When I was a kid and regularly watched the 30-minute Westerns which were screened every weekday for us young ones – Rin Tin Tin, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry (who I didn’t really like), Roy Rodgers, Annie Oakley, The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid – it was pretty easy to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys: the good guys usually wore light-coloured hats and had the trousers outside their boots, and the bad guys usually wore dark-coloured hats and tucked their trousers into their boots. The good guys invariably also had a well-shaven chin as smooth as a baby’s bottom, whereas the bad guys had several days of growth on their chins and gave the impression that bodily hygiene wasn’t top of their list of priorities. The good guys always won and the bad guys always lost, and our side were always the good guys and the other side were always the bad guys.
That was then and this is now, and I like to think I’ve rather grown out of such a monochrome view of the world. But apparently much of the rest of the world hasn’t, and nowhere is this more apparent than in coverage of the fighting in Syria which we should now acknowledge is a civil war. No one would, I think, disagree that Assad and his regime are a thoroughly bad lot, but it all gets rather murky when one takes a look at those trying to oust him: who are they and do they really deserve our support.
As usual, I have no special insight into this matter and I shan’t pretend that I do, but I can still make several observations about it all, based on what I have read and heard in the media. For one thing, several million Christian Syrians who wouldn’t, as a rule, cheer on Assad and his regime are faced with a hell of a dilemma: who do they support? There are now several well-documented accounts of what more or less adds up to ethnic cleansing by some of the Syrian rebels, except that it is not your ethnicity which determines whether you will be chased out of your home and told to make yourself scarce, but your religion. All is fine and dandy if you are a Sunni Muslim, but things are not getting extraordinarily bleak if you profess to be a Christian.
It is the fundamentalist Muslim element of the Syrians rebels which is giving many second thoughts: what are the chances, many are asking themselves, that if Assad and his regime are toppled those who follow him in power will be any less repressive or, to put it another way, any more enlightened and democratic. Under Assad, for example, women and homosexuals apparently led more or less free lives, a freedom homosexuals were granted – at least in the big cities – on the proviso that they kept a low profile. If Assad is toppled, will those freedoms continue?
Yet in the Dick and Dora world of Western diplomacy the Syrian rebels are the good guys in white hats and Assad and his henchmen the bad guys who can’t even be bothered to tuck their trousers into their boots. I am prepared to accept that such a stance is merely one for public consumption and that behind the scenes more sophisticated minds are at play, but there is scant evidence for such optimism. The conventional wisdom is that the West is mainly concerned with ensuring that it’s supply of oil remains unaffected and can be relied upon, but even that seems to me a tad simplistic as analysis.
I got to thinking about it all, although by no means for the first time, when I read a report on the BBC News website of the summary execution by Syrian rebels of four Syrian loyalists. But the good guys aren’t supposed to do that are they? Aren’t they? Perhaps they are. Perhaps, given Western certainties about the virtues of democracy and the rest of it, we should be resurrecting the notion of ‘a just war’, in which death might be horrible blah-di-blah and regrettable blah-di-blah and should if at all possible be avoided blah-di-blah and killing only resorted to as the very last resort blah-di-blah-di-blah-di-blah, but at the end of the day We are The Good Guys who are doing The Right Thing and They are The Bad Guys who deserve whatever they get so take your liberal conscience, sunny jim, and stick it where the sun don’t shine. On the whole I think I prefer my 30-minute Westerns: at least it was honest-to-goodness fiction not fiction masquerading as virtue.
. . .
I am one of those poor unfortunates who only has to have one drink and the ideas come crashing in. That, in itself, is not a boast because the lifespan of each idea is very short, far too short, in fact, to be of any consequence and far too short to be of any worth whatsoever. It goes like this: sometimes I drive up to London for my four days of shifts on the Mail and sometimes I take the train.
If I drive, I have taken to stopping off at the Brewers Arms in South Petherton in Somerset for a pint and a half of cider, a bag of nuts and a cigar or two. I leave around ten and listen to the World Tonight (available on all good radio receivers if they receive Radio 4) and ostensibly acquaint myself with the latest goings-on in the world. But, of course, I don’t.
Instead I ‘get ideas’: ideas for stories, for novels, for plays, how to write stories, or novels, or plays, what style I might try to adopt, what style might work, the relationship of style to a particular story and then what kind of story or novel might find favour in today’s ‘modern’ world. Each of those ideas flit into my brain and rapidly flit out again as the next idea crashes its way in. But that is just the half of it. I also listen to the World Tonight and dwell on what I hear and expand on that a little. And again each new ‘thought’ - I’m not being modest by putting the word in inverted commas, merely (I hope) refreshingly honest - is again very, very soon crowded out by some upstart newcomer of a ‘thought’ whose lifespan once more must be measured in milliseconds before a new ‘insight’ makes its way in - and then rapidly out - to my mind. The rapidity of arrival and departure of each new idea and thought seems to be in proportion to the amount of cider I drink. You know what I am talking about, because you have been there, too.
What to do? How do regiment those thoughts? How to hang onto them? How to evaluate them? How to discard the dross, the trivial, the commonplace, the universal from what might, just might, be worth remembering? I really don’t have a clue.
A few months ago, I wrote of arriving back home here in Cornwall and appreciating, each and every time I get out of the car just after midnight. sniffing the fresh, peaceful air of Higher Lank and reflecting just how lucky I am to be living in so pleasant a part of the country where others are condemned to live in a noisy city - at best - or, apropos the Book Of The Week on Radio 4 this week in some godamn-awful slum somewhere. Tonight was the same, but I shall expand on that a little.
The drive from London takes me down the M3 and then along the A303 which is partly dual carriageway, then from Exeter onto the A30 which is almost wholly dual carriageway. But near somewhere called Temple on Bodmin Moor, I turn right off the dual carriageway (which, for a brief few miles becomes a single carriageway, but what the hell, I shan’t let that bother me at this point) and drive for just over five miles straight across Bodmin Moor. It is a part of the journey I really like, not least because although it takes me around 15 minutes to complete, I know I shall soon be home. But that journey is sometimes quite magical in one particular way.
Bodmin Moor is home to a great many ponies and a great many sheep and several thousand rabbits. And at this time of year many of those ponies have young ones with them. And those young ponies, some barely a week or two old, take my heart and almost make me want to cry in their innocence. My daughter will be 16 in five days time and my son turned 13 just over two months ago. Neither is the sweet young thing they once were, but both are still most certainly the sweet young thing they once were, the difference being that now I can no longer let them know that that is how I feel about them.
Now I am obliged, quite rightly of course, to treat them as older, to acknowledge that they are becoming people in their own right. They would not thank me - as you and I would not have thanked our parents when we were their age - to be reminded that in many ways they are still babes in arms. But every time I see one of those young ponies, all long legs and shyness and all of them sticking as close to their mothers as they can I am taken back in an instance to Elsie being just a babe and Wesley being just a babe. It gets worse: every time a rabbit runs across the lane in front of me I have to brake sharply and do brake sharply in case I inadvertently run it over. For I could not kill one of those rabbits, even accidentally, as I could not kill one of my children.
Soppy? Not a bit of it. I really don’t think I knew anything about anything until my children were born.