Swans Commentary » swans.com August 24, 2009  



Counting The Dead In London


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - August 24, 2009)   London has shamed New York by unveiling a memorial to the victims of the July 7, 2005, bombings. On the western shore of the Atlantic they were still in stalemate over how to commemorate the deaths of September 11, 2001. The office towers, even with taxpayers being tapped, have lost their sheen for the real estate moguls. Thanks to the recession, they already have a glut of office space on their hands.

Anyone with the gumption to suggest they drop the whole Pharaonic mix of sentiment and wheeler-dealing should point to the northeast corner of London's Hyde Park. Fifty-two steel pillars stand eleven feet high, one for each victim. Their matt surfaces show minute variations. They are in four clusters, marking the locations of the bombs exploded at three Underground stations and on a number 30 double-decker bus. Visitors can walk around and between the slender pillars. From across the park they appear to be a single piece of sculpture that has settled without fuss on the grass. A steel plaque nearby bears the names of the dead in raised letters.

Would a similar sobriety and human scale (at a cost of merely one million pounds) be out of place at Ground Zero? Of course "almost" three thousand dead outweigh fifty-two in the arithmetic of violence. But fifty-eight thousand dead are honored on Maya Ying Lin's Washington D.C. Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, and it keeps within the bounds of dignity, eschewing flamboyance and any connection to the office rental market.

The British have also recently had to face up to another body count. A sudden spurt in the deaths of servicemen in Afghanistan -- now surpassing the number killed in Iraq -- brought into the open opposition to the war. No more than the invasion of Iraq did the Afghan adventure ever have a strong popular appeal. With the falling to pieces of the Labour Party, the first dulling of the Obama sparkle, and the shrinking of the economy, more doubts are being aired. Critics call the British involvement in Afghanistan mistaken from the outset with aims never properly defined. A country in recession can't afford a war that, in any case, is unwinnable. As always, with troops engaged, criticism is couched in "caring" patriotic language. But the crux is that the generals want more men in the field while the Brown government, for financial and political reasons, wants to reduce the number already committed.

The government is still laboring under foreign policy decisions taken to cozy up to the Bush administration. It continues to insist that if Britain left Afghanistan, that country would send terrorists to the UK. But each repetition of this fantasy comes with less conviction and is met with more derision. Everyone knows that the deaths recalled by the Hyde Park pillars were the work of young British Muslims angered by the occupation of Muslim lands by outsiders.

Confirmation now comes from surprising quarters. Stella Rimington headed M15 (British Intelligence) from 1992 to 1996. She already told us (Guardian, Nov. 10, 2008) that the US response to the 9/11 crimes was a "huge overreaction." For her, the al Qaeda strike was only "another terrorist incident." She scoffed at "war on terror" hoopla from the first. Tony Blair's denial that the invasion of Iraq radicalized some Muslim youth in Britain struck her as patently false. According to Rimington, Britain's security and intelligence establishment privately opposed not only the invasion of Iraq but so-called extraordinary rendition and the practices of Guantánamo.

Another former director general of M15, Eliza Manningham Buller, who served from 2002 to 2007, has now added her comments. (Guardian, July 11, 2009). She was flown to Washington on September 12, 2001, and heard the British Ambassador being assured by the CIA that there would be no attack on Iraq. Manningham Buller along with the rest of British Intelligence -- even those concocting the discredited dossier on Iraq's WMDs -- insisted that Saddam Hussein presented no danger to the UK, but that an invasion of Iraq would cause grave security risks at home.

And of course it did, as the Hyde Park steel pillars now remind us. The 7/7 bombings, moreover, produced the same public suspicion of the Muslim community in Britain as 9/11 did toward American Muslims. There were differences due to the make-up and conditions of the Muslim populations in each country. But on both sides of the Atlantic the hostility was palpable.

Writers, who are forever going stale, delighted in the new material. 9/11 writing would be about flying debris, figures hurtling from upper stories, and "I-was-actually-there" accounts. Literary big guns, like Don DeLillo and Safran Foer, added tone, finish, and a hint of metaphysics to the familiar "Oh-my-God!" story. Established brand names applied their signature treatment to the situation. John Updike's terrorist would have an anti-sex kink. We could see what was coming: A thousand novels where the mere mention of September 2001 would supply instant gravitas and unleash a deluge of reflections on life, death, and getting another divorce.

British writers had been warming up on 9/11 and didn't waste a beat before pouncing on 7/7. The career of Martin Amis was on a slide that a censuring of Stalin -- in 2002! -- failed to stop. He dug in his heels and grabbed at Islam, the new bugaboo. In 2006 he suggested that British Muslims all be punished by forbidding them travel or -- on second thought -- sending them "home" or, anyway, somewhere else, faraway. The novelist Ian McEwan quickly lined up with Amis trumpeting like Winston Churchill: "I despise militant Islam."

In this down draft of British hot air, a provocation was called for. Playwright Simon Stephens prepared it in 2005. (*) Stephens, at forty, with plays produced at the National Theatre, had acquired some heft in the London theatre. The nation, though, was in no hurry to be provoked and preferred shivering with fear over the comic-strip figures proposed by the likes of McEwan and Amis. (The latter, by the way, has now moved on to settle Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hash.)

Stephens's take on the events of 7/7, not to mention his title, Pornography, frightened the theatrical establishment at home. The play was first staged abroad in German translation at Hanover and Hamburg in 2007. Only in 2008 did the Traverse Theatre of Edinburgh and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre put on Pornography in Britain.

If the play shocks, however, it's not by sexual acrobatics, of which there are none, but by Stephens's conviction that we are living in pornographic times. He contends that, just as in mercenary sex, our actions suffer from a poverty of felt context. Our pleasure-bent individualism, fired by technology and a lust for "things," has destroyed our intimate connection to others. We can only conceive of them as empty abstractions like those interlaced zombies who mime human love on our screens.

Pornography unfolds during the three days preceding the July 7, 2005, bombings. In the news just then was the huge Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, the G8 meeting in Scotland, and the decision taken in Tokyo to award London the Olympic Games of 2012. The play makes no attempt to represent these events that enter the characters' minds obliquely as passing references. But, then, neither does the play depict the bombings. It only leads us to them.

Stephens traces the origin of the crimes back to the way we all live. It's the life of a "pornographic" society, in his own peculiar use of the word. He has the audacity to affirm that the bombers were as much a part of that society as the bombed. The criminals simply possessed a larger portion of the violence that, like a systematic flaw, runs through the population as a whole.

Each character or pair of characters has a scene in which to reveal what's going on in their lives. Stephens is a dramatist of character-probing and juxtaposition rather than an inventor of actions with a beginning, middle, and end. (His note, however, that the scenes can be performed in any order raises doubts. Surely each change in the order of performance would change the strength and nature of the play's impact.)

One young woman clings to her infant son as if he's her own body part. Her husband is a stranger. At work she sabotages her boss's key project by selling information to a competitor. Her violence is to morality; she inhabits a space with no ethical dimension.

Jason, a teenager, bullied by a local gang, son of a wife beater, takes his first step toward adulthood as a sadistic stalker. His head swims with projects of revenge for his social ineptitude and the wrongs done to him.

A brother and sister, young adults, indulge in incest, the girl scared but thrilled, the boy parading his nihilism by belittling people he sees on television. Only the small screen and his smidgeon of desire prevent him from being completely weightless in the world, without any values at all.

An ex-student meets her former university teacher whom she once worshipped from a distance. Ageing, he's at a loose end following a divorce. The two negotiate not very gratifying sex after his promise to help the young woman get a job. She sets out in the morning for one of the Underground stations that will be bombed.

A widow, in her eighties, isolated and lonely, tries, as her powers wane, to keep functioning as an intellectual worker. She confesses that war footage from Iraq gives her the same sharp thrill as a video game. The hubbub resulting from the bombings enlivens her life for a day.

Stephens, at one point, characterizes each of the fifty-two dead in a few slivers of information that are as conventional as any epitaph. The irrelevance of the words to what a human life is all about furthers the impression of the play as a whole: People simply aren't living right.

The originality of Stephens's vision and the jolt it gives received ideas comes especially in the monologue of a bomber as he travels south to London on his ominous mission. Not one of his thoughts turns on religion or geopolitics. He's busy text messaging and only wishes he brought the sports pages to read and some gum to chew. He's not the "other"; he's one of us, with a larger dose of the same need to destroy in his veins.


* * * * *


9/11 writing may still be with us, but its publicists are changing their pitch. The blurb on the cover of Joseph O'Neill's very successful Netherland calls the book, God help us, "The post-9/11 novel we've been waiting for." (**) O'Neill, a stylist in the soft Irish manner, has in fact written a New York novel with London and the native Holland of the story's narrator as foils. The Irish-born author is entranced by New York's multiethnic makeup that he sees as one with -- begging your pardon -- the American dream. That any street in central London could boast the same ethnic diversity and that Dutch cities are visibly full of Muslims doesn't disturb his dreaming. "America is different" could serve as his novel's subtitle.

The author uses cricket to highlight New York's diversity. The game, like the English language, went out with the imperialist luggage and came back in a form that disconcerts the inhabitants of the offshore island that created it. Much is made of the narrator's residence in the fabled Chelsea Hotel and the eccentrics he runs into there. Thanks to some tasty prose, this too familiar material gets by. O'Neill also explores the narrator's childhood and his powerful attachment to his infant son. But the novel's main thread, untangled at a distractingly slow pace, is the narrator's relationship with his English wife.

The couple works at the top of the international legal and financial establishment where money is not a concern because it's the taken-for-granted bedrock of the whole shebang. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, they leave their million-dollar Tribeca loft and move to a hotel suite. What presumably makes Netherland "post-9/11" is that while it takes place after the dire event and is indeed influenced by it, at the same time the attack gets emptied of a larger content. The disaster is felt mainly as an interruption in the couple's comfortable if stressful Manhattan lifestyle.

In a lucid moment the narrator reflects that his wife's initial reaction to 9/11 was euphoria. In effect the attack on New York made her ready for a new departure in life unencumbered by her husband. ("...it was me, not terror, she was fleeing.") She insists on returning alone to London with her infant son. 9/11 as a violent reaction to the American presence in the Middle East? 9/11 as an alibi for a so-called war against terror and for two genuine wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? No. In the post- 9/11 novel the fall of the Twin Towers is first of all a plot device for a marital breakup.

The narrator objects when in 2007 a Londoner says of 9/11, "Not such a big deal when you think of everything that's happened since." The same narrator has called 7/7 "a frightening but not disorientating occurrence," and we have to conclude that events only become cataclysmic for him when they disturb his domestic harmony or threaten his American dream. But the fictional Londoner was right. "Everything that's happened since" makes for a mountain of bodies to count. Because they didn't die in New York or London under the glare of our cameras doesn't make them second-class corpses. They are not less genuinely dead than those whose names have been devotedly inscribed on our various scrolls and metal plaques.



*  Stephens, Simon: Pornography, Methuen, London, 2008, ISBN 978-1-408-1-1056-0, 68 pages, £14.95  (back)

**  O'Neill, Joseph: Netherland, Harper, London, 2009, ISBN 978-0-00-727370-0, 247 pages, £7.99  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 24, 2009