On a Wing and A Prayer

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(Photo Credit: Crispina Kemp)

He was not taken to either reciting hymns or repeating incantations. His Gods resided between millions of pages in the thousands of books possessed by him. Manifesting in the myriad musty smells wafting out of the pages as he turned them over incessantly.  If he possessed a deified list, on top of its pile would sit – blasphemously – Ernest Hemingway, Ryszard Kapuscinsky, Walt Whitman, George Orwell, Feodor Dostoevsky and Aldous Huxley.

But towering above all his revered authors and their sacrosanct works, was an omnipresent and omniscient force. A tidal wave that engulfed him.  His Ash. While her presence was irresistible her absence was inexplicably magnetic. The more she went away from him the more nearer he was drawn to her.

This was the fifth day in a row he had arrived at the crack of dawn to light a candle mouthing a silent wish for her glittering future.

(Word Count: 150)

Written as part of the Crimson’s Creative Challenge #29 More details regarding this challenge may be found HERE.

 

 

Berezina – Sylvain Tesson

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Mr. Sylvain Tesson elucidates to the uninitiated the deeper and transcendental meaning of the word “Doing a Berezina” in the French. Usually denoting an astonishingly unfortunate piece of event fro which a protagonist just about evades the inevitable, the phrase usually means: “We made it by a whisker guys, we felt if fly right by us, we got our fingers burned, but life goes on and Stuff The Queen Of England”

 Berezina is also, on a more solemn and somber note, the river across which the Battle of Berezina (or Beresina) took place from 26 to 29 November 1812, between the French army of Napoleon, forced to beat back after a disastrous invasion of Russia, and crossing the Berezina (near Borisov, Belarus), and the Russian armies under the stewardship of Mikhail Kutuzov, Peter Wittgenstein and Admiral Pavel Chichagov. While, the French suffered calamitous losses, the diminutive Corsican Emperor himself avoided being captured or killed crossing the river and speeding off to the safe confines of Paris. Since then “Bérézina” has been used in French as a synonym for “disaster.”

In his book “Berezina”, which is extraordinary in its hilarity, eviscerating in its evocativeness and egregious in its narrative, Mr. Tesson recaptures an incredulous journey performed by him along with four of his friends which takes the form of a recreation of the ‘Retreat’ of the Grande Armee from Moscow to Paris. Powered by the off-road Ural Motorcycles fitted with side-cars, egged on by a mixture of adrenaline and passion and fueled by gallons of Vodka along their way, Mr. Tesson and his accomplices, Vassily, Vitaly, Cedric Gras and Thomas Goisque – two Russian and two Frenchmen respectively, heave, hurtle, groan and grit their way across the expanses of Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Germany before finally arriving at the Napoleon memorial in Paris.

“Two hundred years later, I decide to follow the route of the agonising army, of the shocked cavalry, of those skeleton-like infantrymen, of those men with feathered helmets believing in the invincibility of the Eagle. It’s not for a commemoration (do you commemorate horror?), much less a celebration, it’s to acknowledge across the centuries and the verstes, those Frenchmen of year XII blinded by the Corsican sun and smashed on the reefs of nightmares”

A travelogue punctuated with historical accounts, “Berezina” is a sheer and elegantly crafted delight. Holding forth on the potential exhilaration and worthy merits of embarking on such a landmark journey, Mr. Tesson dangles the bait to his fellow perpetrators in crime: “It’s a madness we get obsessed with, that transports us into myth; a drift, a frenzy, with History and Geography running through it, irrigated with Vodka, a Kerouac-style ride, something that, in the evening will leave us panting, weeping by the side of a pit. Feverish….”

Having enlisted support, Mr. Tesson and Co mount their khakhi-green Ural bikes, relics of the Soviet manufacturing era. These “motorcycles with adjacent baskets” according to Mr. Tesson are an obstinate breed. “You can never tell if they’ll start, and once launched no one knows if they’ll stop.” On the 2nd of December, 2012, two hundred years after the French Emperor’s chaotic retreat, Mr. Tesson and his friends stick the French national flag in front of the basket and set forth on their peculiar journey. Inscribed against the tri-colour background in gold letters were the words:

“Imperial Guard; Emperor of the French to the 1st regiment of light cavalry lancers.

Mr. Tesson possesses this remarkable ability to make even the mundane a quintessential element of the metaphysical. Take his ruminations about his motorcycle helmet for example:

“A motorcycle helmet is a meditation cell. Trapped inside, ideas circulate better than in the open air. It would be ideal to smoke in there. Sadly, the lack of space in an integral crash helmet prevents one from drawing on a Havana cigar…. A helmet is also a sounding box. It’s nice to sing inside it. It’s like being in a recording studio. I hummed the epigraph of Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night…”

Blinded by pouring rain and cascading snow, Mr. Tesson with Gras, his friend with a philosophical bent of mind demurely sitting in his side car, faces some perilous bit of navigation to do hemmed in by huge Russian transportation trucks. Even under such discomfiting circumstances, Mr. Tesson finds time to reflect upon the foibles and fragilities of a vulnerable species. What more circumstances than the bloody war of Berezina and the plight of the fleeing French Army to illustrate this universal feature?

“I saw soldiers on their knees next to carcasses, biting into the flesh like hungry wolves,” Captain Francois recalls. Bourgogne himself survived for a few days sucking, ‘blood Icicles’ Even the Emperor had to get out of his carriage and walk leaning on the arm of Caulaincourt or a camp aide. The road was cluttered with dead men and horses, dying civilians and soldiers, crates, carts, cannons and all that the scattering army was losing behind it. Those who were not dead stumbled over the corpses of those who had already fallen. The men advanced through soul-destroying plains. The cold had destroyed all hope, God no longer existed, the temperatures were dropping…. Crazy with suffering, emaciated, eaten by vermin, they walked straight on, from fields covered in dead to other fields of graves. “

However, it is not all cannibalism and autophagy. In between the testimonies of chaos and carnage, Mr. Tesson relieves us of the terrors of war and the tedium of desperation by interspersing his account with an irrepressible and irreverent dose of pure humour, wicked wit and scintillating spontaneity! Consider this blisteringly funny account of an unfortunate eviction from a bar: “We’d been so cold in the past few hours, since Berezina, that we decided to warm ourselves up with peppered Vodka. The first bottle in memory of the French, the second in memory of Russians, and a few extra glasses for the Polish, British and Germans…. The bar manager threw us out after, in between bellows, we’d set fire to the tablecloth by knocking over the candles on our table.”

Or consider this brilliantly matter-of-fact account of Mr. Tesson’s fellow traveler Vassily being bitten by a dog, “”A dog bit Vassily on the calf in the little garden where 2 1/s inch Pak 40 cannons taken from the Germans in 1940 are on display. The blood drew a flower on the snow.”

Napoleon’s ambitions of invading Russia might have been put to paid by a combination of nature, nationalism and naiveté. However, every adverse circumstance and material misfortune brings along with it some of life’s most pristine lessons. Mr. Tesson sure provides us with some of them with panache!

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry – Jon Ronson

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Traipsing around the globe trying to discern psychopaths and psychopathic tendencies might not qualify as either an absorbing hobby or a way of life, unless, one happens to be either a psychopath or a psychiatrist hunting the former – and his clan – down. Yet, best-selling author Jon Ronson does precisely that. The outcome of this singularly peculiar search is the equally absorbing book, “The Psychopath Test.”

It all begins when Mr. Ronson is requested by an acquaintance of a friend to investigate the appearance of an elaborate and painstakingly handmade book, Being or Nothingness, that has found its mysterious way into the pigeonholes of random academics spanning the world. A clever take on Jean Paul Sartre’s seminal work, “Being and Nothingness”, this book has forty-two pages with every other page being a blank sheet. Page 13 of every copy has a hole gouged out. This weird book takes Mr. Ronson first to Gothenburg in Sweden before inducing in him an irrepressible arousal to dive deep into the world of the ‘madness industry.’

What follows is a bewildering pastiche of a cast of characters, renowned and reviled, repulsed and revered. From meeting Professor Douglas Hofstadter, the author of the topical ‘Godel, Escher, Bach”, to talking up the controversial psychiatrist R.D. Liang’s son Adrian Liang, Mr. Ronson takes us at a breakneck speed through the evolution of psychiatry and its glorious hits and gloomy misses. The unimaginably dirty story of Mary Barnes, a patient of Liang, who had this despicable penchant for smearing herself and the walls of her room with her own excreta before being provided ample paint as an alternative – a move which ultimately brought her fame and success – to interviewing Tony, an inmate of the infamous Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital who insisted that he ‘faked’ madness to get away with a shortened sentence after indulging in Grievous Bodily Harm, Mr. Ronson takes us through the muddy and murky waters of an illness which arguably garners the maximum sympathy as well as anger.

This book in fact is an agglomeration of interviews conducted mainly with psychiatrists and inmates of various asylums and correctional facilities. For example, at the high security Coxsackie Correctional Facility in eastern New York, Mr. Ronson meets with Emmanuel Constant, a former Haitian death-squad leader who is behind bars, ironically not for his heinous crimes, but for a mortgage fraud. Mr. Ronson, coincidentally had interviewed Constant when he was a free man living at Queens. During the time of that interview, Constant invites Mr. Ronson to his mother’s house where he proudly and later, a tad sheepishly, displays to Mr. Ronson an assemblage of Dumbos, Muppets, Bart Simpsons, Jackie Chans and Buzz Lightyears.

At the core of Mr. Ronson’s work, however, is the Holy Grail that assists in ‘spotting’ psychopaths. This Holy Grail is the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist (by the way the title of the book derives from this check list) devised by the famous psychologist Robert Hare. Mr. Hare is a researcher in the field of criminal psychology and developed the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-Revised), used to assess cases of psychopathy. Incidentally, Mr. Hare also advises the FBI‘s Child Abduction and Serial Murder Investigative Resources Center (CASMIRC) and consults for various British and North American prison services.

Armed with this checklist, and after attending a course personally conducted by Dr. Hare over a span of three days – a part of which included looking at mutilated and blown faces – Mr. Ronson goes on an interviewing spree to identify psychopaths. His subjects vary from the prosaic to the preening. From Chainsaw Al Dunlap, the merciless and ruthless Corporate Chieftain whose primary predilection involved slashing jobs and birthing ghost towns, to Petter Nordlund, the strange author of the aforementioned Being or Nothingness, Mr. Ronson’s journey is a mixture of hilarity and astonishment.

Mr. Ronson also brings to our attention the dangers and futilities involved in being a slave to ‘checklists.’. A classic example being the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (“DSM) an ever expanding tome (with gargantuan appendices) of conditions published by the American Psychiatric Association. Now in its fifth edition, the DSM a virtual dinosaur in size and pages embraced within its confines tenuous and esoteric sounding disorders such as intermittent explosive disorder (temper tantrums), relational disorder (pissed off with a relative) and sluggish cognitive tempo disorder (you may lack motivation). Based on this universally acknowledged tome, doctors ‘blanket’ prescribe drugs even to children as old (or as young) as three years. This insidious practice has resulted in a surge of children being diagnosed as being afflicted with “bipolar disorders” and “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders” (“ADHS”). The ‘avoidable’ death of three-year-old Rebecca Riley courtesy an overdose of anti-psychotic medication makes for some seriously somber reading. Mr. Ronson engages Robert Spitzer, the editor under whose aegis the DSM took its most obese Avatar and tries to elicit from him an answer to the question as to whether the DSM has spawned an era where psychiatric diagnoses have become convenient labels to obfuscate purely normal, albeit irritable behaviours. The response of Mr. Spitzer sends a chill down one’s spine, “I don’t know.”

The tacit and unwritten collusion between the medical profession and Big Pharma is also an issue to be considered. For example, consider this extract from the San Francisco Chronicle dated July 13th 2008 concerning the doyen of childhood bipolar disorders, Dr. Joseph Biederman, and reproduced by Mr. Ronson:

“The science of children’s psychiatric medication is so primitive an Biederman’s influence so great that when he merely mentions a drug during a presentation, tens of thousands of children, within a year or two will end up taking that drug, or combination of drugs. This happens in the absence of a drug trial of any kind – instead, the decision is based upon word of mouth among the 7,000 child psychiatrists in America.”

Dr. Biederman is a controversial figure who was accused of peddling the commercial interests and corporate agenda of the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. Ian Goodyer, a Professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Cambridge University, believes that the childhood bipolar illness is a conveniently crafted illusion. “Epidemiological studies never find anything like the prevalence quoted by the protagonists of this view that there are bipolar children….it is an illness that emerges from late adolescence. It is very very unlikely indeed that you’ll find it in children under seven years of age.”

The book also has its share of hilarity. Mr. Ronson’s escapade with conspiracy theorist-turned-transvestite Fetishist-Turned-Messiah-turned-self-proclaimed Jesus Christ, David Shayler to the residue of the radical psychiatrist Elliott Barker, Mr. Ronson brings to bear his unique wit and self-deprecating humour. Constantly reminding us of his obsession with the horror that his wife might be dead if she is not answering her phone, Mr. Ronson wonders whether he might tick off more than just one of the 20-point Bob Hare Checklist that qualifies one to be a psychopath. Also of great interest and humour is Mr. Ronson’s tryst with some actively practicing propagators of Scientology, the late Ron L. Hubbard’s fascinating albeit dubious creation.

But on the whole the book makes for some sobering read. The foibles and failures of once deified criminologists such as the mercurial Paul Britton who rose to fame with his criminal profiling before ungainly coming down to earth as an ostracized homo sapien who identified the wrong criminal (an innocent man going by the name of Colin Stagg was unfairly punished for 14 months for a gruesome murder – having been subjected to the most revolting of honey trap techniques at the suggestion of Mr. Britton – while the real murderer John Napper pitilessly and brutally killed and mutilated two more victims), the book warns us about getting immersed in glorified stereotypes made sacrosanct by their reputed creators.

“The Psychopath Test” – a book to be eagerly lapped up!

The Ash Portal

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(Image Credit: Inga Gezalian on Unsplash)

It was on a lazy summer Sunday that they found the portal. Yes, a portal. Having dined on some scrumptious fare at a quaint restaurant renowned for its pure South Indian vegetarian fare, Ash and Venky retreated to the Garden of Blaise. Supposed to be named the Garden of Bliss, the queer name was the courtesy of the grammatical ineptitude of the Registrar.

The minute their eyes jointly spotted the spherical transparent object nestled innocuously amidst a patch of unruly dry grass, they knew it was a portal. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, they intertwined their fingers tightly and after a furtive glance to both their left and right, jumped into the void that reflected the brilliant blue sky and the tendrils of clouds. Venky was reminded of The Enterprise as the duo went careening, swaying, hurtling, flying and screaming towards the unknown.

Their flight came to a rude halt when they landed with a soft thud in what felt like luxurious foam. Floating in the middle of an incandescent span of turquoise water, Ash and Venky were surrounded by quietude, serenity and the strains of a melody which strongly reminded them of Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise.” Suddenly the waters roiled as a three headed crocodile with baring teeth flew across the water and pulled Venky into the depths of the water. The last thing he could hear was Ash hollering.

Venky woke up with a jolt. It was exactly a day to the year since she left him.

(Word Count: 250)

#TellTaleThursday with Anshu & Priya

For more stories for the week, please click HERE

Ash – The Dubliner

2019-05-19 Terri Smeighs

(Photo Credit: Terri Smeigh)

It was her first day in Dublin and she was famished. The bloody flight was delayed by 3 hours’ courtesy a technical snag. ‘Technical snag’ – the refuge behind which every airline seeks to take cover to mollify angry and frustrated passengers. And in so far as Ash was concerned, it took very little to get her angry. A dynamite waiting to detonate, her nerves always seemed to be high strung. Ash, the very heart beat of Venky. The day he knew she would be going off to Dublin, his world turned topsy-turvy. He could not envisage a day without her presence; now he would be forced to endure a future that had Ash at its periphery.

He called her with a mixed element of anticipation and trepidation. “Hello!”; “Hello, hi” she answered. It was always Hello and Hi. “How was the flight? Where are you now?” “It is bloody overcast and I am at a quaint red bricked place that calls itself a steakhouse and am famished!”

Venky quelled a laugh that spontaneously rose from within. His Ash – bull headed, frank, candid and confident. He knew not how he would exist without her presence. But she never left him.

(Word Count – 199)

Written as part of Sunday Photo Fiction. Write a story of around 200 words based on the photo prompt given (above). Hosted by Susan Spaulding. For more details visit HERE

To read more of the stories based on this week’s prompt, click HERE

The Lazy Wait for Digestion – Food Court Rules to enforce Civility

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(Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

This afternoon our team decided to lunch at a Food Court famous for its Chinese delicacies. While we anticipated that there would be a long wait and were ready for it, what we were not prepared for was a shockingly inconsiderate and insensitive attitude shamelessly displayed by diners who had preceded us and had the run of the table.

I wish to dwell – as an illustrative example – upon one table that had three occupants. Since they were on the verge of finishing their lunch, my friend and I took our places at a respectable and strategic distance either side of the table. We expected to be seated within the next five to seven minutes. The food must have been really scrumptious because all three plates were licked clean with only the bones left as evidence of consumption!

But much to our chagrin and bewilderment, neither the two gentleman nor the lady showed even the remotest signs of finishing their post-lunch siesta. Choosing to completely ignore two hungry – and by this time angry too – souls restlessly shifting their soles, the three contended and satiated souls went on laughing, frowning, guffawing, whispering and occasionally finding the time to pick their teeth. The topic under discussion must have been so pressing so as to affect international diplomatic relations or so trivial as to veer towards the asinine. Totally fed up with such intransigence and incivility, both my friend and I decided to demonstrate the dark side of our patient selves. We looked straight into the eyes of the offending troika whenever they locked into ours and shot derisive and furious stares at them. Alas our penetrating gazes were more water off a duck’s back than shooting silver daggers!

By now the queue had also considerably lengthened and the number of famished souls looking for a place was akin to a swarm of bees humming to get to their hive. The decibel level at the food court now reached alarming and ear drum rupturing proportions. But none of these facts had even the slightest impact or influence on the three debaters. They either had a permanent and lifelong right over the table or their ample posteriors were glued to the seats from which they could be separated only by taking recourse to professional help. But their condescendingly happy faces revealed that the latter could not have been the case.

Finally, courtesy four Good Samaritans at an adjoining table we were able to finally seat ourselves. But unfortunately the plight which we were forced to endure befell the next set of hapless eaters. A poor man balancing a steaming hot cup of tea in one hand a sheaf of papers tucked under the other looked as if he was ready to be even imprisoned for committing murder. Fortunately, he was saved from such a dangerous scenario when the three stubborn idiots finally pushed back their chairs, heaved their heavy and pompous posteriors and ambled away. I had half a mind to give them a standing ovation followed by three tight slaps on all their cheeks! From its ugly beginning to its ungainly end the drama lasted close to an hour– yes you read that right – 60 bloody minutes!

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(Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

What has been set out thus far, rather than being an isolated incident, is an occurrence than plays itself out with increasing regularity and irritating frequency across a multitude of food courts. Hence with a view to obliterating this uncivil behavior I propose the following 10 rules to be enforced at Food Courts so that discipline that has not been inculcated gets forcibly enforced. Under these rules the stringency of the rule is linear to the postprandial time spent by the offenders at the table:

  • People sitting for > 7 minutes would be necessarily required to pay for double the amount of the food that they have consumed. This would exclude taxes, surcharges and cess which would be an additional levy;
  • People sitting for > 10 minutes would be required to pay for the bills of those who are seated at tables to their left, right, front and back;
  • People sitting for > 15 minutes would be foisted with the responsibility of washing cutlery for the exact number of time which they spent in deliberations post consuming their food. Hence the cutlery washing would occupy a minimum of 15 minutes;
  • People sitting for > 30 minutes would have their photographs taken and affixed/pasted/nailed/glued to the walls of the Food Court with their impropriety detailed out in BELL MT FONT SIZE 13 below their pictures. This photograph would be displayed for 30 days succeeding the day on which the offense was committed;
  • People sitting for > 45 minutes would be permanently barred from entering the said Food Court and would be given a Badge of Dishonour. This Badge of Dishonour would be displayed at the entrance to the Food Court for a period of 6 months succeeding the day on which the offense was committed;
  • All these rules would be displayed on every table, at every shop in the Food Court and at the entrance of the Food Court itself in English as well as every regional language and dialect that is the preserve of the region where the Food Court is located;

While the aforementioned ‘rules’ are a mere figment of my imagination and purely intended to be a humorous exposition, I seriously and desperately hope that a modicum of sense and sensibility possesses the one kind of people who seem to be under the impression that the practice of civility is purely optional.