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Old Bill’s lungs


He bubbled when he breathed. That’s my abiding memory.

I never knew my grandfather on my father’s side, he died when my father was very young (although twice, in childhood, old men stopped me in the street and said “you are Griff’s boy, aren’t you?” and we had to explain that no, I wasn’t Griff’s boy, I was his grandson, so I obviously had some of his stamp about me. A decent man, well-liked and taken early, by all accounts), but in terms of character, my mother’s side more than made up for it. There was her father’s family, an array of chancers, gamblers and rogues, like her grandfather, the premiere Bookies runner of the valleys, whose funeral was swamped by wreaths from his connections in that still illegal trade, or her Uncle Benny, a shining genius of a man who combined being the most flamboyantly homosexual man in the rough, tough mining area with a career in the diplomatic service and fluency in several languages, including Cantonese, no small feat for a working class boy born between the wars.

Her mother’s side were more respectable. A bit more staid. More, well, lets be honest about this, in the environment which they came from?

More chapel.

What David Cameron or Ed Miliband would call “hard-working families” today. Diligent. Strivers. Religious but not full of religiousity. Her grandmother, Polly Smith, blind from an early age, had moved down with her family from Bedford by horse and cart as a child. The horse died in Stow-on-The-Wold, the family walked the rest of the way.

Poll married two men, both of them veterans of the Great War, and its the second, Bill Smith, who I remember. And he bubbled, as he breathed.

That’s something, in my daytime dealing with the elderly, that I’ve kind of noticed slowly phasing out over the past decade or so. Part of it, no doubt, is due to the death of the mining industry. That coal came with a price, and the price was often measured in blood-flecked sputum. But also, another part, came from the other side. The Great War side. Both of Poll’s husbands had been gassed in the trenches, and decades later – this would be the mid 70s – their lungs had still not recovered entirely. I wonder how many of my generation have similar memories, of elderly relatives who would bubble and whistle, struggle for breath, in everyday conversation.

I run with the hawk and the hounds, often, in the subject of international intervention. Having rejected a good while back a large chunk of the dogma attached to oppositionalism, I take each call for it from the same perspective. I look at the region, the area, the nation. I try to read up about the politics and culture. I try to avoid easy stances. I research and ask people I know who have knowledge of the area – whether from experience, blood ties or from academic sources – what they feel about the current situation.

With the current crisis in Ukraine, for instance, I’ve been trying to read as widely as possible, from as many sources as possible. Citizen journalists and official lines. History (And, oh, it still offends me how few times Holodomor and purges and Soviet ethnic cleansing get referenced in any of this. Russian speaking majority in the east of the country? Well, crikey, where did all those Ukrainian speakers go? Can we, maybe, do a little connecting of the two here?).

Then I haver between positions, try and make an unbiased, informed choice of opinion. Often as not, it will be seen through the lens of living in the west, it’d be pretty impossible to escape certain cultural influences even for the most broadminded (good), the most culturally relativist (not so good at all) of us. (I’m not really an exemplar of anything for doing this, by the way. We’ve got the tools here, now, to do it far more than we ever did decades before. That we – on the whole – don’t is possibly laziness or possibly something slightly different – satiety? The easiness of junk information? Like 57 channels of shit on your tv and no Kenneth Clark documentary series in sight. Whatever the reason, I’m just saying, it isn’t a hard thing, now, to learn, and it isn’t a hard thing to learn free of the lens of ideology, however much ideology of the ideology I or you still share).

So yeah, I run with the hawk and hounds and manage, just, to keep friends on both sides of the divide simply because they recognise – I hope – that when I come to an opinion, I come to it from the perspective of an attempt at decency, an attempt to become informed and not to view people as pieces on some imaginary chess board. Empathy. That’s the key to it, even when you blunder in an opinion.

You may wonder how the two elements of this post meld together. Here’s how:

When I make a decision one way or t’other, when I fall to one side, I come up against arguments which oppose intervention in a foreign country – say, against Assad’s regime in Syria – they generally fall into 4 categories.

The first, a kind of self-loathing liberalism, holds that human rights are, y’know, a kind of fascism. How dare we come along and tell the indigenous people of the global south that they have a right to this, that or the other? This one, I tend to dismiss out of hand. Human rights are universal, or they are nothing. The UN has a fucking Human Rights arm, for christsake. The club whose only criteria for membership is “you have to control this country”. Enough with that. I dismiss that idea.

The second is a kind of lumpen-Marxism. It isn’t really Marxism, because Marx, even when wrong, was a far more elegant thinker than most Marxists are, or ever will be. There’s a fantastic quote, by the historian Norman Davies, who likens modern day Marxism as “having the same relation to Marx as the South Sea Cargo Cults do to the Anglican Mass”. The actual reality is, this isn’t Marxism, although most major Marxist organisations in the world would probably cleave to this particular brand of oppositionalism. With its talk of resource wars and its misunderstanding of imperialism – both economic and actual – it really deserves the more appropriate title “SmedleyButlerism”. War is a racket, ah huh? Who gets rich from it, eh? Bankers and arms dealers, innit? ALL ABOUT THE OIL, STUPID. The problem is, of course, that the world is a grubby place, and the world of war grubbier still, so there will always be things which feed this conspiracist viewpoint. Halliburton, I’m looking at you. But, despite the grubbiness of such deals, this doesn’t mean this worldview is right. It most patently, often, isn’t.

The third, one finds harder to deal with. It says “We will make things worse”. It is harder to deal with because, inevitably, in the short term, war does make things worse, armed intervention does make things worse. The question is, always, will it make things better, in the long run? How long will this take? Is that really our intention? One doesn’t have to be naive about our elected leaders to think that – most probably – it is their intention to make things better. Very few people get elected with the intention to make life hell for everyone else, no matter what party affiliation you loathe. Whether that will be the result of their actions, however, depends on your reading of the situation and – perhaps critically – their competence to deliver. It is a worrying thing to be trusting people who you wouldn’t trust to run a whelk stall in a domestic setting with the power of life and death over people far away. A natural caution there is most definitely advisable and not the same as objections one or two in the slightest. This is the killer, for me. This objection meant that I was – and remain – one of the last agnostics on Iraq. It means I don’t know what the hell was the solution in Syria three years ago and I sure as hell don’t know now the region has gone to hell and back. It means I was ambivalent about Libya, that I supported Mali and Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and gnashed my teeth at the inaction in the Former Republics of Yugoslavia pre-Kosovo.

And then there’s the fourth objection. The fourth objection is hardest to deal with, and it is where this post melds together. It was Otto Von Bismarck who most coherently summed it up, with his famed line: “The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier”. Of course, at its worse, this represents a kind of Little Englander chauvinism – your dead children are not worth the gold and possible blood we may expend to save them.

But then I remember Bill, and his wheeze, and his bubble, and I recognise there’s a healthy streak of cynicism that underlies the proletariat (the class I still unrepentedly self-identity with after decades of being told we don’t exist) – a cynicism that takes in Flanders Fields and Gallipoli, or the famed story of the soldiers listening to a Churchill speech in the field in 45 and jeering “the old bugger is pissed” before voting him out office (and the armed forces vote and the fact that they backed Labour in the same proportions as those at home is often brushed under the carpet in our narrative of that most just of wars), Goose Green and Catch 22, PTSD, soldiers returning home to the decaying working class communities they joined to escape from, and old Bill’s lungs. Its a cynicism that says all your moral adventures are paid for with our blood, with our limbs and with our lives.

And for all I rage often at the bien-pensant liberals and their moral relativism, and the craziness of the left abandoning internationalism for conspiracism, it remains the truth that any “anti-war” feeling in this country, as in all countries, is most definitely fed more by that cynicism than anything else. Sneer at its provincialism, its chauvinism, Little Englander mentality, its reactionary backwardness all you like. Call it racist to value the lives of a few thousand servicemen and women over hundreds of thousands of those of a different skin colour all you wish. There’s a large chunk of truth in all of that.

But then I remember Bill. And how he bubbled when he breathed. And that’s the argument that you can’t dismiss out of hand. The folk memory of these occurences is within us all, still. We gear up to the celebrations (Baffling. Do they want to recast it as World War II, Mk 1 or something?) of the centenary of the commencement of World War 1, and its shadow still falls, today, over us all. Its good that it does, in many ways, as it appears to have innoculated us, finally, against that jingoistic expansionist glory hunting element that was in the national character (it took Germany another 30 years and something far more disastrous to come to the same state of catharsis, and millions of people, Jew and Gentile, mainly from all points East, paid most of that price for them).

But any discussion of anti-war feeling that focuses on the moral cowardice of point 1, the malformed ideology of point 2, or the inherent conservatism of point 3, and ignores Bill’s lungs, is airless and weightless bloviating, a discussion that takes place amongst the elite, and for the elite.

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One thought on “Old Bill’s lungs

  1. Not for the first time, your writing takes my breath away.

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