Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about pain, death, misery and failure. I tend to think about these things in January, and I doubt I’m alone. This year, as with last year, I find myself underemployed, with a Jack Torrance-grade case of cabin fever. It’s a cyclical phenomenon, as I am sure other freelancers – and anyone in retail – can confirm. Also (fun fact!) corporations tend to fire people at the tail end of the old or start of the new year, so I imagine that right now there are many other lonely, bored, depressed shut-ins among us. Obviously we’ll never meet since we never leave our increasingly smelly apartments, but I have a pretty good feeling you’re probably trawling the internet right now looking for an antidote to your misery or Googling the phrase “painless ways to die.” I dedicate this post to you.

Now that we’ve gotten the awkwardness of the first suicide joke out of the way (one of many more, I hope!) I’d like to offer you some comfort. I will partly do this simply by being me, which tends to make other people feel better about themselves. For example, right now I’m suffering from a unique confluence of agonies, as I’m both looking for a day job and submitting my freshly completed novel to literary agencies, thus putting myself on the receiving end of a two-front assault of disappointment and rejection. I should have probably staggered the attempts. Oh well.

Another thing I can do to help you: offer you amusement. Here’s a fun game you can play to help pass the time. Close your eyes, relax, and take a moment to scroll through your memories. Good. Now: try to pinpoint the exact moment in your life when you went so irreparably wrong and screwed everything up forever. It could be a job or a lover you turned down out of arrogance and to your everlasting regret. It could be an offhand remark you made that alienated the last of your friends. Maybe you regret mooning the German finance minister that summer in Dusseldorf. It doesn’t matter. Without ever having met you, I can’t tell you exactly where you went terribly wrong.

I have my own contenders. I’ve narrowed it down to about five non-consecutive occasions that I’m not about to go into here. (I’m a job-seeker for god’s sake. I admit no weakness. Future employers who may be reading this: I am a paragon of robotic perfection. I’ve never done anything wrong, and I did not just accidentally burst a hot-water bottle on top of several important licensing agreements.) Anyway, let’s just say that self-recrimination can be a fun and free way to pass an afternoon.

Another fun thing you can do is ponder the shocking, visceral spectacle of the First World War. You can do this through the prism of Downton Abbey if you’d like, since it’s always good to remain current and feel like you’re a part of cultural phenomena. (It’s also fun to marvel at the different ways the show’s writers arrange for Cousin Matthew to be on leave in every single episode.) There are few things more comforting to me than the tragic, troubling sweep of human history. I mean, the Great War was so calamitous, so poorly managed and so disastrously run that my own small mistakes become much easier to stomach by comparison. Take, for example, the ill-conceived attack by Britain’s 1st Rifle Brigade and 1st Somerset Light Infantry on December 19th, 1915. This daring daylight charge was to have two prongs: first, an artillery barrage was supposed to destroy the German barbed-wire entanglements; second, an overland rush by the foot soldiers, who theoretically would be able to walk right over the downed wire and into enemy camps. Just in case the artillery barrage failed, though, the soldiers were supplied with straw mattresses, which they were to lay over any remaining wire. Inevitably, the barrage failed completely and the soldiers, staggering under their 60-pound gear kits and ridiculous straw mattresses, caused open-mouth Germans to stare in disbelief when they saw them approach. Well, stopped them for about five seconds. Then the Germans shook it off and commenced total slaughter.

Whatever stupid things I’ve done, I have not yet caused the death of a million men. See? Perspective.

Sometimes, though, on particularly bad days, I have to reach even farther back. In my very darkest moments, nothing from the 20th century will do. I have to go all the way back to the 14th, a hundred-year period of unremitting famine, misery, disease, plague, war, and death. That century opened with two or three frigid winters in a row, and unseasonable cold marked its first decade or so. (The cold didn’t let up until 1700; historians call it “The Little Ice Age.”) Naturally, this led to a shorter growing season, which in turn meant certain starvation for a populace already too big to support itself. In 1315, it rained incessantly, crops failed again, and full-on famine resulted, leading to malnourishment and thus disease. People were reported to have murdered their own children for food, and a famine-ravaged village in Poland even resorted to taking down and eating corpses in gibbets. Famine would occur again in 1316 and 1317. What else you got? Papal schisms? Check. Violence? Yes. Social unrest? Ooh! Peasant revolts? Keep talking. A hundred-year war?! The Black Death!? Yes, please!

But in my world, the true urtext for this longest, darkest season of the soul is (naturally) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. Sometimes I don’t even have to read the book all the way through to achieve catharsis; sometimes all I need are the dark, foreboding scenes before winter even strikes, when Pa sees the unusually thick walls of the muskrat nests and muses, “I’ve never seen them that thick.” I can just imagine the cold, dark horror that awaits them in the long months to come, and it’s enough.

In The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure writes evocatively of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s less-then-beloved daughter. Apparently, she was kind of a little shit and nobody really liked her. She grew up angry, bitter and discontented – she hated her parents’ poverty – and lived a frustrated life as an artist who never really achieved fame. She won some awards for her short stories but it was her mother’s legacy, not hers, that lived on. Modern fans visiting the Laura houses-turned-museums bypass the glass display case of Rose memorabilia with barely a murmur of interest: “Most of us had no use for someone like Rose, whose Bitter and Complicated life was at least as imperfect as our own,” McClure writes. People would rather hear about a family beset by blizzards and locusts than a girl whose mild and trivial problems mirror their own. The trouble is, it’s always the trivial problems that get you down. Grand-scope misery is a relief compared to that. Why anyone would prefer tales of survival, resilience, and redemption over narratives of folly, misery, and failure, I don’t know. Secretly, I don’t think they do. If you read about the real-life Ingalls family in any depth, you’ll quickly learn they were massive fuck-ups just like the rest of us. At one point they were all reduced to working as servants in a hotel, and when they couldn’t pay their rent, the whole family had to flee in the night. Also: the reason they left their homestead in Indian Territory in Little House on the Prairie (I refer here to book two in the series)? They fucked up. Pa took a gamble squatting on Indian land and was busted by the government in the end. I think that’s the real reason people love the Ingalls family, they just won’t admit it.

I’ve decided the only sensible thing to do is go to Belgium.

Not just for war tourism, but out of a general curiosity. Much has been written about the legendary ugliness of the Belgian people, and I’m curious to see how this bears out in real life. “To this day,” writes W.G. Sebald, “one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere… I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year.”

This may be the place for me.

Just to clarify, I’m not moving there. I’m staying in New York for the time being (at least until poverty forces me to move in with my in-laws in Buffalo, or move back home to Canada where people live like kings). No, I’m just going for a weeklong sojourn. Who knows, maybe I’ll like it so much I’ll make regular visits; maybe I’ll find so much comfort in its war memorials that I’ll just keep going back, shuttling from NYC to Brussels until the money runs out, between my real life and my imagined life, forever rowing from one dark shore to another.

 

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. 




”Jump in” my Dad said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world— as though I was an idiot for not just clambering up myself.

We were standing around the back of an industrial park, in front of a skip.

No doubt they’ll be some people who don’t know what a skip is, other than pleasant enough sounding word. Perhaps you’ve been known to walk with a skip in your step… maybe you’ve tried a Skip, a delicious prawn cocktail flavoured corn snack… quite possibly you’ve seen Skippy the Bush Kangaroo on TV and know sometimes she’s referred to as ‘Skip.’

None of those definitions match the skip I was standing in front of. If you were standing there you’d most likely refer to the skip as a dumpster.

Yes, my Dad wanted me to climb into a dumpster.

Not just any old dumperster, but a dumpster full of corrugated gold: cardboard boxes. We’re moving house, we need boxes. Where else would we go but a dumpster at the back of an electrical supply store?

It was a low point, but from each and every event there are infinite possibilities. One of those possibilities was that it would end up being a mildly amusing anecdote to lead into a TNB post about the infinite possibilities of existence.

Whilst in the skip rooting around for decent sized boxes I slipped and fell. I hit my head on the side of the skip. But it could have been better or worse. I could have stepped on a different piece of cardboard and avoided a pratfall altogether and merely have just found some boxes in a skip. At the other extreme I could have stood on a different piece of cardboard, fallen much harder and shuffled off the mortal coil in a fashion only marginally less embarrassing than David Carradine hanging himself in a cupboard and wanking into oblivion.

This is a world of infinite possibility. My actions in the skip could have led to events that eventually culminated in a world war. I mean, it’s highly unlikely, but at the same time World War One began because a guy in Sarajevo got a bit peckish before lunch.

On the morning of June 28th 1914 somebody decided they were going to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand as he paraded through the streets. That somebody wasn’t Gavrilo Princip, who is perhaps best known for that time he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand causing the outbreak of the first Great War which saw a failed Austrian painter called Adolf join the army, and later the Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party who had taken a particularly strong objection to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which brought a formal conclusion to WWI. This in turn led to an eventual rise to power, the breaking of many of the terms of the Treaty and a deeply flawed attempt take over the world and exterminate the Jewish race, which ended with failure and numerous film adaptations. 

World War Two was driven by hunger for revenge and supremacy. World War One was driven by a hunger for a delicious mid-morning snack.

This wasn’t a total coincidence. Princip was already pretty bent on somebody using something to kill Franz Ferdinand, and was in on the whole ‘let’s try and kill him on his parade’ scheme which failed miserably when somebody fired something a touch too eagerly. The grenade intended for the Archduke exploded behind the car and only managed to kill a few pathetic pedestrians that weren’t worth starting a war over. The car sped off in case there were any more hecklers in the crowd.

After this incident Princip went off to a cafe to get himself a post-failed-assassination-commiseration snack, whilst he presumably cursed ACME for their unreliable weapons and vowed to concoct an even more elaborate scheme to murder Ferdinand at a later date.  

By pure chance the driver of the Archduke’s car took a wrong turn on a diverted route. He realised this and broke suddenly.

Right outside the cafe where Gavrilo Princip was spitting out a fresh mouthful of coffee in disbelief and quickly concocting a new assassination plan which essentially boiled down to pistol whipping someone out of the way, going up the car and shooting Franz Ferdinand/changing the course of history forever.

It’s a funny old world.

I’ve been thinking about life changing moments a lot recently, particularly since Brad Listi’s recent post on Why We Exist.

Okay, I’ve been thinking about my life changing moments a lot recently and about luck and fate and all the other things you need to succeed in life beside either talent, good looks, luck, or a willingness to give blowjobs to well connected guys who really want to help you become a star…

Writing is something I’ve done since I was quite young, and I’ve always been told I’m quite good at it. Alongside breathing, repelling girls and cooking potato wedges it’s one of the few things that I’m really, really good at.

However, I never saw how I’d make a living off it. I knew that somehow I’d have to get a degree, and then a job and all sorts of other boring responsibilities that make you wish you could be eight years old forever and just spend all day in your underpants eating cereal and watching cartoons.

When I was a teenager I was shopping with my Mum. That’s the cool kind of guy I am— shopping with Mum, scavenging in dumpsters with Dad. We can’t all go to Disneyland. Anyway, I was happily picking up the usual stuff I read. At that time it was mostly crime fiction, and not very good crime fiction at that. My Mum presented me with a book, a bright orange book where the title was scrawled and the cover was a cartoon. She had only one recollection of the book: that she’d read it. That was it. I looked at it and decided it might be pretty cool.

And through that book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I was introduced to Hunter S. Thompson and the notion that writing wasn’t just a sad pathetic thing that boring people did in Victorian times. Writing could be fun and exhilarating and really quite cool.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Los Angeles there was a guy who had recently written hundreds of sentences, which when read in chronological order told a story as good as any novel.

In fact it was so good that it soon became one of the ‘any novels’ that excellent unpublished novels rated themselves against. The only problem the author had was in selling as many copies of his book as possible. Then there was also the fact that he’d recently heard about the ancient mythical Japanese ‘Page of Many Voices’* and wanted to create a real version of it— on the internet if at all possible. It was a dream that would have been almost impossible, were he not living in a world of infinite possibility.

After some period of time I was in my bedroom writing about things. Through a MySpace group dedicated to Hunter S. Thompson I’d come across a guy from Scotland living in Korea who was willing to publish something I’d written. I’d also responded to almost every classified ad asking for writers willing to write for free. Of all of these Kerb Magazine became the one I got the most out of/put the most into. I was writing, and I was writing a lot. As well as writing savage indictments of political figures I was also writing screenplays and started novels about Vegas based cops with dark pasts.

All of these were abandoned.

I got a message from a guy in America who’d just published his first novel and he was inviting me to join his literary community. And that guy was…

Jonathan Evison.

Why, who did you think I was talking about?

Well, to cut a short story shorter, I didn’t take up the invitation. I was a busy man writing doomed to fail novels. I didn’t have time for literary community nonsense.

And later when I got an invitation from another debut author inviting me to read his blog I took a quick glance at that day’s entry, replied and exchanged around three messages. I liked the guy. His profile picture was of his face, which was a pleasant and friendly looking face.

This led to first the Brad Listi MySpace blog, which was really quite popular. This in turn led to Brad’s blog which wasn’t on MySpace, and it was really quite popular. And it was here I was tricked. It seemed as though Brad had blogged again, but the link took me to a different site. It certainly looked similar, but it was clearly different. It looked a lot like the old version of this site, which is largely due to the fact that it was.

This could only have happened in the 21st century. And along the way there were infinite possibilities at every turn. As well as the many things that worked towards me getting here, there were an unlimited number of circumstances which could have taken me somewhere else, got me here a different way or ended with me being murdered by a talking bear in a clown costume. I embarked on a short and dismal career in stand up comedy at one point between getting here and becoming one of Brad’s many MySpace readers. Again, that could have ended in any number of ways.

I only got really into TNB commenting because I was alone and a bit depressed at university. Had things worked out better I wouldn’t have left so many comments and wonderful people like Gloria, Becky, Tawni, Ashley and Tammy wouldn’t have urged Brad to make me a contributor. And I only qualified because I’d been published— in Beatdom. I didn’t know at that time that David Wills was a TNB reader and he joined the site the day after I did.

And now, to get slightly sentimental, I think about how dull and empty my life might have been. Because more than the opportunity to not only write, but have wonderful intelligent people read it and then say nice things about it, it’s a wonderful place to be and to interact with people.

I think about infinite possibilities a lot. Also I think about the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, except behind each door is a complete alternate timeline instead of a boring romantic comedy. A world where Hitler got into art school and didn’t mind the Jews so much… a world where she said yes and not no… a world where scheduling conflicts with Magnum P.I didn’t prevent Tom Selleck from playing Indiana Jones… a world where I just ignored another first time author trying to make a name for himself…


Infinite possibilities… One guy might eat a sandwich and get indigestion… another might eat a sandwich and end up causing a global conflict…

And somewhere in a world of infinite possibility there is a version of this post with a much better ending…




*This isn’t real. Or is it?**

**No, it isn’t.