People on a Mountain
Walking and Talking
Someone sent me a link to some old bit of writing I did a few years ago called Comb, telling me how much this meant to him. Very often writing is like that, but it has little to do with the writer. It’s like how a fresh loaf of homemade bread makes you think of your grandmother’s bread; it’s not what’s in the bread, it’s what’s in you.
Re-reading Comb I thought about how I don’t write like that anymore, I stick to technical stuff, I stay in my lane after years of careering around because careering is more fun that sticking to the rules of the road.
The reason for this is creative writing takes both time and a toll on the writer. The style of writing I like is not very certain about what it’s about, it’s meandering and open to interpretation; more risky stream of consciousness rather than sometime tight and ordered like a press release or advert copy. It’s easy to upset or offend people, for people to ask me to define what it is I’m saying, both people who want to take offence, as well as those who wish to give a defence. To be honest, it’s not that I stopped writing more edgy stuff, it’s just that I stopped publishing it. Like how going into a bookshop makes me feel writing another book seems pointless, the number of words online that seem to upset and outrage making any contribution from me seems unnecessary. Best just to stick to knots and gear I thought.
But then someone sends you something you once wrote, that means something, and you recognise that sometimes just one line can be worth the effort, that it sticks in your head. It might not save your life like a Super Munter might, but it might make life make a little more sense for a while, make life a little more bearable.
So here’s something about walking and talking.
There’s a small mountain not far from my house called Diamond hill, and although I'm slowly ticking off the mountains of Ireland, it's Diamond hill I’ve climbed the most. There are several reasons for this: it’s not too high, not too remote, and unlike almost all Irish mountains, has a good path to the top. Its view is spectacular, looking out over the Atlantic, over scenery that would make an Irish American weep. It’s a tourist mountain, a family mountain, a Sunday stroll mountain, and not hardcore at all, although, with the aid of an Atlantic storm, it can feel like the South Col of Everest.
The reason I’ve climbed Diamond hill so many times, is that it's an ideal length walk, and distance from my house, when carrying a baby on your back, my one-year-old son Noah. I can stick him in the car for his morning nap, and he’ll wake up when we get to the car park and be ready for loading in his backpack. I can then nip up and down the mountain, stopping only for a cheese twist on the summit, before getting him back in the car for his next nap. If the weather isn’t lashing it down, I might extend the day and let him sleep in his buggy, as I wander the gardens of Kylemore Abby, which sits at the bottom of Diamond hill. The Abby has a long and interesting history, but I like the fact that the director John Huston once committed his unruly - and one day to be equally famous - daughter Angelica to the nuns when it was a boarding school, and there are many stories of the girls escaping their confinement into the local hills.
One other reason why I like Diamond hill, is the people you meet; chatting to them on the way up, on the summit, or on the way down; both those living in Ireland, and visitors. We all know that every trip up a mountain, or into nature, teaches us something, or re-reminds us of something we forgot, but very often the learning comes from the people meet. Although we seem to live in an age in which we venture in and out of the wilderness by stopwatch, me included, after all, all babies need a strict routine, sometimes it's good to pause its tick.
The last time I went up Diamond hill, I ended up hoofing up the trail until I caught up to a young couple, who on seeing me coming – passing grapes back to Noah as I climbed – stepped off the path for me to pass. Most times I'd just say thanks and carry on going, but for some reason, actually, that reason being the woman was pregnant and seemed glad of a chance to stop, I stopped as well to join her. They said the usual stuff people do, such as "that looks like a great way to climb a mountain", me replying, as usual, that "one day he might be carrying me up". She commented on how cool it was carrying a child up a mountain from such a young age, to make it normal, and I replied how it was even cooler to climb mountains while still unborn. He was obviously Irish, but and her of some hard to define Eastern European country, her belly proud with a yet to be born baby. Where he was from, where he called home, was an easy tell, a Dublin man, her less so her, but not Polish, or Slovak, or Latvian. I suppose we could have ended the conversation there, with only a few xeroxed lines said, but for some reason, I asked if they knew the story of Milo, and how he would pick up a calf every day, the calf getting bigger and bigger, until one day he could lift up a bull. It was a very typical Kirkpatrick thing to say, a disconnected story that didn't seem to belong or be relevant. "That's what it's like carrying a baby up a mountain" I added, the postulation at the end, not the beginning.
We carried on walking together.
Noah being half Irish and half English, and being interested in the subject of identity and culture, I asked her about her baby, when it was due, which was soon enough. I said that it was no doubt the end of their lives, a baby like being in a major car crash, but it was also the beginning of a new life.
"One day you won't be able to imagine your child not existing, and even the times before it was born, it will feel as if was always there."
I said how Noah would be a mongrel Irishman, and asked what her child would be, which I suppose was just digging for where she was from.
It turned out she herself was half Ukrainian and half Russian, but viewed herself as Russian, so her baby would be an interesting mix. The war, or ‘special operation’, a term like our non-war with Argentina, our ’conflict’, had been ongoing for a while, and so I suppose she was not so happy about telegraphing where she was from; for either the pity or the disdain. To show she’d get neither from me, I told her a joke I knew about Ukrainians and Russians:
A Ukrainian shepherd is standing on a hill looking after his sheep when he sees another shepherd on another hill. He shouts “Hey!”, and the other shepherd replies, “what?”. “The Russians have gone into space”. “All of them?” the shepherd replies. “No, just one”. “So why are you bothering me?”.
She laughs. She tells me how her father was Russian, but lived in Ukraine, had worked as a cog in the Soviet machine, was left high and dry, like Putin had been, out on a limb, and although an outsider, a Russian, viewed himself as Ukrainian.
I asked her how our children would view themselves if nationhood would mean more or less in the future, or nothing at all. Would they be Irish or European, or by then, perhaps they would belong to city-states, or some undefined religious grouping.
She asks me what it’s like to be an Englishman in the Republic. My answer was that I don’t really think about it, about the history and such, that although there’s a monument to a murdered priest, his body thrown into the bog, probably by ‘us’, not far from my front door, I thought it was all just history now.
But maybe not.
The Irish press often frames stories about the English in the same way that the Polish press might frame Russias or Germans, or the English the French, never missing an opportunity to give succour to, and forgiveness for, to that uncomfortable sense of animosity one, sometimes feels towards another country, and old adversary; something not light or modern, loving, but as old and dark as a fairytale forest.
Sometimes the tone is understandable, the animosity justified, the one-sidedness necessary for easy digestion, especially in these days when newspapers need to keep readers onside; best not to have the reader question what side that is by getting bogged down in shades and nuance. Like going for a Big Mac, just give people what they came for and no surprises.
An example of this would be trying to write a piece about the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre, in which British troops shot and killed 14 civilians at a football match, in a way that was less binary, or open and shut.
It’s an easy and emotive story to tell, I’m sure you can see it playing out in your head History channel style, and tells you all you need to know about how the Irish were treated by the British. Most articles I read on the subject of the centenary of Bloody Sunday did not mention that in the morning the IRA assassinated 15 soldiers, or if they did, it was only as background. The assassinations offer no excuse for a massacre of course, but they are important in understanding the time. When I brought this point up with my Irish brother-in-law, he just said, “yes, but they were the bad guys”, as if it was irrelevant. This was true enough I suppose, but further digging makes it plain this was not really a war against the Irish, but the worst kind of war, a civil war, a war fought most often by massacre and assassination and murder.
The pieces I read also left out the aftermath: the response and reaction from the British public and politicians to the massacre, an outcry and public sentiment that eventually led to Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921, and the Free State. Civil war continued, with even the IRA splitting into pro and anti-treaty and killing each other, the killing going on, in fits and starts, for another hundred years.
I suppose the Irish press were perhaps ahead of the curve in highlighting the English’s – because it’s the English who are to blame – dastardly historical misdeeds, starting with Cromwell – of course – but tallying up to the present day.
Being someone who unfortunately is afflicted by both-sides-ism, thinking the truth, or lies, belong to either side, I also tend to view much of what is written as suffering from the contemporary mistake of framing everything that happened in the past through a contemporary lens, when even viewing the 1970s through such a lens would create errors in understanding the people and their actions. I suppose this makes it easier as a writer, to just drop the reader into the time without a change of clothes, an empty belly, a desire for retribution, or maybe just blood.
Take for example Cromwell’s siege of Drogheda, in which nearly 3000 soldiers and civilians were killed when the walls fell, viewed now as a war crime and a demonstration of how evil the English were. To even mention Cromwell to some you talk to at the beach is to spoil the day, even though most people are unsure just what he did, or who he was, or that he was only in Ireland for nine months.
The siege of Drogheda suffers from this failure to understand the time. In truth, there were set down rules of siege, as sieges were grim and costly affairs for both sides. If a city surrendered at first contact, all would be spared, with even the army being free to march off unmolested. If the city failed to surrender the siege would begin, with the city or town being cut off – or ‘invested’ – first, so that the defenders would be made aware they could not escape. Now the invitation to surrender would be repeated, but this time the price would be raised: the men would all be killed, but the rest would be spared. If surrender was refused once more no quarter would then be given, examples of which fill ancient and classical texts as a warning of just what that meant; basically streets filled with blood.
The reason for such brutal tactics were twofold. First, the soldiers outside the walls would often suffer during a siege just as much as the people inside the walls, if not more so in the short term, with dysentery, hypothermia and hunger taking a toll. Secondly, armies of the past understood the value of demonstrating both mercy and massacre, that how they carried out a siege at the start of a campaign would spread to other towns and cities. Such tactics were perhaps the earliest form of a strategic psychological operation.
If you view Cromwell’s actions through the lens of what a 21st century British Army might do against an Irish army in Drogheda in 2022, then 3000 deaths would be a justifiable war crime, although a 21st century ISIS attacking an Iraqi army in Mosul in 2014 resulted in 7500 deaths, and 20,000 during its recapture, so maybe the modern world does offer us some contemporary evidence in defence of Cromwell and the ancient and medieval world. Or perhaps in the West we’ve grown used to wars in which only the enemy, soldier and civilian, do the dying?
But I digress.
One such historically skewed, Brit kicking piece I saw
exposed how the English had interned Jews on the Isle of Man during the Second World war, placing them behind barbed wire, armed soldiers watching over them, denied them their freedom and human rights. Again I’m sure you can imagine it in your head. It was the kind of story that left an impression that given the opportunity, the English who were demonstrably anti-semitic, would have come up with their own final solution, after all, we all know they invented the concentration camp. It was a typical slam dunk against the English, and I’m sure many readers who have been shocked and appalled at this grubby piece of history.
Of course, the truth, or at least the reality, of these events did not stir or trigger the emotions quite so well. These were not Jewish prisoners, but German internees, many who had escaped to Britain from Germany due to being Jewish. These camps also contained other civilians who were viewed as coming from hostile countries, as well as UK Nazi supporters. One of the biggest groups were Finnish seaman, who were aligned with Nazi Germany, a nationality that proved as uncooperative to the British guards as they had the Red army.
Of course, it wasn’t long until the panic of war, the fear of spies and saboteurs died down, and by 1940 most of the Jewish Germans had been allowed to settle back in the United Kingdom.
The internment of civilians, as well as stripping of them of their goods, business and rights, be they Japanese in Minidoka, Germans in Douglas, or Brits in Santo Tomas (It’s also worth pointing out that Germany sent most of their foreign civilian undesirables, including from the Channel Islands, to Auschwitz and Dachau), generally creates a deep emotional response in people that it was somehow a moral stain on a nation and something that should never be repeated.
But back to Diamond hill.
The conversation eventually led to the war in Ukraine, and I told her that on the radio that day I heard someone on the BBC talk about a Ukrainian folk song from WW2 in which they sang about the soil being black with blood. They’d given the impression it was the blood of the Ukrainians fighting the Russians during the war, rather than the Russians fighting the Germans in Ukraine.
I suppose that was a good opener for an actual conversation, a test perhaps, to see if she’d think of me as just an odd person with his son on his back, that I was bating her, or making fun of her, or trying to draw something out, when these days its best to keep anything real hidden away. Most of the time, unless you’re 100% sure you can trust the person you’re talking to, it’s best just to pay the tax of conversation in dead words, just to get along, to just get away.
The conversation led here and there, but I took the risk of a daring viewpoint, the kind of thing people’s careers and lives are destroyed for these days, or for less. She had mentioned holocaust denial in Ukraine, and I talked about how in the Middle East things are reversed, and that to believe in the holocaust makes you a denialist, where even The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is banned. I proffered a theory that the holocaust was used as a curtain behind which we could hide centuries of antisemitism, pogroms, persecution, massacres and murder; how the holocaust could just as easily have happened in France than Germany, perhaps even more so. We’re taught anti-semitism began and ended with the Nazis, that we chunk and package and process history into something easy to digest, even if it only contains the essence of something once true, like historical homoeopathy.
Such conversations are always risky, and exciting, like anything that’s daring or forbidden. I suppose once upon a time I’d get such a thrill by being flirtatious, or making fun of someone I fancied, a test, while know it’s talking about the holocaust.
Often a thrilling conversation requires some form of sacrifice, to give a little more than either of you feel comfortable, either side; to say something a little heretical or dissident. Maybe you don’t see the world like I do, and don’t think we don’t live in a self-censoring world, that the concept of free speech (and free thought and expression), is a far-right idea. I don’t, and I think more and more people agree, even if they darn’t say it out loud.
We reached the summit and shared a cheese twist, then carried on down, continuing to talk, the conversation drifting from light to heavy.
Such conversations are always most interesting with people from other places, because such people see things differently, even if they do tend to parrot the same lines as we do; to demonstrate assimilation and conformity. And so everything they want to say, or could share, their important insights is dammed up, held back, which is never healthy. But once you gain someone’s trust, and you get them talking, they never stop.
You’ll often be shocked by what comes back, what people really think, how they see the world differently from you, most often with far more clarity, empathy and understanding. One reason might be because they generally see our world unfiltered, they watch less TV news or have any interest in newspapers, and tend to be both apolitical, and free from inherited political programming.
If you develop an ear for it, you can usually pick apart what people say, separating what is organic and what is inorganic, the real stuff words and expressions from the implanted and programmed.
Eventually, I asked her about the war, only knowing a small bit about Russia and Ukraine, some stuff about Vikings and Mongols, and the people who lives in between, of tribes who hid in deep forests, of Kiev and Moscow, of the Holodomor terror famine. I knew that Russia was a country justifiably paranoid about invasion, something most countries that never been invaded would never really understand.
Talking to her it was clear that the history, the grievances, the entanglement of the past, of culture, language, truth and lies ran as deep, wide and black as the bloody soil itself. She seemed to feel that the easy reality we’re served of good and evil, democracy versus autocracy, of greedy oligarchs and heroic fighters, of the proud nationalism and cultural identity fighting against assimilation, were unhelpful. It reminded me of how an Argentinian friend had said that the Falklands war, I mean conflict, had really been about two cousins fighting.
I said how strange it was to see people falling over-themselves to demonstrate what they are doing for the war effort, from banning Russians from climbing expeditions, to canceling Dostoevsky. I told her that I was a writer and had books translated and sold in Russia, and had a book going through the process of being translated at the moment. For a second I’d wondered if I’d be expected to end my links with my small Russian publisher, thinking how doing so might make my stock rise. I’m sure if I’d sent and email telling them I was making a stand for Ukraine and wanted no more to do with Russian publishers or climbers they’d have been OK with that. Perhaps they’d have half expected it. Instead, I sent my editor and owner a little note, just an email, to say how I was thinking about them, and I hoped they we’re all doing OK. The reply I got demonstrates the little truth of the matter, her thanking me for my email, and that it meant something when everyone had gone silent, how the truth of it is was that this three person team comprised of one Russian, one Belarusian, and one Ukrainian. Who would I punish in the game of status?
We zig-zagged down, the weather always better in the afternoon, the trail getting busy with afternoon walkers, fearsome pensioners with clacking trekking poles, haranguing parents and their moody kids.
She pointed out that the West created the oligarchs, and thought they overthrew the democratic government of Ukraine because Russia dared to enter the US foreign death zone of the Syrian civil war. She said that Russia, and Ukraine had no real history of democracy, and both still ruled via a feared secret police. She asked if people in the West believed that Russians knew nothing about the difference between truth and propaganda, between fake news and real news, how we’re so glib but are equally as manipulated, only we don’t see it. We talk of Russian censorship, be no one knows what a D notice is, or wonder why Russian news is blocked in the West.
The dam is breaking.
She said how tomorrow Ukraine would be like other dead zones, left behind when the live feeds stop transmitting and the headlines are no longer written, like Libya, Syria, Iraq; wrecked and abandoned.
People care so much. Until they don’t. They just get bored. They move on. They forget.
“We have always been at war with Eastasia”.
“I hate the hypocrisy”.
I tell her how I tell my kids not to go through life being distracted by hypocrisy, because if you do, it’s like being a dragon slaying knight in a land filled with dragons. “you’d never get bloody anywhere”.
She laughs. The car park insight.
The walk is over.
We say our brief goodbyes, maybe too briefly, to demonstrate perhaps what we talked about didn’t mean anything, was nothing to be embarrassed about. As they got into their car, and me into my own, strapping Noah into his seat, I realised I didn’t even know their names, only that it didn’t matter anyway, as we’d never see each other again. Just people on a mountain.