Laps of Honour
Pipe of Peace
The Grace of God
Can't Help it
CAN’T HELP IT
(from The Trivia Chronicle)
Today I met Alph and his weepy wife, distressed as usual. This time dog disasters had been replaced by great American shame at marines torturing Iraqi civilians. The photographs taken by the soldiers and passed around as trophies suggest to me that the Pentagon forgot to issue the young men with ready women. It wasn’t a problem in Vietnam. Or Gabon, where the army rounds up the prostitutes in Libreville for the use of the troops. They probably kill more men than their warring neighbours from the Congo or Cameroon.
Still, the mercury lining is that the only known cases of HIV infection developing natural resistance is amongst the Gabon sex-recruits. I don’t see them as black Dietrichs in evening gowns clutching their high heels in their hands as they follow their Gary Coopers into the desert (Morocco ,1936), but as caravans of migrant workers from an African remake of Jean Renoir’s Toni (1936). Though I suppose it must be jungle in Gabon (I must ask Welsh - he knows about West Africa, I’m sure).
My old friend Colonel Lucy’s Second World War was in Belfast where he commanded the regular testing of camp followers for syphilis and gave the boys the results. The test used was the Wasserman, which August Von had developed from a liver extract of a fetus with congenital pox. A church group in Ulster got the wind of this and protested that the campaign was immoral. Babies had been aborted in Vienna to produce the antibodies. ‘Catholic babies too’, said Lucy, and it did the trick. The protesters lost interest, being Protestants.
Lucy had run away to the First World War with his underage brother, who got killed in the first week of action. He wrote a good book called There is a Devil in a Drum, and lived his life under the shadow of the lie he told the recruiting sergeant. He told me he died many times on behalf of his brother. When I said, ‘Your brother only died once’, his reply was military. ‘Once was enough.’
On retirement Lucy became a town councilor and his investigation of dirty linen in the palatial red-bricked building on the Lee Road, called The Looney Bin, led to some improvements in the life of mad people, many of whom had been committed to avoid a court case because of a minor sexual offence, and left to rot. I played cards with some harmless cases on a Saturday afternoon when the Lucy reforms permitted visitors. We were there, grace of the Legion of Mary, a Trojan horse for politically inclined students. The patients were remarkably sane and the staff even allowed them out on their own sometimes. They came and they went but never tried to run away, because they knew no other life.
One Saturday afternoon, as I was being accompanied out, I saw a boy with a monstrous head in a darkened side room. (When I saw La Strada in 1969 at the Hampstead Everyman cinema, I felt Fellini had stolen my experience and made it beautiful.) ‘Why dark?’ I said. The orderly replied that it was to protect the eyes. Nothing is simple. In 1922 my father had to shoot deserters in Limerick when his unit was under fire. Silly boys given guns and uniforms, but really wanting to be with their friends. War dehumanises. My father was a kind man, and did the shootings himself to spare his men.