The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Dreams. How we live in them. How they make the days of keeping appointments and spending time in the company of people who say things we've heard in just those same words a thousand times...just a little more bearable. Without them, what an utter desolation of predictability and frustration. Even for the best of us. Even for the most unstructured of us, the freest of us. Dreams. Without them, the suicide statistics would be catastrophic.
The key word here is desolation: without solace. From The Harlan Ellison Hornbook.
If England were what England seems
An' not the England of our dreams
But only putty, brass an' paint
'Ow quick we'd drop 'er. But she ain't.
Kipling, from 'The Return'.


It's been quite something to return to reading the Hornbook after a gap of fifteen years or more. It's verbose in places and dated in many others, but much or most of it remains forceful and invigorating and encouraging and just plain entertaining.

The Kipling lines come from my mother's copy of Other Men's Flowers by Lord Wavell (still in print from Pimlico). The plate inside the cover states that it is a prize for Lower 6th English, and is signed by the headmaster, F. Spencer Chapman, a genuine WWII hero whose The Jungle is Neutral is a classic account of guerilla warfare (republished in 2006 by Birlinn).

Incredibly, what appears to be the original Time magazine review from 1949 is available online; the last paragraph reads:
The Jungle Is Neutral is packed to the boards with incredible adventure and impressive evidence of human fortitude, but it is written without a note of excitement, understated to the point of monotone. For that reason, and by the simplicity of its statement, it makes most first-person war books seem almost shrill.
Though I haven't read The Jungle is Neutral, this description tallies with my reading of Eastern Approaches, which is weirdly unaffecting despite everything which takes place in it. You know: holed up in the Sahara after a disastrous night raid, half the men lost or killed or injured, water low, ammunition low, random aerial bombardment from the Germans, who know they're out there somehere: "Our position...left much to be desired."

I mentioned this to a friend in the Army, and he more or less shrugged his shoulders and said, of course. How do you communicate the uncommunicable to those who weren't there?

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