noticed a sock hanging out from under the counter. “Did something happen last night that I don’t remember?” I think to myself. “Why would I take my socks off in the kitchen? Did I try to put them in the cabinet? How drunk was I? This makes no sense.”

Pulling the sock out from the opening underneath the base board, I noticed that it had several holes in it. “Squirrels,” I growl. I’ve known they were here for a while. It’s an older place and there are plenty of openings that allow them into the attic. I hear them constantly but I’ve remained unconcerned. Once I knew that they weren’t mice or rats – the piles of nuts in the attic and the sight of actual squirrels hopping from the power lines onto my roof cinched that – I just resigned myself to being a winter refuge for the fuzzy little things.

But now they’re taunting me. They’re literally stealing my socks – as if my clothes dryer wasn’t already doing enough of that. They are strategic. To get my socks requires some investigation. While I will occasionally leave a pair lying in the living room (one of the perks of bachelorhood), they usually end up in my bedroom. None of my other clothes are touched, nor are the dish towels or the beanie I left laying on my desk or the bag of Cheetos Puffs on top of my microwave. They’re selective little creatures. I mean, it takes determination to say no to those Cheetos. Cheetos are delicious.

They seem content to only drag the socks as far as the holes under the cabinets too. They don’t take them all the way inside, but leave them hanging out just enough to let me know they were there. It’s a form of counting coup, I’m afraid, and this is why I feel I’m being experimented on. It’s as if they know that I am incapable of simply trapping them or killing them. They want to see how I’ll react.  They know that boredom will entice me to fight back. I have moved anything cloth-like to my bedroom now and I make sure the door is shut when I leave. Then I place one sock strategically in the middle of my dining room floor before I make my exit or turn in for the night. I have to know if they come, and come they do, but never when I can see them.

I sit on my couch and stare like a child waiting for Santa. Unable to stay awake, my eyes finally close, only briefly, and then snap open again to find the sock tucked neatly in its little cubbyhole under the sink. “How the hell did you do that?!?!” I yell. Somewhere a squirrel rolls around on the floor laughing and high-fiving his friends. I rip the sock out from the hole and throw it back on the floor. “I’m going to bed, you bastard!” I yell at nothing whatsoever. “Come get your stupid sock if you want it!” Then I wake up the next morning to find it sitting exactly where I left it. It’s no fun for them if I don’t care, it seems.

So I have to formulate a plan before I go out of town again. I have to get rid of them. I don’t know if I am up against one rogue animal or a hundred. In my mind, my walls and my attic are now one big Squirrel Kingdom. Buttons and thimbles and scores of socks line the halls of a Secret of NIMH world. Will taking one of these creatures out be enough? Should I trap one and leave it bound in the middle of my kitchen floor as a warning to other squirrels? Should I poison a sock? Buy an owl? I don’t know what to do exactly.

I know that the gauntlet has been thrown down though. They started this, this thing with the socks. “Cry Havoc,” I say, “and let slip the dogs of war!” And maybe that’s the answer – actual dogs. Or a fox. A fox would eat the squirrels and the rooster. I want to put on face paint and get a ghillie suit and hide with my slingshot. I want to set up a box and a stick with a string tied to one of my socks. I want a jet pack and some rocket skates and I want to paint a fake tunnel on my wall like Wile E. Coyote. I want to put the squirrels and the rooster and all their little friends in one big bag and toss it into the ocean – and then blow up the ocean.

I want to win.

Maybe I should focus on the flower child in the house behind me, maybe point my slingshot at her instead. Cut off the head and the monster dies, right? Maybe she’s like the Other Mother in Coraline. Who takes their animals that seriously? Seriously. These things are interrupting my lifestyle and her desire to protect them only makes me angrier. Now I want to cook steak with my windows open so she has to smell it. And I want a fur coat. And I want to beat a baby seal to death with an endangered penguin. Her “Save the animals” mission has clearly had the opposite effect on me.

But for now, I will continue to type, stopping every sentence or two to pause my music and glance into the kitchen and try to catch a glimpse of the cocky little rodent as it mocks me. Because right now I am clearly not winning. Right now I am losing.

And badly.

I can hear the squirrels flitting back and forth on the roof even now. I can hear the rooster too, cluck-cluck-clucking just feet outside of my apartment. I cut my eyes across the desk to the slingshot. “I could go outside and kill them all right this second,” I think.

And I would, too, if only I could find a pair of socks.

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.

17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.

Before the ground war started, we hunkered behind berms, firing shots at targets built from crumb rubber, careful not to shoot the Bedouin and their camels when they appeared on the horizon. We stood in jeeps and flashed the Saudis on the highway, making lewd gestures with our tongues and fingers at the Saudi women sitting in the back of their husbands’ Mercedes, because only men can drive in that country. We fought the Gulf War for them, and for their fat white business partners in Texas. We were hired guns, sleeping in prefabricated bunkers built years before the Ba’ath party rumbled over the oil fields into Kuwait.

Soldier On

By Greg Olear

Essay

“And as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.”

—President Barack Obama, December 2, 2009

 

History, as the old saw has it, is written by the victors.

Had the South prevailed in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln—who suspended habeus corpus, jailed dissenting journalists, and pursued a military strategy based on attrition, maximizing casualties on both sides, all to bring to heel those states who had legally declared their independence—might well be viewed as a dictator on par with Hitler or Stalin, and Ulysses S. Grant a war criminal. Instead, their visages adorn our currency, and the widely held, albeit bogus, view of that internacine conflict is that it was fought to free the slaves. Thus Lincoln is honored, disingenuously, as a champion of blacks.

In truth, war is never the clear-cut Good versus Evil described by St. John the Evangelist and George W. Bush. Consider the Second World War. The prevailing mythology is that the U.S. entered the fray to save the Jews and prevent a Nazi takeover of the world. So fanatical is this belief that to suggest otherwise amounts to heresy.

In Human Smoke, his brilliant pacifist’s history of the events leading to Pearl Harbor, Nicholson Baker suggests otherwise. I bought and read Baker’s book last spring, because the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, a liberal whose columns I agree with most of the time, slammed it with such vitriol.

In a March 31, 2008, column entitled “Yes, It Was a Good War,” Cohen (who, incidentally, supported enthusiastically our ill-advised foray into Iraq) begins by lauding Baker as “a supremely talented novelist”—in other words, a guy who has no truck with actual non-made-up events—before pronouncing Human Smoke “dead wrong and very odd,” and concluding thus: “World War II was fought for several reasons but above all—and proudly—because the only way to stop the killing was to stop the killers.”

Cohen dismisses Baker’s thesis with derision: “Is any war, outside of direct self-defense, worth fighting? Baker suggests that even World War II was not—that the Jews perished anyway and that the war consumed more lives than anyone could have imagined and that, somehow, pacifism would have worked its magic.”

At times, his arguments have all the complexity of a four-year-old’s. Were the pacifists right?  Cohen replies, “No, they were not.”

Well, OK then.

Based on Cohen’s column, I expected Human Smoke to be a long treatise in defense of pacifism—the make-love-not-war ruminations of a bleeding-heart novelist on his high horse. Not so. Baker tells his story in short blurbs, most no longer than a page, that encapsulate primary sources. These are presented as dispassionately as possible. For example:

Winston Churchill wrote Joseph Stalin a letter. It was July 28, 1941…Churchill assured Stalin that England would do all it could do to help Russia. “A terrible winter of bombing lies before Germany,” he wrote. “No one has yet had what they are going to get.”

Human Smoke is 474 pages long. 472 of those pages consist of these short blurbs. Only on the last two pages does Baker editorialize, but by then his point—which has eluded Cohen, who almost certainly did not read the entire book—has been made:

War is hell. All war, without exception.

 

It was a similar visceral reaction in an otherwise staid newspaper that drew me to The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s Nazi opus that is, in many ways, a fiction companion piece to Human Smoke. In this case, it was Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times—with whom, like Cohen, I generally agree—throwing the proverbial tomatoes.

(Originally published in French as Les Bienveielles, The Kindly Ones won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in France three years ago. HarperCollins reportedly paid seven figures for the English-language rights, raising eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic. The English translation, by Charlotte Mandell, came out earlier this year, to decidely mixed reviews.)

“The novel’s gushing fans,” Kakutani writes, “seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness.” The Kindly Ones, she avers, is “[w]illfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent” and “reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.”

And the kicker: “Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, after repeated viewings of The Night Porter and The Damned.”

In other words, Kakutani hated the book. Which, perversely, only piqued my interest. If not Höss by way of Patrick Bateman, I was expecting a bloated epic in the vein of Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, a brutal work of questionable quality that was nevertheless lauded in the land which apotheosized Jerry Lewis. What I found instead was something altogether different: challenging, depressing, overwhelming, but riveting—and not at all pointless.

In one respect, Kakutani is bang-on: this is not pleasant stuff. You don’t want to bring The Kindly Ones to the beach. You don’t want to suggest it for your book club. You probably don’t want to read it at all. There is so much grisly material here that even if you excise the hundreds of pages concerning the Jews, you’d still walk away shaking your head. The experience of a German officer in Stalingrad alone is a horror show. As the novelist Michael Korda, a Littell admirer, wrote on The Daily Beast: “This is the real thing, a journey into the belly of the beast, a chance to live through the doings of mankind at its worst, a book that is relentlessly fascinating, ambitious beyond scope in that it tries to show us in every unforgiving detail what we least want to see, and which never once lets the reader, or the Germans, off the hook. You want to read about Hell, here it is.”

Which begs the question: why would I—why would anyone—want to read about Hell?

To make sure it never happens again.

“I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!” Maximilien Aue, the narrator of The Kindly Ones, insists at the end of the prologue. And while most of us are not matricidal former Nazi Obersturmbannfuhrers with a taste for sisterly sodomy, the guy has a point. Littell’s book couldn’t be more timely. In the two weeks it took me this summer to complete this leviathon of a novel—983 pages, tiny margins, small type, no paragraph breaks for quotes, and enough verifiable horrors to make the Saw franchise seem like an episode of Barney—President Obama declassified documents confirming what most of us already knew: despite assertions to the contrary by former president George W. Bush, the United States was engaging in torture.

Never mind who was right and who was wrong. The supposed Land of the Free was capturing people, holding them without trial, and torturing them, on the pretext of national security—just as the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s. It’s hard not to read The Kindly Ones as a cautionary tale.

And now, ominously, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has announced a plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. I trust Obama’s judgment, and I believe that he understands the consequences of sending soldiers in harm’s way more completely than his predecessor could ever hope to. If he believes that the defense of the United States mandates that many troops fighting half a world away, I might arrive at the same conclusion myself, knowing what Obama knows.

But after reading Baker and Littell, I’m not so sure.

 

I confronted eschatology too young. Although benign compared to some beliefs, my Catholic upbringing placed me at the sidelines of Armageddon—strange references to a kingdom come, the Second Coming, Judgment Day. I got queasy at the mention of the Book of Revelations. Sermons and syntactically-strained Bible readings led me to infer a tremendous destructive end to all life, human, animal, insect, plant. There were drawings in books, filled with fire, angels and demons, a sea of the damned. For a child, it’s impossible to reconcile a loving Father with one who will kill every one of his children with wanton violence. Children also don’t grasp metaphor.