Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cowpats and War Comics

To be honest, I came up with my headline before I'd decided what I was going to write. I had decided to do something about war comics, but somehow the idea of cowpats also got stuck inside the scone. This is not really to be wondered at: I have been accused of spouting BS in the past, so perhaps a cowpat is merely an expression of feminine side.

Speaking of feminine sides: on "Stuff" there's a slight article about how New Zealand men make OK husbands. A blue-stocking has, it appears, quizzed over 13,000 women in a dozen Western countries about their local men, and how they stack up in the domestic bliss stakes. We Kiwis, once again, beat the Aussies. In fact, our brothers in the West Island came last in the desirable hubby stakes. It seems they hate sharing the domestic responsibilities.

They, of course, would look at the 11 countries that "beat" them, and sneer. They would, perhaps justifiably, claim that the men in those nations (which includes Norway, the USA, Great Britain, France, and NZ) are more like sheep, or domesticated cattle.

This would be cow manure, of course. The war between the sexes is still being fought in Australia, while in Norway (the First Place-getter) the armistice has been signed. Both sides won. While Norwegian men change baby's nappies, don aprons, and cook meals that include tofu and filo pastry, their female partners know about tyre pressures and two-stroke fuel.

To satisfy your curiosity- New Zealand came in at a solid 8th.

I don't know if the survey included questions on bonkability, and don't intend to enquire. While surveys of this nature have value - they do, after all,add to the total sum of human knowledge, as well as providing some insights on how societies differ - they don't actually make any personal sense to me. So, New Zealand came in at 8th. Is that good? Bad? Is it a ranking that means anything?

So, while we came in at 8th, New Zealand still seems to score pretty well when it comes to the "happiness" stakes. Surveys show we're a pretty up-beat bunch. So even though we're 8th in terms of good human husbandry - which is, let's face it, in the bottom third of the survey... we're still doing something right.

One thing we perhaps aren't doing right is this: war comics. They have really vanished from our shelves, except for the superb reprints that are being produced: collections of a dozen or so war comics from the 50s and 60s, collected under titles as stirring as "True Brit!" and "Anzacs At War!".

I own one. I found it at a second-hand bookshop in Ashburton, and paid $5 for it: a bargain. I devoured the whole thing at one sitting. It was filled with bravery and cowardice, with stories of overcoming enormous challenges, with Chermans shouting "Gott in Himmel" and "Achtung", and Japanese soldiers saying "Banzai!" as they raced to their deaths, and "Aiiee!" as they died, ignobly.

These comics are filled with societal stereotypes, racism, bigotry, class war, and tosh. They are, in fact, brilliant. From them, I learned as a lad about such things as sacrifice, as putting the next chap's welfare first, of how absurd it is to think that one type of human (if there is such a thing as a "type" of human) is better than another. And before we start into the whole glorification of war: I think that even as a child I knew that war was a pretty horrible thing. Nonetheless, it makes for good stories.

I also learned that some things are worth fighting for. I was never a good fighter, and it's only been in the past few years that I've learned to utilise that greatest of weapons, the word, to argue my case.

But mostly I started to learn about nobility. It's an outdated word, one that doesn't get bandied about at social gatherings. We might turn a lip and mutter darkly about the Ruling Classes and Aristocracy, but that's not what I'm talking about. There's often more nobility to be found in poverty than there is in wealth. Those at the bottom of society's ladder who toil on with honesty and concern for their neighbour are better human beings than many of those who have great wealth. The cow-pat is richer than the cloud.

I still have much to learn about nobility. It's not a word I could attach to myself, and I can only think of two or three of my friends who display flashes of it. I hope that one day I will have learned enough to spontaneously do something worthy of the appelation - but I'm not pushing it.

Perhaps I need to read a few more war comics.

LISTENING TO: Art Garfunkel, "Angel Clare". It's quite lovely.

READING: War comics.

WORD OF THE DAY: Nobility.

MORE HENRY... coming right up.

Chapter Thirteen
Spot the Difference.

Henry thought his odyssey started when he told his family that he and Mary were leaving to travel.
He was wrong. Mary knew, and just about everyone in his family knew, that he had started travelling this road a number of years back, with Spot. Adam Johnstone, aka Spot, had been a loyal follower of Henry’s ever since he and Murph had rescued him from what could have been a savage beating at school. Adam, not-yet-Spot, was wearing a pair of run-down flannel shorts, a mud-green tee shirt, and a tweedy pullover sweater. His family were poor, and did the best they could by their kids, but when there are nine mouths under the age of fifteen something’s gotta give. So, it was a fact of life that Adam, N-Y-S, had to make do with pass-me-down clothes. Clothes that had come originally from the St. Martin Op-Shop to Adam’s older brother before their third incarnation as Adam’s finest.
Kids who don’t fit in are picked on. It’s as simple as that. And, to their everlasting credit Henry and Murph stepped in where others forebore to tread. It was coming to the end of the lunch break at Northridge Intermediate School, and Paul Sinclair, David Burgess, and Will Hendrickson had a ragged bundle of tears and fury bailed up against the tennis court fence. Fist where flying, jeers were taunting, taunts where being jeered, and a short, stroppy mess of pride and anger was weeping with fury.
“Hey!” roared Murph, in all his 12-year old anger. “Let ‘im go!”
The last person to tell Burgess, Sinclair, and Hendrickson what to do ended up bloodied and bruised. They were a single-minded pack, and they turned from beating Adam, to attend to this intrusion.
“So,” sneerd Burgess. “Patrick O’Flaherty himself. What’s it to you what we’re doing?”
“Leave him alone, Burgess.”
Patrick, or Murph to his friends, walked with Henry to stand by the scrappy, stroppy little Adam Johnstone. Make sure you pronounce the “t”. They didn’t have much, the Johnstone’s, but they did have that “t”.
“Just buzz off, Burgess,” said Henry.
“oh, it’s our big rugby hero, Henry la-de-da Talbot. Get them, boys.”
And so the battle of the Tennis court started. As schoolyard fights go, it wasn’t really an epic, but they were still talking about it a year later. Suffice to say that Henry, Murph, and Adam were never troubled by the Burgess Boys again.
And suffice also to say that Adam (the name Spot would come a little later in his life, after an adventure with a blue gingham bikini-clad girl, and a rubber glove) became a firm fixture in Henry’s life. Where one went, the other three went. And usually they went with a little red-haired bundle of energy, Mary Pickering, in tow.
Adam was a quiet, studious kid. Because he had been diagnosed with glue-ear too late as a youngster, he had a hearing problem, so he always sat up the front of the class - another strike against him for the Burgess Boys. Spot also excelled in class, and Roger, Murph, Henry, and Adam spent nearly a decade as close friends.
By the time Adam became Spot he had been awarded a scholarship to Victoria University, down in The City, Wellington. He attended with his friend Henry, and the two young men were a fixture at the Caff at lunchtime. Spot was doing an arts degree, majoring in Eng.Lit., and he entertained his friend with unlikely stories about tutors, tutorials, fried egg sandwiches, and flatmates. Spot, finally, was in his element. He could be as smart and as brazen as he wanted, and people would praise him for it. He didn’t crawl out of the quiet, studious, brown little shell that had encapsulated him for most of his life: he exploded out of it.
The biggest changes Henry noticed about his friend where in the clothing department, and in the casual comments Spot would make about other boys in the Caff. Henry’s like most men of that era: he couldn’t tell you five minutes after seeing someone what they had been wearing. But he did notice that Spot’s tweedy sweaters had given way to colours and flamboyance. Brightly coloured braces and shirts, baggy 1930s-style pants, highly polished shoes and boots, monocle - oh, yes, he hunted high and low for a monocle - Brylcreemed hair, jaunty cigarette holder, pencil-thin moustache, Spot was a statement.
Exactly what it was that Spot was stating Henry didn’t know. He became aware of the fact that he was the only person in Spot’s circle of new friends that didn’t call him Adam, or even Adamus, with the second syllable stretched lazily.
Let’s face it: naivety and gaucheness aside, Henry was totally ignorant of the sexual revolution. It never occurred to him to question his own sexuality: his awareness of homosexuality was confined to a couple of back-of-the-bike shed jokes that he hadn’t really understood.
Months after the Hazel episode, Henry and Spot were walking along Oriental Parade, discussing this, that, the future, the new Holden, New Zealand‘s most recent drubbing at cricket, or just walking in silence, enjoying the soft, warm, Wellington evening, when a large man in a heavy woollen pea-jacket and grimy corduroy pants bellowed “pansy!” as he cycled past.
Spot looked up, flashed his friend a tired grin, and said “Well, it’s not as if we need reminding, is it?”
A question that’s plagued Henry ever since, because he made a half-strangled reply, and changed the subject. That night Spot drew a warm bath, sat in it, drank the better half of a bottle of gin, and neatly slit his wrists.

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