Wounded Soldiers

self portrait of a wounded soldier

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.


Front-line 2011

Here in the UK the news is that the news is about what happened 30 years ago. Government papers from 1981 have been released and we can see all the secret memos between ministers and know all the things we did not know at the time. 1981 was the year of the riots as all the major cities were swept by mob violence. In London huge fires burned that were clearly visible from Westminster. Mobs looted shops and houses. The Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher. Police constable L368 was an unknown poet called Oscar Sparrow, stationed at Brixton. One of the main bus routes was and is Railton Road. It was called locally “The Front-line” to denote it was a social frontier. It was never dull. In the picture above the poet is the second cop about to walk into a lamp post if he doesn’t pay attention. I never put on that uniform without feeling that I was in fancy dress.

I have several observations about civil disorder and rioting. It is exciting and terrifying in equal measure for both the good and bad guys. Everyone thinks they are the good guy. Despite all appearances, most people are just helplessly stuck in the middle. Nearly all these folk are poor and have very little themselves. After a while everyone wants it to stop. Then it stops and people turn up at the police station to say they found a wallet or lost their dog. It is not for unknown poets to pontificate on the politics or the social dynamics of inequality, race, unemployment and urban alienation. I could, but it would add nothing to all that has been said since and doubtless will be recycled when, inevitably, it will all re-run for a newer generation. If I were a modern day cop I would almost anticipate a mob throwing iPads, being filmed by officers with smart phones. Alternatively both sides would turn up with such an array of filming equipment to capture one another’s brutality that nothing would happen, except maybe a few aggressive zoom sequences.

I know I should not appear flippant about such serious affairs because people do awful things. There are rapes, murders, ghastly woundings and arson. I was far less of a revolutionary once I had sampled just a little of its flavour. A mob running wild is awesome, but if the batteries on the remote are low, manual control is bruising. The best rampaging mobs are on TV. Petrol bombs burn you. Large fellows with swords can make one very aware of one’s sphincter. 2012 approaches and one can sense certain straws in the wind. We never learn you know………

I was a cop because it was a job that I thought would give me stuff to write about. I loved Brixton and South London. It was a cacophony and a choir, a rhythm and a rag-bag. It was a fist in the face and a handshake. I wrote a poem at that time and it is in my collection “I Threw A Stone”

You can hear it here and read it below:

Frontline ’81

Red London buses
blood corpuscle bustle
past a drinking club
which is a terraced house
with fifty men,
one hundred whites of eyes inside.

Drinkers piss al fresco unperturbed
on pavements trod with butts of blow.
Dead cans of Red Stripe
barber pole along the dismal gutter.
Ragged Bee- Em- Dub-Yews cruise,
boozed bleached whore-cats
pussy sway to reggae beat
subliminal in chest and throat.

On a corner an ambulance.
White cop say
“How d’ it start?”
Black girl say
“Wid slave-ree”.

In the alley a trembling bitch
fucks a pack of sperm rage dogs.
A circling runt denied, accepts.
Sirens down the Brixton Road
announce aloud a further haemorrhage.

By Oscar Sparrow