Thursday, November 30, 2006

Trouser pocket hi-jinx

DISCLAIMER: The following post is a bit of a departure from the norm. It’s in response to the House of Sternberg’s assignment to whack together 700 words of bad writing (which I think I have achieved admirably), under the heading, "The holidays were no fun for someone with holes in his pockets."

DISCLAIMER II: Sorry people, there’re a few Australianisms in this one, let me know if a translation is necessary.

The holidays were no fun for someone with holes in his pockets.

“Fark!” screamed Harry as we slopped onto the muddy trench floor for the fifth time in as many minutes, “That one was real close … What do ya reckon, Stu? You think Fritz is lookin’ to join us for Christmas dinner?”.

“None of my business, H!,” I ventured with forced humour as I wiped mud and debris from my face and stumbled further along the trench, “I’ll be in St Patrick’s for midnight mass and Soho for an early pressie before Santa has even started loading-up. Give Gerry a kiss for me, though!”

“Lucky Bastard”, Harry laughed, and I mouthed a prayer for deliverance as another mortar exploded, sending us face-first into the filthy muck once again. With numb feet thanks to the cold water seeping through the holes in our boots, we scrambled off down the muddy line.

Later, we stopped to rest and I bummed-around for a smoke and a jiffy - like my boots, me pockets had finally given up the ghost the day before, and I’d lost me lighter and fags somewhere in no-man’s land, along with most of my ammo and me only photo of Jules. Bloody army!

As if he could read my thoughts, Harry, an unlit rolly hanging out of the corner of his mouth, complained loudly, “How the hell are we supposed to fight a bloody war in the snow without any decent clobber?” He held up his soaking, mud-caked sock which he’d received in his red-cross parcel three days before; the label read, “Knitted by the Griffith Ladies Auxiliary for Our Boys in Wipers”. Poking three fingers through three separate holes, he grinned, “I reckon Stu’s missus must’ve knitted these … probably reminded her of her Old Man’s brain”.

That earned him a few good-natured grunts, but I wasn’t really up to humouring anyone. The shells were going off almost every other minute, and were definitely nudging closer. All I could think about was getting out of that muddy hell-hole and onto a boat for London by nightfall. I was bloody lucky to have been given Christmas off, my first holiday since arriving in The Somme four months earlier; I was exhausted and cold, my ears were shot, I had lice and foot-rot and I hadn’t slept in days. I was desperate to get back home to Jules, but until then, London was gonna have to do. Just a few more hours…

“Look out, Joe!” We all hit the mud again as a shell exploded right on top of us, blowing half the trench apart only yards from where we’d been sitting. I looked up and waited for the smoke to clear, and despite the buzzing in me ears, I still caught the guttural screams of a dozen berserk Germans as they roared down upon us. As usual, Harry was there first, letting fly with his rifle and sending one of them screaming onto his back. I was right behind him, with a similar result but was vaguely aware of Stevo going down beside me. I fired again and set off towards the ‘krauts who were retreating off into the muck.

I slid along in pursuit, but pulled-up short when I rounded a corner and stood facing a lone German. He was fumbling in his pocket for bullets and I shouldered my rifle and fired…


I remember what followed in minute detail. I reached into my own pocket for bullets and felt cold daylight on my finger tips as they protruded through the holes. With a sudden chill, I charged forward, my bayonet poised, but I knew it was hopeless when he raised his rifle. As I dove into the mud, I felt the hot, painful tug in my shoulder. My last memory was a blurred Harry, followed by the blood-curdling crunch of steel on bone as he drove his bayonet through the poor bugger’s ribs.

I lay unconscious in the mud for eight hours while the Germans came at us in waves. Harry, with two broken ribs, carried me three miles to the field hospital where, on Christmas day, they removed my right arm. Not quite the holiday I’d been looking forward to, but at least I was goin’ home.

Allied soldiers in the trenches in The Somme. Pic:

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hoscakal Turkiye (Goodbye Turkey)

Talk about a contrast from the norm…

This morning, I woke up in my hotel bed, with its crisp, white clean sheets, freshly laundered each day. I turned the light on … and it worked. And so too did the toilet and the taps, and there was even hot water, too.

I did all the usual bits and pieces, and then wandered down to the hotel restaurant, where I had a fantastic breakfast of three different types of cheeses, four different types of marinated olives, five different types of bread and tomato, cold meat, HONEYCOMB(!!!), scrambled eggs and, the piece de resistance, the wonderful, donut-shaped Turkish ekmek (bread), with it’s fluffy white interior encased in a crust of sesame seeds. All this was washed down with three cups of the most wonderful, thick, black coffee, all served with a smile from the hotel staff. F’n fantastic!

I then wrapped myself up, and set out into the refreshing, sunny chill of Izmir, and wandered with the citizens as they made their way to work, along beautiful, clean, tree-lined streets, on smooth, paved walkways.

The chill air electrified my every step as I made my way to the Old Bazaar. In this enchanting, cobbled street, I meandered beneath the canopy of vines as the vendors set-up their shops for the day. Amongst the bustle, I saw the centuries-old processes of laying out the fish on wooden slabs, marinating barrels and barrels of hundreds and hundreds of different, dark and juicy olives. I was comforted by the homely smell of slabs and slabs of goats’ cheese lying beneath fragrant olive oil in huge vats, and was dazzled by the vibrant greens, reds, yellows and oranges of the fruit and vegetable stalls.

I laughed with the butchers as they delighted in an age-old game which, although occurring on a daily basis, perhaps for hundreds of years, they still enjoy. While executing their grisly work at their benches, they would keep a watchful eye out for the many alley-cats who would come creeping up to the door in the hope of stealing a meaty morsel, only to be sent scampering into the street as the burley men let fly with a projectile of old bone which was always sitting close to hand.

I pressed on, and while passing a side street, some heavy-looking, oddly stacked stones sitting on a large, open expanse caught my attention, so I detoured left to investigate. I soon found myself staggering, wide-eyed with awe, through the catacombs of the Smyrna Agora; the oldest agora (Greek market) in the world, founded and built by Alexander the Great, and later extended by the Romans and Byzantines. The ancient, arched walkways which honeycomb beneath the open expanse of ground above are slowly being excavated, and for less than AU$2, I was allowed to wander through, completely alone and unmolested as the sun began to rise high enough to cast ghostly shafts of light down, through the fog and into through the various holes in the massive stones of the vaulted ceilings high overhead.

Invigorated from my brief encounter with these once magnificent, and incredibly advanced civilizations, I retraced my steps to the bazaar, and soon entered the closeness of the more frenzied, older streets. As I picked my way past steaming hot nuts, trinkets and sparkling jewellery, I heard a wailing overhead, and raised my eyes to an opening in the canvas which was stretched across the alley to protect the vendors from the weather. There, towering above, were the massive, arched windows and imposing grey dome of a late 18th century mosque, so large that it felt like I could reach up and touch it. And from the pointed, Rapunzel-like minaret, I saw the Imam melodically calling his faithful to prayer, as his ancestors had done for centuries.

I smiled ironically at my own prejudices as I watched two imposing, tough-looking young men greet each other with a hand-shake and then two rough, un-shaven kisses on each others cheeks, and all around me, I heard the laughs and shouts, and felt the warmth from the smiles and nods of Izmir’s citizens.

Time was ticking, and I had a plane to catch. I set-off beneath ornate, wrought iron, Ottoman balconies and passed through the remaining arches of the city’s imposing, ancient stone walls, heading for the harbour. Here I heard the hubbub of harsh, guttural chatter from hundreds of happy Turks enjoying thick, Turksih coffee at tables along the waterfront.

On my way to the hotel, I stopped off for a final indulgence at a small, glass booth, where a man, cigarette sticking out the side of his thin lips, placed some steaming-hot lamb, fresh tomato, lettuce, onion and chilli sauce onto some wonderfully smelling pide and wrapped it all up into the most portable, tastiest snack in the known world. My Doner Kabap was the last in an infinite collection of fond memories gained over the previous ten days.

Goodbye Turkey … until next time … I will surely miss you.

The remarkable, encanting arches of the Smyrna Agora - an auspicious find for a curious Donkey. Pics: and respectively.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Losing my religion

One thing you notice, when listening to the REM song, is the anguish in Michael Stipe’s voice as he struggles with his new-found torment. It seems from the song that, prior to some recent events, he has been a man of faith, comfortable in the knowledge that there was something out there for him when his time comes to shrug off his mortal coil; there’s something for him to move towards; something to drive him to do good.

But for reasons unknown to the listener, that promise of something great to come is lost to Mr Stipe now, and he is tormented about the great and difficult task that lies ahead of him … the task of living. A task which, I’m sure many of you will agree, is difficult enough as it stands, but for Michael Stipe, with the added fear that he is now facing, fear of having to continue to live-on and to experience all the pain and frustration that the modern world inflicts upon its inhabitants, without any material or heavenly reward at the end, is proving to be more than he believes he has the strength to withstand. Michael Stipe is desperately and dangerously close to despair, and right now, at the time of singing this song, he can see no way to continue.

Losing one’s religion, or faith, or spirituality, can be an enormous moral and physical calamity for anyone.

Saving the World HQ has recently sent Donkey to Turkey to attend a summit of the World’s Super Heroes, and yesterday we were granted an afternoon off from the high-level discussions to take-in a bit of history from this incredible part of the ancient world. We visited Roman, Greek, Christian and Persian ruins on the western coast, and we were all suitably shocked and awed at the magnificent civilisations that have grown, flourished and disappeared over the centuries. For this na?ve Donkey, coming from a country whose oldest buildings are not much more than about 170 years old, it was truly an awesome experience.

On the way back to the Super Hero Summit, we stopped at what is said to have been the last known house of the Virgin Mary. St John, entrusted by Jesus to look after his sacred and beloved mother as he perished on the cross, is said to have taken Mary with him as he set about spreading Christianity throughout the world, and the last place they lived before dying was here at Ephesus, high up on a windswept hill.

The location of Mary’s last days remained unknown until a German nun had a vision sometime in the mid twentieth century, and after years of searching, and finding, and partitioning the Vatican, the Church declared the authenticity of the site in the mid 60s. Now, of course, pilgrims flock to the little stone chapel which has been built on the site, and yesterday, Donkey too stopped for a look at what perhaps may be “one of the most holy sites for Catholicism in the world”.

Amongst the Super Heroes gathered, there were Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, and with the exception of the first and some of the second group, many of the visitors had questions about the site, and the lady to whom it is dedicated, and Donkey, being both the hoary old Catholic and social butterfly that he is, found himself explaining the whole Jesus, Mary and St John thing to them all as we wandered up the hill to the little stone chapel. So by the time we burst through the door, Donkey was more into an historical, explanatory frame-of-mind than one which might normally have been expected from a Catholic lad entering “one of the most holy sites for Catholicism in the world”.

It was the looks of rapturous, spiritual wonder radiating from the faces of the other Catholics from our party, who had reached the chapel before us and who were silently kneeling and praying, which startled me into realising where I was, and I quickly checked myself and made the appropriate, habitual gestures before quietening my thoughts with a view to some kind of respectful prayer or reflection, but you know what? Nothing came.

“What’s going on?”, I wondered. Once upon a time, Donkey would have shut everything else out, and would have concentrated on this place and moment, affording it all the love and respect that “one of the most holy sites for Catholicism in the world” deserves. But I felt nothing from the place – there was no power, no inner strength, just the cold stone from a 40 year-old building which could not possibly have been anything like the last house of Our Lady of Efes, which would have been built some 2000 years before.

And it was with these thoughts, very much focused on the academic (“this could not have been the house she lived in, it’s too new”), rather than the spiritual (“the last known house of Holy Mary, Mother of God”), that I wandered back down the hill in the rain, feeling as though I had just been taken to another dodgy tourist attraction. I knew in my heart that this was the wrong approach, and that I perhaps had just missed a great, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it was my head, not my heart, which was calling the shots that afternoon.

Upon rejoining my colleagues, I could see how uplifted were the Catholics amongst them, and it made me feel even worse, not because they had felt so much, and I nothing, but rather that I was so disturbed by my lack of feeling.

You see, for years now I have based my spirituality on a belief in people, and the power that they bring to me and each other through compassion and interaction. It is this which empowers me to interact with people from all faiths, and all walks of life, and it was probably this which resulted in my patiently answering questions about the Bible from Buddhists and Hindus as we wandered up the hill towards Mary’s House.

I have believed in the good will and power of mutual interaction and love for years now, and have been convinced that it is by far a greater road to world peace and harmony than following a confused collection of antiquated dogma. I believe … no, I know that it is the right way forward … so why then do I feel so bad about my lack of any spiritual epiphany at Mary’s House? After all, I can sit quietly in a Hindu or Buddhist temple, or under a tree or by the sea, and after a period of quiet self-reflection, feel completely up-lifted.

Am I starting to get scared that I don’t have a contingency plan if the end day comes and I’ve in fact been wrong all these years? Should I be hedging my bets and put a bit more effort into trying to feel something in a cold stone chapel in the mountains of Turkey … y’know, just in case?

Losing one’s religion is indeed very painful … but so is searching without and within to try to hang onto it. Sometimes I wonder if it’d be less painful to just follow blindly … but, deep down, while I might back myself to be able to fool God, or gods, I’m not sure I’d ever really be able to fool myself.

REM's Michael Stipe; haunting anguish in Losing my religion. Pic: Google images.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I’m Excited, Bert!

There have, over the years, been some almighty, long awaited and/or much anticipated TV moments to grab our attention or build our excitement. I’m not talking about the recent phenomena of Idol and Big Brother, with their contrived processes of public suspense and expectation which, by virtue of nation-wide, relentless exposure, almost bludgeons us into tuning-in; I’m talking more of irresistible, subtle story lines and events which coerce us into wanting to find out what happens next.

I’m remembering Scott and Lennie’s (or Charlene, as it was by then) wedding before Kylie lost the teased hair and puffy, white satin shoulders (Neighbours).

I’m remembering when Molly died after a long-suffering battle with leukaemia (A Country Practice) – we all tuned in for the heart wrenching moment when Brendan, interrupted in his kite flying with Chloe, ran towards the camera as it slowly blacked out.

I’m remembering when an argument between Ron Casey and Normie Rowe over conscription during the Vietnam War turned to punch-throwing fisticuffs on The Midday Show.

I’m remembering when Stuart Diver was found under tonnes of rubble after having survived the Thredbo landslide and sixty-plus hours of near-freezing temperatures.

And for the non-Aussies, I’m remembering Hawkeye’s one and only military salute through the O.R. door window as Radar finally slipped away from the 4077th, and I’m remembering the final curtain call of Cheers, or the big trial of the Seinfeld team, as all the hilarious cameos were paraded across the court room to recite the despicable social misdemeanours of Jerry, George, Elaine and Cosmo.

These things were BIG! There’s no denying, but you will notice that they were all a long, long time ago. It seems the Idol/Big Brother/My Restaurant Rules/The Block style of broadcasting, while being low on production costs, is also a bit light-on for real excitement and the suspense-generating moments we remember of yesteryear.

So after years of TV boredom and dejection, it’s no wonder I am so toey, as we right now are into the final, 12 hour countdown to the most exciting TV event this decade … The Amazing Race, Asia!

That’s right, 10 teams will set off tonight at 11pm, “Asia Time”, in the most innovative twist to this exciting reality TV programme; no dysfunctional yanks this time, with their limited understanding of the world outside, just Asians from across the region, battling it out on their own turf for the big prize.

In the lead-up publicity on the box this week, the executive producer is quoted as saying, “I can’t think of anything bigger in Asia than The Amazing Race, Asia”, which seems an odd comment about a region that has brought you the Taj Mahal, Mt Fuji, 60% of the world’s population and, as Mrs Donkey pointed out, extreme poverty! But I think you get what the guy’s saying, in terms of TV in Asia, this is going to be BIG!

And as Big Kev always says, “I’m excited, Bert!”

The new Phil; Allan Wu hosts The Amazing Race, Asia ... tonight! Pic:

Friday, November 03, 2006

Gee-zus! The irony is friggin’ killing me!

Ever since one of them saw me alighting from an auto-rickshaw one morning out the front of Saving the World HQ with a novel in my hand, I have been the brunt of a big joke amongst my Indian colleagues, who quite rightly assume I must be crazy to attempt to read a book while riding in an auto-rickshaw!

Admittedly, you’d have to be just a little intellectually unsettled, or perhaps just fatalistic to attempt to concentrate on the written word while riding in one of these death-traps. Aside from the mental distraction of all the horns from the motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses blaring inches away from your ears and the high-pitched squeal of the rickshaw’s 2-stroke engine rumbling under your arse (although in Donkey’s case, the engine noise is pretty effectively muffled!), there’s also the very real physical danger to life and limb from the constant speeding-up and sudden breaking as the driver tries to squeeze his mobile tin-can between rows of stationary traffic, or the death-defying changes in direction as he attempts to manoeuvre (at high speed, I might add) around stationary cows which stand, bemused and unwavering in the middle of Delhi’s busiest roads. All of these things, if you’re not paying attention and hanging on tightly, threaten to dump you on the bitumen in front of an on-coming bus, and if that doesn’t kill you, there’s also some pretty stiff competition from the car and bus fumes and the polluted Delhi skyline, all vying for your mortality.

So my colleagues laugh at me and think it’s all a bit strange, but also hold me a little in awe due to my rickshaw-reading, which I’m obviously quite chuffed about ‘cause I’m up myself and think I’m incredibly high-brow and intellectual. And even though I only get about three pages read on a twenty minute journey due to all of these distractions and the fact that the pages are obscured half the time by my life flashing before my eyes, I still keep up the pretence of reading a book because it’s something to concentrate on instead of the guilt inflicted upon me by my Catholic up-bringing, which always seems to surface when I think I’m only moments away from meeting the Big Feller.

Unfortunately for Donkey, with the welcome arrival of winter to Delhi, which has seen the departure of the fetid, boiling summer air, daylight hours are also in short supply. As if it needed to get any harder, the early sunset has made reading on the way home almost impossible, as it relies on a Donkey being able to snatch a few words here and there as he moves from beneath one street light to the next. The other good place to knock-over a paragraph or two is during the tedious minutes spent stationary in bumper-to-bumper traffic; a lengthy feature of any evening journey on the choked arterials of this city. It was here that Donkey nearly died this evening, not from noise, traffic, pain or pollution, but from a near-lethal dose of irony dealt by Delhi’s often less-than-charitable citizens.

Tonight I was reading Gita Mehta’s Snakes and Ladders, a collection of short essays and editorials about, so the cover indicates, “modern India”. Unfortunately, Mehta is such a disgruntled, old, lefty whinger, that the stories more often recite tales from the “good old days” of India’s struggle for independence, rather than anything that could be called modern, and tonight, as I sat in the stationary traffic, hanging out the side of the rickshaw so as to read my book in the headlights of the car waiting behind me, I was taking in her reminiscences of the role that reading has played in the building of this nation.

She argues that a commitment to reading books in cities across the country created a massive class of Indian intellectuals who ultimately led the fight against India’s British oppressors, and who later were responsible for setting down all the laws and official processes which have since guided India to prosperity.

She recalls fondly how Indians in the 40s,50s and 60s, unable to access books from the West, and in defiance of importing and censorship laws, set up illegal cooperatives and small businesses as “lending libraries” in the back stalls of markets or in alleys and doorways. She proudly recites the high value that Indians placed on reading; so high, in fact, that they were willing to defy the law and put their liberty in peril, just to feed their passion for reading and owning books.

And just as I was reading about how important books and reading were to the personal and intellectual development of the people of India, the headlights which were illuminating my page went out. I looked around to see why, and quickly learned that the well-to-do driver behind me had turned his lights off for no reason other than that he saw me using his precious light without permission.

I closed my book and sat back in the dark … choking as a long, sharp bone of irony stuck in my throat. Seconds later the traffic lights changed to green, and the headlights on the car behind fired back into action.

The sudden jolt of my accelerating rickshaw dislodged my unwanted pain like some great, clunking, mechanical Heimlich manoeuvre, and after a deep breath of exhaust-tainted air, I was on my way again, reading a line here and a line there as the streetlights waxed and waned.

Just so's you know that Donkey speaks true, I was up to page 169 when the lights went out. Pic: