This is a very fine book. Bendiner was not a famous pilot like Guy Gibson (Enemy Coast Ahead) — he was a navigator who managed to complete a tour of 25 operations over occupied Europe in B-17 Fly Fortresses that steadfastly continued to attack during daylight hours, and suffered horrendous losses as a result. When 10% per mission was considered an acceptable loss rate, not many can have made it through 25.
But what makes the memoir interesting is not Bendiner’s achievements — not that they are negligible — but the honesty and insight that he brings. The book was published 35 years after the war ended, and that critical distance allows Bendiner to be autobiographer and biographer at the same time, something made possible I suspect by the intensity and otherness of war. There is a point in the book, near the end, when he has finished his tour but not yet been allowed to leave the aerodrome:
How stupid, how cruel to let me stay alive and safe among those who are still hostages to death. No surgeon would leave an amputated limb near the living patient.
This captures his ability to look upon the events from inside and outside at the same time, and to come up with a striking metaphor to capture it. Few war memoirs are as notable for the prose as this one, though it is worn lightly.
A few examples:
The cottage had a fine, dishevelled look, like a girl fresh from tumbling about in the hay.
I cannot take seriously those who adopt the pose of the disenchanted without having experienced the prerequisite enchantment.
It could be J. G. Ballard:
The earth was no longer tilled land. The cities were empty and staring. One imagined a world of grotesque fungi. The only signs of animation appeared in the yellow flicker of burning B-17s.
Or, speaking about a General after a raid that cost many men and machines:
He was in the position of a man who does not know precisely what he has bought but is certain that it was very expensive.
On keeping notes while flying:
I would have noted by heart’s blood dripped to the floor — the time, place, altitude.
Or, showing how we get the inside and the outside at once, he talks about watching a formation of planes heading out on a mission:
I exulted in that parade. I confess this is an act of treason against the intellect, because I have seen dead men washed out of their turrets with a hose. But if one wants an intellectual view of war one must ask someone who has not seen it.
And a little bon mot, yet hardly free of irony:
Navigators must exude self-confidence or abdicate.
I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is written with the wit and artistry of a top-line novelist, tackles some of the greatest topics in art, literature and life — war, death, life — and is a page-turner as much as any thriller.
It is interesting to compare it to one of the most famous war memoirs ever written, <i>If this is a man</i> by Primo Levi. Both authors are Jewish, and Bendiner reflects on his war and the experiences of the prisoners in Dachau, and shakes his head and knows that what he saw tells him nothing about that — but the similarities run deeper than happenstances of religion. Both books combine intellect and artistry to deal with the unexplainable. They show how human beings somehow survive, and how important it is that they fool themselves.
Bediner picked a poppy before every mission. He knew it was pointless, but he also knew that without it he was doomed.
Are The Bluetones a great band? I think so, but that might a a minority opinion. Did they put out some great music? Definitely. It helps if you have an ear for irony and the love of a jangly tune. I got hold of a copy of A Rough Outline, their singles and B-sides as of about 2003. They’ve done some good stuff since, but this is a great collection, and not rendered redundant by owning the albums. The 3cd set is the winner — I would not want to be without “Persuasion” or “The Bluetones Big Score”, though not everything on that disc is gold.
You’d expect a mix of B-sides and singles to be pretty diverse, and it is, from spoken word to instrumental to electronic noise.
I’m not going to review, I’m going to let the songs speak for themselves by picking a line or two from each (at least, from the ones written by the band).
Disc 1: The Singles
“Are You Blue or Are You Blind?” – 2:56
Smile again for me
As if you’re going to say
Nothing could have done all this
Then gone away
“Bluetonic” – 4:05
When I am sad and weary
When all my hope is gone
I walk around my house and think of you with nothing on
“Slight Return” – 3:21
You don’t have to have the solution, you’ve got to invest in the problem.
And don’t go hoping for a miracle.
“Cut Some Rug” – 4:36
Seems like you’re always a million miles away
As far as I’m concerned that’s where you can stay
“Castle Rock” – 3:09
I’m lying in your arms
I’m lying to your face
“Marblehead Johnson” – 3:22
Tonight we’re not gonna solve anything.
“Solomon Bites the Worm” – 3:08
Pack up your troubles now take
All you can carry
“If…” – 5:08
It’s all that I can do to sing these stupid songs to you.
I give up half my time just trying to think of words that rhyme.
“Sleazy Bed Track” – 4:37
Your pills have cost too much.
And you can’t feel them working any more.
So pour them all right down the sink.
“4-Day Weekend” – 3:57
Lets forget about the questions
We’ve been dragging ’round for years
Clear this smoky air between us
And shed no tears
“Keep the Home Fires Burning” – 3:30
That man who would save us,
From the hurt the world brings,
Neglected to mention,
Who would save us from him
“Autophilia (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Car)” – 5:02
She comes in 16 colours,
She’ll suck your money dry,
Gives shitty mileage,
But come on lets get inside.
“Mudslide” – 4:23
How’m I gunna get my white shirt clean?
“After Hours” – 3:34
Lord only knows what kind of poison I’m drinking
I can’t read the label
So I’ll just dance off my cares like Fred Astaire
Up here on the table
“Fast Boy” – 2:59
I’m a fast boy
I’m on the guest list
I’ve got a gram of joy
Wrapped in a clenched fist
“Liquid Lips” – 3:05
Maybe your kind of face just ain’t in season
“Never Going Nowhere” – 4:14
I keep my thoughts in little boxes
Disc 2: The B-Sides
“String Along” – 3:56
I forgo my pride
“Colorado Beetle” – 3:59
I shan’t close my eyes tonight,
I’m gonna look at you instead,
And when at last you sleep my love,
I’m gonna smash your lying head.
“Nae Hair On’t” – 2:47
It doesn’t get any better, alone.
“The Devil Behind My Smile” – 3:02
You think that everything’s all right,
I think you might be wrong,
“Nifkin’s Bridge” – 5:16
Where is the child that was to teach us how to fly?
“The Simple Things” – 4:20
Thought that time was a healer,
But now you feel the days starting to ache
“I Was a Teenage Jesus” – 3:15
I knew a teenage Jesus,
I bought into the dream,
He had the coolest sandals,
That I have ever seen,
“I Walked All Night” – 2:21 (Hargus “Pig” Robbins)
“Blue Shadows” – 2:38 (Randy Newman)
“Blue” – 3:00 (Rain Parade)
“Pretty Ballerina” – 2:52 (The Left Banke)
“Armageddon (Outta Here)” – 3:36
Student 2: You don’t need fake ID, you look about thirty.
Student 3: Exactly. This gets me child fare on the buses.
“The Favourite Son” – 3:18
The days of our lives are but leaves in the wind,
Collected and binned
“Be Careful What You Dream” – 3:11
Some wounds don’t heal,
They’re designed to let you know,
That you must be careful what you dream.
“Vostok of Love” – 3:19
With just an elegant flick of her wrist,
I was made to realise that I could never exist,
She brushed me aside and tapped off her ash,
And my life went up like the head of a match.
“Zero Tolerance” – 3:48
I realised that the people I’d known all my life,
My family and friends, were all just like strange little islands.
“Keep the Home Fires Burning” [U.S. version] – 3:19
And those home fires burn,
Scorching a hole through me,
And I am welcome no more.
“Fock Da Brain Hole” – 3:01
This ain’t no east side,
This ain’t the west side,
This ain’t the south side,
Where the fuck are we?
“Groovy Roussos” – 3:08
Remember your words they’re tattooed in my brain,
You said never apologise, never explain,
And so who’s sorry now, who’s sorry now.
“Reverse Cow Girl” – 3:42 (Instrumental)
“Suffer in Silence” – 2:35
Every night I retire to the same chair,
By a phone that’s attached to the wall,
And I hope that no one will call,
“Pram Face” – 3:14
I offered my heart to the pram faced girl
Disc 3: More B-Sides (Limited Edition release only)
I’ve said goodbye so many times,
It’s as easy as breathing
“Glad To See Y’Back Again?”
I’ve said too much,
But I’ve far to much to say,
“Don’t Stand Me Down”
I know all about magic baby, you see I taught myself,
And I’ve got tonnes of the stuff on my bedroom shelf,
And that’s the end of this transmission,
“The Ballad of Muldoon”
Play the game, co-operate,
When it suits your mood
“Mr. Soul” (Buffalo Springfield)
“Please Stop Talking”
There’s so much to admire about you,
I like you as a friend or a pet,
But each time that you open your mouth,
It spoils the whole effect.
“Thought You’d Be Taller”
Never meet your heroes, they’ll always let you down,
They’re just as shallow as you or me,
Or worse than that, they’re clowns,
“It’s a Boy”
I really do hope that it’s a girl,
But a little knob would really do the job,
“Soup du Jour”
And in good time you may find that in this song I got it wrong.
“Mudslide” (Shandy Weather version)
There’s a mudslide,
A mile wide brown tide a bona-fide mudslide,
And what’s the odds that you’re enjoying one right now?
From the comfort of your favourite easy couch.
“Sail On Sailor” (The Beach Boys)
“Woman in Love” (Barbra Streisand)
“Move Closer” (Phyllis Nelson)
“Beat on the Brat” (Ramones)
Everyone get down like the chief of the funk train leaving and jump.
With a little persuasion, with a little finesse,
I’ll comply with any lie you’re happy to express.
“Freeze Dried Pop (Dumb it Up)”
We don’t want Mozart or that old Ludwig Van,
Give us freeze dried pop in a can,
“The Bluetones Big Score”
Was that a bird call or was it a signal?
“That’s Life” (Frank Sinatra)
How to deal with empty pages, when the urge, obligation or need to create is strong but the creation itself remains formless and elusive? How to find a way in? It is a stereotypical scene; Jack Nicholson in front of his typewriter, Billy Crystal and ‘the night was moist‘; Snoopy and ‘it was a dark and stormy night.’ Samuel Beckett made a whole career out of this and related issues:
The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
(Quoted from here.)
Classic techniques to get started include cut-ups, pulling random words from a random volume and seeking connections, bashing at the typewriter until something comes (typing nonsense until form emerges or the writer keels over), even as a last resort going away and actually learning something. Constraints are a great place to start.
While I do not write a lot, and have published nothing major, I can say this much: Nothing works all the time. Sometimes stories do begin with a stream of nonsense from which a phrase emerges. Sometimes the phrase or idea comes without the nonsense, and I scribble it down (or type it into my second brain). But above all else it is a habit.
Now, I publish scrappy drawings on this blog from time to time — I generally try to alternate them with text-based entries like this one. (Indeed, this entry was prompted by my having a drawing I was going to put up and then realising the last post was also a drawing. So I needed some words. So I fell back on writing about trying to get words down.) I am not pretending the drawings are all that funny, but they usually have a joke in them. Where does it come from? Habit. I habitually sit down with a pencil and paper and let my mind turn over ideas and challenge expectations. The last post is an example. The scrap of paper I had had a scrawl on it that one of my kids had done some time ago. I vaguely recalled it was meant to be a hot air balloon. I started thinking about shaped balloons — the sky whale was hard to forget — and it struck me that they are very highly visible. Well, what would a viewer not want to see in the sky, and what would make a reasonable shape for a balloon? A bit more daydreaming and there it was. I sketched it out in a few minutes — it is clear my drawings don’t take very long, I think you’ll agree. The original image looked like this:
So you can see I am very choosy about my materials. The paper was crumpled, pink, and already used. The orange splodge I don’t know anything about. I scanned it in, used imagej to make it monochrome, then kolourpaint to clean it up and, since the writing is so bad, type the words in.
I would never use such a slap-dash approach if I was producing work to submit to a proper magazine. But the relaxed atmosphere of just getting something to bung up onto a blog means I can still get ‘something’ out, and now and again I put together something I think worthy of higher honours. And then I post it here anyway.
As different views of a common terrain, the Israeli and Palestinian maps signify not only different cultural perceptions of the region but the bitter polarization of mortal enemies. By creating new settlements and constructed features, the Israelis have had a more profound impact than earlier regimes. As Benvenisti observed, “We have done more than create a paper empire. We have actually transformed the physical reality, built cities, drained marshes, made the desert bloom. We not only eradicated Arab place-names, we actually destroyed the places as well.” The Palestinians deeply resent this, of course, and their research institutes in Beirut and refugee camps throughout the region feed the hunger for a restored Palestinian homeland by persistently promoting a pre-1948 map of Palestine that denies the existence of Jewish settlements, boundaries, and place-names. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has hardened to the point where, in Benvenisti’s words, “maps cease being geographical and turn into an act of faith, a call for action, for revenge.” […] The need to rename places is perhaps strongest among people insecure about their territory.
Drawing the Line, by Mark Monmonier.
Before you can read or write stories you must learn spelling and grammar; before you can play a sonata on the piano you must learn scales, harmony, and musical notation; and before you can go into a laboratory and make an intelligent stab at discovering something new, there is a lot of dull, hard work to be done. No one escapes that.
Francis Bitter, Magnets: The Education of a Physicist
How can you teach someone to tell a story? Paula, by telephone, gave me the key, with a heavy dose of irony: tell them to write a bad book, that’s easy, anyone can do it. And that’s what we did. Each of the students set aside his or her secret dream of producing the Great American Novel and enthusiastically and fearlessly waded into the writing. Along the way, we adjusted, corrected, cut, and polished and, after many discussions and much laughter, out came their opuses, one of which was published with much ballyhoo by a major New York firm. Since then, any time I fall into a period of doubt, i tell myself I am going to write a bad book, and the panic passes.
Isabel Allende Paula.