New and Collected Stories, p.39Alan Sillitoe
‘I didn’t like Vienna, because its past glories are too past, and it was full of unemployed. One of the few sorts of people I can’t like are the people without work. They make my stomach ill. I am not rational when I see them, so I try not to see them as soon as I can. I went to Budapest, walking along the banks of the Danube with nothing except a knapsack and a stick, free, healthy, and young. I was not the old-fashioned artist who sits gloomily starving in his studio-garret, or talks all day in cafés, but I wanted to get out among the world of people. But in every city there was much conflict, where maybe people were finishing off what they had started in the trenches. I watched the steamers travelling by, always catching me up, then leaving me a long way back, until all I could listen was their little toots of progress from the next switch of the river. The money crashed, but the steamers went on. What else could Germany do? It was a good time though, England, because I never thought of the future, or wondered where I would be in the years to reach. I certainly didn’t see that I should throw so much of my good years in this little Spanish town – in a country even more destituted than the one in Germany after I set off so easily from my birth-home. Excuse me, if I talk so much. It is the brandy, and it is also making me affectionate and sentimental. People are least intelligent when most affectionate, so forgive me if I do not always keep up the high standard of talk that two artists should kindle among them.
‘No, I insist that it is my turn this time. Your wife has gone, no, to look after the baby? In fact I shall order a bottle of brandy. This Spanish liquid is hot, but not too intoxicating. Ah! I shall now pour. It’s not that I have the courage to talk to you only when I am up to my neck in bottle-drink, as that I have the courage to talk to you while you are drunk. You can drink me under the table, England? Ah! We shall see, dear comrade. Say when. I have travelled a long way, to many places: Capri, Turkey, Stalingrad, Majorca, Lisbon, but I never foresaw that I should end up in the awkward state I am now in. It is unjust, my dear England, unjust. My heart becomes like a flitterbat when I think that the end is so close.
‘Why? Ah! Where was I? Yes, in Budapest there was even more killing, so I went to Klausenburg (I don’t know which country that town is in any more) and passed many of these beautiful dean Saxon towns. The peasants wore their ancient pictorial costume, and on the lonely dusty road were full of friendships and dignity. We spoke to each other, and then went on. I walked through the mountains and woods of Transylvania, over the high Carpathians. The horizons changed every day; blue, purple, white, shining like the sun; and on days when there were no horizons because of rain or mist I stayed in some cowshed, or the salon of a farmhouse if I had pleased the family with my sketching likenesses. I went on, walking, walking (I walked every mile, England, a German pilgrim), across the great plain, through Bucharest and over the Danube again, and into Bulgaria. I had left Germany far behind, and my soul was liberal. Politics didn’t interest me, and I was amazed, in freedom at my father being sad at the war.
‘How the brandy goes! But I don’t get drunk. If only I could get drunk. But the more brandy I drink the colder I get, cool and icy on the heart. Even good brandy is the same. Health, wealth, and stealth! I got to Constantinople, and stayed for six months. Strangely, in the poorest city of all, I made a good living. In an oriental city unemployment didn’t bother me: it seemed natural. I went around the terraces of hotels along the Bosphorus making portraits of the clienteles, and of all the money I made I gave the proprietors ten per cent. If they were modern I drew them or their wives also against the background of the Straits, and sometimes I would take a commission to portray a palace or historic house.
‘One day I met a man who questioned if I would draw a building for him a few kilometres along the coast. He would give me five English pounds now, and five more when we came back to the hotel. Of course I accepted, and we drove in his car. He was a middle-aged Englishman, tall and formal, but he’d offered me a good price for the hour’s drawing necessary. By now I had developed the quickness of draughtsmanship, and sat on the headland easily sketching the building on the next cape. While I worked your Englishman, England, walked up and down smoking swiftly on a cigar, and looked nervous about something. I had ended, and was packing my sketches in, when two Turkish soldiers stood from behind a rock and came to us with rifles sticking out. “Walk to the car,” the Englishman said to me, hissing, “as if you haven’t done anything.”
‘“But,” I said, “we’ve made nothing wrong, truly.”
‘“I should say not, my boy,” he told me. “That was a Turkish fort you just sketched.”
‘We run, but two more soldiers stand in front of us, and the Englishman joked with them all four, patted them on the savage head, but he had to give out twenty pounds before they let us go, and then he cursed all the way back.
‘It might have been worse, I realize at the hotel, and the Englishman is pleased, but said we’ll have to move on for our next venture, and he asked me if I’d ever thought of hiking to the frontier of Turkey and Russia. “Beautiful, wild country,” he told me. “You’ll never forget it. You go there on your own, and make a few sketches for me, and it’ll prove lucrative – while I sit back over my sherbet here. Ha, ha, ha!”
‘So I questioned him: “Do you want me to sketch Turkish forts, or Soviet ones?”
‘“Well,” he said, “both.”
‘That, England, was my first piece of stealthy work, but it never made me wealthy, and I already was healthy. Ah, ah, ah, ho, ho! You are strong, England. I cannot make you flinch when I hit you on the back like a friend. So! Before then I had been too naïve to feel dishonest. Once on the Turkish border I was captured, with my sketches, and nearly hanged, but my Englishman pays money, and I go free. Charming days. I wasn’t even interested in politics.
‘I hear a baby crying. What a sweet sound it is! England, I think your wife calls for you.’
‘It is fine night tonight, England, a beautiful star-dark around this town. I have travelled most of my life. Even without trouble I would have travelled, never possessing one jot of wealth, only needing food at the sunset and hot water for breakfast. During the war my voyaging was also simple.
‘In my youth, after I was exported from Turkey by the soldiers (They took all my money before letting me go. If only we had conquered them during the war, then I would have met them again and made them repay it with every drop of their blood!) I travelled in innumerous countries of the Balkans and Central East, until I was so confused by the multiple currencies that I began to lose count of the exchange. I would recite my travellers’ cataclysm as I crossed country limits: “Ten Slibs equals one Flap; a hundred Clackies makes one Golden Crud; four Stuks comes out at one Drek” – but usually I went to the next nation with not Slib Flap Clackie or Golden Crud to my name, nothing except what I wear and a pair of worn sandals. I joke about the currencies, because there is no fact I cannot remember. Some borders I have crossed a dozen times, but even so far back I can memory the dates of them, and stand aside to watch myself at that particular time walking along, carefreed, towards the custom post.
‘One of my adventures is that I get married, and my wife is a strong and healthy girl from Hamburg who also likes the walking life. Once we trampled from Alexandria, stepping all along the coast of Africa to Tangier, but it was hard because the Mussulmans do not like to have their faces drawn. However, there were many white people we met, and I also sketch a lot of buildings and interesting features – which were later found to be of much use to certain circles in Berlin. You understand, eh?
‘We went back to Germany, and walked in that country also. We joined groups of young people on excursions to the Alps, and had many jolly times on the hohewege of the Schwarzwald. My wife had two children, both boys, but life was still carefreed. There were more young people like ourselves to enjoy it with. My art was attaining something, and I did hundreds of drawings, all of which made me very proud, though some were better than others, naturally. Mo
‘In that time before the war my drawings were highly prized in Germany. They hung in many galleries, because they showed the spirit of the age – of young people striving in all their purity to build the great state together, the magnificent corporation of one country. We were patriotic, England, and radical as well. Ah! It is good when all the people go forward together. I know many artists who thought that anarchism was not enough to cure the griefs of the globe as they swung into black shirts. Children do not like the dark when they go to bed, and what can blame them? Someone has to build a fire and put on lights. But you shouldn’t think I liked the bad things though, about inferior races and so on. Because if you consider, how could I be living in Spain if I did? It was a proud and noble time when loneliness was forgotten. It contained sensations I often spend my nights thinking about, because I felt that after all the travels of my young days I was getting at last some look-on at my work, as well as finding the contentment of knowing a leader who pointed to me the fact that I was different from those people I had been through on my travels. He drew me together. Ah! England, at that you get more angry than if I had banged you on the shoulder like a jolly German! You think I am so rotten that when I cut myself, maggots run out. But don’t, please don’t, because I can’t stand that from any man. I don’t believe anything now, so let me tell you. Nothing, nothing … nothing. Everyone was joining something in those days, and I couldn’t stop myself, even though I was an artist. And because I was an artist I went the whole way, to the extremes, right beyond the nether boundaries. I was carried along like this coñac cork, floating down a big river. I couldn’t swim out of it, and in any case the river was so strong that I liked it, I liked being in it, a strong river, because I was as light as a cork, and it would never carry me under. He … he made us as light as a cork, England. But politics are gone from my life’s vision. I make no distinction any more between races or systems. One of my favourite own jokes is that of Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky playing your money game Monopoly together in the smallest back room of the Kremlin in 1922. Ha, ha, ha! You also think it is funny, England, no?
‘No, you don’t think it is funny, I can see that. I am sorry you don’t. Your face is stern and you are gazing far away. But listen to me though, you are lucky. So far you don’t know what it is to belong to a nation that has taken the extreme lanes, but you will, you will. So I can see it coming because I read your newspapers. Up till now your country has been lucky, ours has been unlucky. We have no luck, none at all. We are rational, intelligent, strong, but unlucky. You cut off the head of your King Karl; we didn’t of our Karl. Ah, now you smile at my wit. You laugh. You have the laugh of the superior, England, the mild smile of those who do not know, but once on a time, if any foreigner laughed at me like that I could kill them. And I did! I did!
‘Stop me if I shout. Forgive me. No, don’t go, England. Your baby is not crying. Your wife does not call. Listen to me more. I don’t believe anything except that I am able to repair your car and do it good. And that is something. How many men can set you on the road again? It is a long way from my exhibitions of drawings, one of which, at Magdeburg, was opened and appreciated by You-know-who, a person who also knew about art. Yes, actually him. He shook my own hand, this hand! I was reconciled to my father by then: I who hated my father more than any hatred that was ever possible since the beginnings of the civilized world was brought back to respect him, to view his point with proper sympathy. To be able to again give respect to one’s father in middle-age! Can you imagine it ever, England? And who did it? He is truly a great man who can make the different generations understand each other, a dictator maybe, but great, still a genius. I tell you that my father was the proudest man in all Germany because he who had done it had shaken this – this hand!
‘Well, I will not ennui you any more about my adventures in those days. Let us skip a few years and talk about romantic Spain. Not that it was romantic. It can be a very dirty place, and annoying, unlike the cleaner countries, such as ours, my dear England. Just after crossing the mountains on foot in 1945, I stayed in a shepherd’s hut for two weeks of hiding. Someone paid the shepherd a terrible high rent for this stenching sty, and all the while I was attacked by ants, so that I go nearly mad. I looked mad – with my long beard and poor clothes, dreamed I was the King of Steiermark with my loptilted crown. Ants came in the door, and I start to kill them with hammer and sceptre – then I spare some lives in the hope that they would scuttle back and tell their friends that they had better not come near that hut because a crazy bone-German is conducting a proficient massacre. But it made no difference, and they kept coming on into the kill-feast. I worked for days to stop them, but they came continuously I suppose to see why it was that those before them were not coming back. There were thousands, and my romantic nature won because I got tired first. Strength and intelligence finally let me down. Ants are inhuman. Nowadays, if I see ants in my house or garage I use a Flit gun – bacteriological warfare, if you like, and that is quicker. I can let science take over and so don’t need to beg stupid questions. It stops them. I think of all those poor ants who get killed, and maybe the ants themselves have no option but to start this war on me. If only they were all individuals, England, like you – or me – then maybe only one or two would have been killed before the others turned and ran. But no, they have their statues to the war, the tomb of the Unknown Ant, who dies so that every ant could have his pebble of sugar, but who died in vain, of course. I have a sense of humour? Yes, I have. But it didn’t protect me from doing great wrong.
‘How did I get to Spain? My life is full of long stories, but this time I came to Spain from necessity, from dire necessity. It was a matter of life and death. To get here I set out from Russia on a journeying much longer than the one I told you about already in my youth. Name a country, and I have been in it. Say a town and I can call the main street, because I have slept on it. I can tell you about the colour of the policeman’s uniform, and where you can get the cheapest food; which is the best corner to stand and ask for money. I have done many things since the end of the war that I would not naturally do, that I should be ashamed of, except that it is man’s duty to survive. And man’s duty to let him? you said. Of course, quite right, quite so. Humanitarian people are right next door to my heart, my dear friend. But during the war I thought men couldn’t survive, and when the war started to end I taught myself that they could. How did I come to obtain my garage business? you ask. It takes much money to buy a garage, and I tell you something now that I wouldn’t tell a walking soul, not even my wife, so that instead of forgiving me, you will try to understand.
‘I got to Algeria. To say how would damage a few people, so I mustn’t. Part of my time I was a teacher of English in Setif, and passed myself as an Englishman. I imitated in every manner that man who was a spy back on the Turkish Bosphorus until nobody in this new place spied the difference. I taught English to Moslems as well, but earned a bad living at it. To augment my inmoney I made intricate maps of farmers’ land in the area. I am a good reconnaissance man, and if a farmer had only a very poor and tiny square of land the map I drew made it look like a kingdom, and he was glad to have it square-framed, seeing something to fight for as he gazed at it hanging on the wall of his tinroofed domicile, at night when the mosquitoes bit him mad, and he was double mad worrying about crops, money, and drought – not to mention rebellion. Then I began selling plots of land in the bled that weren’t accurately possessed by me – to Frenchmen who came straight out of the army from the mix-in of Indo-China – by telling people it was rich with oil. Nowadays I hear that it really is, but no matter. I sold the land only cheap, but I soon had enough real finance to buy many passports and escape to Majorca. I got fine work as a travel-agent
‘There I thought I had done such a deal of travelling in my scattered life that I should turn such knowing into my own business. To commence, I announced in a good newspaper that ten people were desired for a trip around the world, that it would be a co-operative venture, and that only little money would be needed, comparatively. When I saw the ten people I told that two thousand dollars each would be enough, but they had to be fed-up sufficiently with modern world-living to qualify for my expedition. I explained that out of our collective money we would comprise a lorry, and a moving-camera to take documentary films of strange places, that we would sell. Everybody said it was a shining brainwave, and I soon got the lorry and camera cheap. For two weeks we had map meetings while I planned each specific of the trip. I spent as much money on maps as on the lorry, almost, and pinned them to the wall at these gatherings. I gave them labour of cartography and collecting stores. They were all good people, so trusted me, even when I said that a supplementary cost would be laid because of the high price of film. No one would be leader of the expedition, I stipulated: it would be run by committee, with myself as the chairman. But somehow, and against my will, I achieved control. Because I was more interested in getting reactions from other people than from myself I became the real leader of them. In this aspect my good heart triumphed, because they needed me to be their overboss.
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