Monday, February 11, 2008

All very rum. I always thought Zadie Smith bore an uncanny resemblance to Thatcher myself (it's the eyes, innit) but that haughty, schoolmarmish tone really does confirm it. Shudder! Admittedly I did rush my story off so not even getting a sniff at the abortive shortlist is doubtless understandable, but how bad can they all have been given that the previous year's winners weren't exactly of the exalted standards that an artist of Zadie’s stature would seem to require before doling out a few grand of someone else's cash? Ahh, what integrity!

Anyway, the story I entered is below. According to the judges at the Willesden Herald it isn't even mediocre, but given that there was no winner or even a short list of "best" stories it's hard to know what a good story looks like (always informative.)
Right..... I'm off to have a crisis of confidence......
In Sana’a

McDiamond takes a Lucky Strike out the pack, flicks his Zippo open with a switch of his wrist. The flame flares, a blue and purple pyramid dancing inside its little perforated cage. He scrutinises it for a moment then inclines toward it, cigarette precisely angled. Thick, black hair parted in the middle, blue eyes cracked and humming with glacial intelligence, cheeks and throat sandpapery with a dense, two-day stubble.
“Some say the world will end in fire,” he says

McDiamond holds the lighter out to Pinder, who cranes into it, slightly bent Benson and Hedges curving up into the flattened gas jet, a corona of yellow splutter battered by the fan’s downdraft. Pinder inhales, coughs, soothes himself with a sip of the whisky. Raises his Buchanan’s on the rocks so McDiamond can appraise it. Tinkles the cubes in the glass. His long nose and lowered spectacles make him look like a disapproving old schoolmaster. Which in a way, he is.
“Some say the world will end in ice,” Pinder replies.
McDiamond laughs.

“So,” McDaimond asks. “What’s your angle on all this, the latest phase in the United States’ Army’s Permanent Engagement Program?”

“I’m sure you know very well what it is,” Pinder says. “ The triumph of aggression over diplomacy, of imperialism over popular…”

“Ok, ok.” McDiamond waves his hand around and pulls a pained face. “With all respect Mike, if you’re going to try telling me that this place, that the Yemen is going to be worse off under American patronage, worse with the however-inadequate government it has now shored up by the US Army than it will be under some tribal, Islamist coalition of… Had you even been here before the British media shipped you over? I had. Have you even been outside Sana’a? Trust me. This place is stone-age.”

Pinder pushes his glasses up his nose and regards McDiamond frankly. He declines to mention that he’s been here several times over the past forty years, starting back with the 1962 coup and the Civil war. He is certain that in McDiamond’s extensive study of the region he will have heard the phrase famously used to describe Sadat’s disastrous involvement in the conflict: “Egypt’s Vietnam”. Clearly, however, he is unaware of its provenance.

“And soon it’s going to be a U.S. style democracy, is it?” Pinder asks. “Another country going from prehistoric to post-industrial in one gigantic, Shock and Awe propelled effort?”

“Well, you know, for one, I’ve never proposed democracy for any of these countries. Democracy?” He waves his cigarette hand around, loose grey loops thinning in the air.

“I’m not one of those Western-Style-Democracy cheerleaders. The democratic moment, shall we say, at least in my assessment, has passed. It was a historical anomaly, an interregnum rather than any end-point. China, Russia, the Gulf States, the Populist Authoritarian Left in South America. The future is going to look a lot more autocratic and theocratic than the recent past, my friend.”
Pinder isn’t sure he’s quite ready to be referred to as anyone’s friend just yet.
“And you have the ear of the administration, do you?”

McDiamond smiles. “That depends who you think the administration are.” Drags on his Lucky Strike. “You misunderstand me if you think I’m a Neo-Con, Mike. You old, Bi-polar Left guys, have more in common with the Neo-Cons than I do. I’m disappointed, Mike. I thought you read my stuff,” McDiamond says, trying to get a rise out of him.

“Oh, I’ve read it,” Pinder announces distractedly over the bar.

McDiamond swirls the whisky in his glass up into a soft vortex of interleaved golden sheets before he slugs it back, reclines in his chair with a creak of old wood and weathered leather. He looks up at the fan wobbling away above their heads, carving the air into manageable slices. Looks down again at Pinder’s long, narrow back angled against the bar’s solid mahogany, eyes the sweat stain on his shirt, arrowing down from the collar between the fanned shoulder blades.

McDiamond’s a little loaded now. Drunk and tired, having jumped a commercial flight from Baghdad two days early and ended up talking to some high-level Baathist ex-military heading over to shore up the Yemeni army, instead of getting the few hours of shut-eye he needed. Coming off a grueling five-week stint embedded with the First Battalion of the Fifth Regiment as they took back Fallujah, he planned a few days downtime in Sana’a Sheraton, getting his notes together, maybe starting to draft something before he heads out south for more interviews with the Grunts-on-the-Ground, enjoying the rather-more-than-regulation one litre of whisky his military credentials have allowed him to bring in.

Oh, I’ve read it. Airily dismissive. Well fuck you, buddy.

McDiamond chews at his lower lip. Suddenly, he knows who Pinder reminds him of, with his coronet of thinning white hair, his long face and wide set eyes, his stumpy wings. It’s the Klee painting “Angelus Novus.” He recalls what Benjamin wrote about the angel of history. Maybe he can work that into his latest book, subvert it. Say that it’s History’s angels, the liberals, who produce all the suffering, through their neglect, through moral cowardice dressed up as enlightenment and its the devils, the ones who are really prepared to take on man in all his ugliness, who accept man’s blindness and stupidity who have brought us everything, have managed and ordered the world. Men like McDiamond.

The angel of history, in the painting, isn’t being driven away by the wind but is moving back, fleeing, retreating from the grim, blood and gristle-work of the world in horror, fundamentally uninvolved, outside, ahead of events, always negotiating its way back into some imagined Utopian space. The liberal conscience embodied. Aloof, mystical, refusing to dabble in the real world, in its necessities. Always fleeing from the truth of what history teaches us. That there will always be conflict, that there will always be suffering, that there will always be power, that man is not perfectible.

McDiamond scowls into his glass. That stupid cartoon angel with its jowls and its saucer eyes.

Pinder leans against the bar and savours his cigarette. They seem to have started a little early in the day. Pinder had barely finished the breakfast meeting in which he was told there would be another twenty four hour delay in setting up an interview with the most venerable, newly-Washington friendly President Salih, when McDiamond came lumbering in through the foyer, covered in dust and glittering in the sunlight, looking as though he’d walked all the way from Iraq.

McDiamond recognized him first, of course. The price of being legendary, he likes to say, is that everybody you bump into remembers precisely who you are. And though Pinder does know the face, the manner from somewhere, he can’t pin down precisely where they’ve met before. On some panel, at a book launch, perhaps their paths have crossed in places just like this on the endless trawling through all the trouble spots of the world that they seem to have chosen as their trade.

Pinder has seen them come and go over his, well, forty-five years now, first as a cub reporter, then as a documentary maker and Serious Journalist, crusading journalist, he reminds himself, a relentless, indefatigable champion of the truth against the official version, of the poor and disenfranchised against the vested interests, of the little man against the Corporations.

The whisky is good, very good. They are sitting in the semi-dark at the far end of the Sheraton’s main conference hall like a couple of guilty schoolboys, when really no-one is concerned that they are drinking. There are periodic crackdowns on the hotel bars to make sure they aren’t selling beer to locals but other than that…

Even so the faint sense of doing something illicit is adding to Pinder’s pleasure. He’s always been a whisky man, and he’s always enjoyed breaking the rules. He just hopes that this seeming complicity won’t be strengthening any fraternal bonds between the two of them.

Faint memories of his last conversation with Pinder have been swimming back to him though the precise location in which it all took place remains hazy. Pinder was challenging him a little more directly perhaps than he is now, but then, perhaps they were a little drunker than they are now. The truth, was the issue in question, Pinder recalls, and McDiamond was explaining to him that no-one cares about the truth. “Mike, dig up all the dirt you want, expose all the hypocrisy and double-dealing and corruption you care to, the populace knows it all anyway, it doesn’t care, only Liberals, care, Mike. Only Liberals think telling a lie is the worst crime you can commit, the rest of the world doesn’t give a fuck if its leaders are Bad People, so long as they are effective. And that isn’t always measured by strict truthfulness, Mike.”

“Lies have brought down governments. Journalists pursuing the truth have caused regime change without a single shot being fired. Remember Nixon? The truth matters. The problem is that as a profession, many of us have lost the sense of the integrity of our mission. We stand for the truth or we’re mere propagandists,” Pinder told him.

He remembers McDiamond shrugging, “What I’m saying Mike is that if you have a vision you can’t communicate to the broad mass of the populace at a given time, you need to coax them along a little….”

Ah yes, Pinder remembers. He’s grateful for the American’s whisky if not entirely his company then, and he certainly won’t be dragged into any debates today. He tries to conserve his energy more and more as he gets older. He likes to say that the problem these days, at his age, with Bush in the Whitehouse, is that while he’s gaining in anger he’s loosing out in stamina. And besides, for the last few nights he’s slept badly, even by his standards. He knows that the more mandarin disdain he affects the more the American will try to needle him, that observation about the Authoritarian Left in South America, for instance, but Pinder has always played on certain of his attributes, his height and demeanour, his air of Old Europe authority to get him out of tight spots, to quash arguments. There’s something he’s learned over the years, that a certain expression of Englishness, a certain type of aristocratic imperial entitlement, is so deeply ingrained in the subconscious of the world as an incarnation of unconditional intellectual and moral authority as to render the bearer of it virtually unkillable. But for that he might have been unceremoniously dumped in a shallow grave in some corner of a foreign field long ago. It’s a bi-product of Britain’s shameful legacy of exploitation in the world, Pinder doesn’t doubt, but as a negotiating tool, as a survival strategy, he would be a fool not to exploit it. A dead fool.

So, no matter how much his voluble American colleague may insist on trying to draw him in, or to win him over, or whatever he hopes it is that he’ll achieve, the more Pinder will simply harden the carapace of his adamantine certainty.

Still, at least he’s quiet for the moment, the American. The Quiet American. Pinder smiles into his drink, has another mouthful of whisky, sluices a few slivers of ice around.

It’s damn good. The best part of a bottle smoothly down between them and not even mid-day.
“Hey, let’s you and me go somewhere,” the American suddenly says.

The car pulls out of the Sheraton’s long, curved driveway, through its elaborate wrought iron gates, past the ostentatiously uniformed security guards and begins the long winding descent toward the old town. They are in a regulation BMW 760 IL, tricked out with the four extra ton’s worth of bombproof steel on the undercarriage, armour plating on the doors and bulletproof glass in the windows that the Sheraton provides as standard for visiting dignitaries in the Yemen.

McDiamond runs his hands over the smooth leather upholstery and sucks down the air con. Even at this altitude the heat is punishing but after five weeks embedded, after five weeks of army rations and the most intense firefights he’s ever seen, well, more than ever he appreciates the greatness, dammit, the moral greatness of some precision-tooled luxury.

Pinder fiddles beside him, fastening his seatbelt. The whisky and two crystal tumblers that McDiamond popped into the side pockets of his Army fatigues are sliding gently back and forth on the seat between them, waiting to be filled. Seatbelts? After surviving what he’s survived, and now, sitting in what effectively amounts to the commercial equivalent of a tank, he’s not going to start worrying about a seatbelt. Maybe that’s what’s kept Pinder alive so long. McDiamond remembers the last time they met, Pinder told him pointedly, with a cautionary air, “ I have never grown fond of war. I have never regarded man in peacetime as superficial.”

He glances at Pinder’s profile, the tan scrubland rippling past outside the tinted windows. He guesses that Pinder must have been in his fair share of firefights too, back from what, Korea? Vietnam? through every conflict major and minor in every shit-hole, pre-historic corner of the world since.

He wonders if Pinder ever caught a bullet. McDiamond has heard the stories about Pinder’s legendary sang-froid. He can picture him in his linen suit and rimless glasses strolling blithely through the middle of some Banana-republic shitstorm with the bullets respectfully swerving around him. That saintly thing. Hell. McDiamond starts to mellow out a little. He and Pinder might not be so far apart as Pinder thinks they are, Patrician Liberal and New Imperialist, maybe two different expressions of the same sense of entitlement. But still, he must have caught a bullet sometime. Mc Diamond’s about to ask him but thinks better of it. Too personal. Even if he hasn’t he’ll know plenty who have. Instead he folds down the mini-bar from its housing in the back seat, gets the tumblers up onto it and starts sloshing out two generous measures.

The air conditioning is up full, but even so Pinder is still sweating and his vision has a dark stain at its centre. A normal response to the intense heat and brightness of the hotel forecourt perhaps, but which seems to be persisting. He takes a deep breath and finds it troubling, his chest tight and the seatbelt constrictive. He fixes his eyes directly ahead, on the back of the driver’s seat and rubs his thumb over the fingertips of his left hand. They are tingling slightly, pins and needles, and Pinder can’t tell whether it’s simply the effect of the whisky, so much, so early in the day. Certain sensations, certain oddnesses seem to be standing out as distinct among the general, heavy bleariness that the drink has brought on. He’s certainly tired and rather than allowing himself to be dragged out on whatever mission McDiamond is undertaking he would perhaps have been better off catching up on his sleep. Poor judgment, and his eternal curiosity, his eternal need for leads. He must be coming down with something. Very inconvenient. He could certainly sleep now with the car’s soft swaying around the mountain roads and the gentle hum of the engine.

McDiamond on the other hand is getting his second wind, is psyched by the possibility of introducing Pinder to the CCTV network that has sprung up in Sana’a in the three years since 9/11, both by the extent of the work and the degree of the Yemen government’s co-operation with his own. New friends, new enemies. He has guessed that Pinder is over here doing something on the weapon’s industry, another smear job on the US no doubt, who are busy training up the Yemen army to tackle Al Qaeda and police the Saudi-Yemen border.

“You know, this country has a population of twenty million and approximately eighty, that’s eight-zero, million guns. That’s four for every man, woman and child in the place, and since we can guess that the women aren’t carrying them and that, at least up to age eight or so the kids don’t have them, that means that your average Yemenite, in that all-important, unemployed, poor, illiterate 16-26 demographic, we can safely say that with them we have a generation of seriously angry young men who are armed, almost literally to the teeth. Now that is what I believe we refer to as “ a fertile breeding ground.”

Smiling, he glances across at Pinder, who is nodding drowsily along with everything he says, his glasses so far down his nose they are in danger of falling off.

“So I was supposed to be heading out to the nerve-centre of the whole Counter Insurgency Surveillance Programme here in a day or two but I figure I can bring it forward. We’re talking state of the art. Forget everything you know about Echelon, within two years that has already started to look primitive, steam-driven. We’re talking about a global information gathering and processing network of almost inconceivable reach and Sana’a is the latest city, the latest node to appear on the hub. Anybody makes a call, touches a keyboard, passes a piece of paper, eats, walks, or shits in this city and someone, somewhere, is going to be watching it.” 9/11 has been the motor for so much, huge, exponential leaps in technology, totally new arenas of interplay and interdependence.

“A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example,” Pinder quotes softly, his eyes fixed firmly ahead.

McDiamond passes one of the tumblers of whisky over to Pinder, who doesn’t seem to have noticed it sitting there at his elbow. He takes it without acknowledgment, staring straight ahead, his mouth set dryly.

McDiamond has a lot of respect for Pinder, he’s got balls of steel and he’s a survivor, he’ll give him that, but his whole aloof British shtick is riling him, as is the fact that he can’t quite identify where that last line comes from. He’d ask but he doesn’t want to fuel Pinder’s evident sense of superiority.

He was hoping that the whisky might have fuelled a little more, y’know, esprit de corps, opened Pinder up a little. Don’t get him wrong, no-one has greater respect for the US serviceman and woman than McDiamond. When you’re together, covering each other’s backs in hostile territory, when the chain of command goes down and people have to step into the breach and make decisions that save lives, achieve seemingly impossible objectives at a moment’s notice, something develops there that is extremely heightened, a deeply fraternal spirit. No one has greater admiration for the soldiers on the ground than he does, but after five weeks he wants to get into something a little broader, a little history, a little Geo-politics, something a little more stimulating.

They pass palatial houses set back off the road behind high walls and barbed wire as they enter the old town. “Mujahideen,” Mcdiamond says. He ran with the Muj twenty years ago in Afghanistan, but it wasn’t the same as being embedded now, more difficult to connect and relate, get the sense of a shared mission. “The government buys them off with land and honoury positions in order to keep them from starting trouble.” He glances from one side of the road to the other taking them in, drains the last few drops out of his tumbler and looks for the bottle. It’s more or less empty. McDiamond wrings out the last few golden drops into his glass. Buchanan’s. Absolutely the best. Absolutely.

He’s arranged to meet his contact in the heart of Sana’a’s old town, then they can head over to the New Town together to check everything out. McDiamond has always liked Sana’a’s old town, the rolling, red earth walls with their round towers, the glittering, sand-pale towerhouses, the arched balconies and intricate stained-glass windows.

The driver presents the appropriate permit at the barrier and the BMW cruises into the main square, parks up at the pre-arranged spot. Instinctively, maybe a little incautiously given the number of kidnappings there have been round these parts over the past few years, Mc Diamond gets out of the car, feels the mid-day heat hit him, sways a little drunkenly under its impact, blinks in the sunlight, momentarily blinded. He needs his sunglasses, he pivots on his heels and ducks back into the car to get them.

Pinder is folded into himself, head lolling to one side, glasses fallen from his face, whisky glass empty in his lap, his trousers dark with spilled liquor, only the seat belt holding him up.

Mc Diamond’s hand goes to Pinder’s throat to check for a pulse. Fuck! When did that happen? When did THAT happen?

He runs his fingers through his thick, black hair and takes a few steps away from the car. Unbelievable. His mouth open, his eyes wide, his hands up at shoulder height. McDiamond, framed there in the window against Sana’a’s ancient walls, walls the colour of dried blood, moving backwards as though driven by the wind from the future, incomprehension and fear on his face. He would like to take something broken and make it whole again.

Angelus Novus, with only Pinder’s dead eyes there now to know him.

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