Who do you truly know? It would be no good starting with the self would it? So many motivations are buried. Many times in my life others have had more insight into me than I have had. Bank managers, teachers and literary agents have formed a faithful triumvirate of judgement. All the same I’ve been broadly undamaged by my life. We know often enough that this is not the case with everyone. The damaged individual can change the course of history with some awful spectacle or simply self destruct from self loathing, fear and confusion. It is not my place to reflect upon current affairs. However, uniforms can create a notion of certainty and predictability. The truth is that you just never know the inner workings of an individual, a friend or close colleague. Exposure to extreme events, horror and fear will have effects. Many know far more of this than me. Quite often the mentally wounded soldiers (be they office clerk or Rambo) will hide their suffering in macho bravado. Whether it is a concern that we fail to detect so many or a small triumph that there are so few I do not know. My highly personal guess is that our modern grasping life with lack of time for loving kids will fuel sufferings for many years to come.
I do not come from any special place on this. I was a South London cop and worked in the coroner’s department. I attended the suicides and the murders. I talked casually to child sex offenders as if comparing shopping lists. I was in fights and riots and I lost nothing but half a tooth and my sense of moral outrage. I drank beer and wrote poems – although in the macho culture I kept quite about the poetry. Not everyone was so lucky. I’m not sure what a genius is but during that epoch I think I may have known one. He died quite recently amongst the wreckage of his life. This is what happened.
He was a young guy – sensitive, well educated and kind. As a student he had developed a bit of a drink issue. Nothing in his life had prepared him for constant hostility and a strange kind of feeling which is halfway between fear and excitement. Everyone wanted to be in the action, the hero cop…..well that’s what everyone said. It’s like bungee jumping. You can do a few jumps and then one day it goes cold and you see risk and the humiliation of not being able to jump. You know something has changed inside but bungee jumping is within your control – you stop doing it. Half way through a shift on a patrol car you may already have been tested – perhaps some incident had not gone well and you feel a bit low.
Then comes a call – serious disturbance in the street, shops being looted etc. He arrives with a colleague and a petrol bomb hits the car. A mob starts to overturn the vehicle and he flees with rioters gouging and pulling at his face, trying to push their fingers into his eyes. The heat from the burning car pushes back the mob and he ran. In his heart he never stops running – not until the end of his life. In the burning car his colleague kicks out the windscreen and runs just as hard. There were not too many choices. By bed time the other guy was over it. The guilt driven soldier added another deep cut to his list and went home to pour some more lonely vodka into his wound.
The guy I am talking about was the funniest man I’ve known. He had a dry cynicism which he delivered with immense compassion. He knew people made mistakes. He had a totally surreal vision of the possible. He wrote poems and did paintings. He kept a python in his room at a police lodging house. Eventually, the authorities turned their back on him and threw him out. His life staggered along via broken relationships, vagrancy and alcoholism. I met him again in the last couple of years of his short life. He had a big project to open people’s lives to the notion of possibility. He built little doors to fit into the roots of trees so that a passer-by might smile, believe in fairies or mentally open that door into imagination.
Wounded soldiers come in many shapes and sizes.