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CONTRIBUTORS

Akinlabi Peter
Amanda Sington-Williams
A M Gatward
Ayat Ghanem
Bobby Parker
Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.
Dike Okoro
E C Osondu
Katie Metcalfe
Laura Solomon
Mandy Pannett
Michael Larrain
Oge Anyahuru
Terri Ochiagha
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

 

fiction


 

The Barnstormer at Goofy's Wiseacre Farm

By A M GATWARD

 

There is considerably more to the life of an infantryman or foot-soldier than getting up at the crack of dawn, rigging up explosive devices, jumping out of aircraft, being shot at by strangers and blowing off heads. I have survived two tours of duty, trapped on giant overseas tectonic plates, mountains, veldts and I have been shot at, wounded, choppered out in a poppy sopor and left alone in a hospital, only to be sent back again for more of the same yowling mayhem and medicine months later. I'm fine, thanks. I could spin you endless yarns and half baked observations about the vicissitudes of duty, conscience and patriotism, of being behind enemy lines, of the symmetries and parallels, contrasts and transitivities between the bedlam of battlefields and the quieter mayhem of everyday things, but in the end I think that all this has been done better by movies and by better writers, and in any case what I really want to do is to tell you a story about the man we called Duckface, who was the sergeant-major when I was square-bashing.

 

Earlier in his career, Duckface had also been known as The Barnstormer on his tours of duty because of the unprecedented, endless elegance, style and artistry with which he always directed his aggression into creating carnage, initiating destruction and despatching enemy foe. His comrades were often amazed, according to Blunt, by his "insouciant extremes", by the "interminable insistency" of his allegiance to his theories and by his extraordinary willingness to put himself and others in “extreme physical jeopardy” for the sake of what Duckface called "the total artistic effect", what (according to Bloom) he had termed in his mind after reading Kant “the mathematically sublime occurrences when art meets anarchy".  Duckface once, according to Bell, put himself in mortal peril when ordered to plant explosives around a bridge they were supposed to destroy because he was convinced that the explosion would "not be sufficiently Byzantine for a mission of this magnitude and significance" and so he scaled the bridge wall in broad daylight, clambering up scaffolding all the time "under heavy fire", according to Blunt, in order to line it with extra packages of dynamite and semtex and gunpowder and god knows what else, "vast quantities of explosives" as he himself later admitted, so that the whole thing (“the entire construction”) would go up "in the most baroque and incredible fireball you could imagine". The conflagration had not gone off with the dazzling extravagance he had intended, and for days afterwards Duckface was "agitated, frenzied, distressed", according to Bloom, "lachrymose, inconsolable for days", according to Blunt over what Duckface called "that failed catastrophe of the bonfire" and “the heartbreaking calamity of that unspeakable detonation”. He was also a crack-shot with guns and could probably have made it as a sniper or so-called sharp shooter, but Duckface had no interest in “brainlessly killing time” by waiting for hours in some foxhole or on a rooftop, preferring the “adrenal ferocity of open warfare” and also “killing other people at the closest possible range”. He believed he had perfected the art of shooting enemy combatants so that they would fall to the ground "in a way maximally pleasing to the eye", according to Blunt, and further "with the most perfect balletic grace imaginable" and according to some of his comrades, said Bell, he considered this special ability to be one of his finest accomplishments, his “great contribution to human science and endeavour”. Duckface’s superiors suspected however that "something wasn't quite right" in the mind or head of Duckface, and put disparaging comments in their documents and performance reviews of his work,  citing "manic, incomprehensible behaviour", his "ill-favoured eyes" and the "intolerable perfectionism" that characterised his missions, professional attitude and demeanour. The doctors who were employed to assess his psychological makeup after he launched a colossal rocket attack on a "quite intolerable structure" in Liberia, thus Blunt, "an edifice of profound hideousness" thus Bell,  a rocket attack moreover which had no military objective whatsoever and which may even have alerted the enemy to their presence, these doctors diagnosed that he suffered from "an unclassifiable array of personality disorders and syndromes", a “generalised malignancy of the soul and brains” and recommended that his considerable discipline, intensity and resourcefulness be put somewhere else, “somewhere he can’t cause harm to the living”. And so Duckface, “unfit for human consumption” according to the Colonel, was moved to Sergeant-Major and given the role of overseeing the basic physical training of new army recruits, far away from the nerve-racking imbroglios of global hostilities and the sheer blind terror of foreign military campaigning, far away from what he called “the blank canvass where anything goes”. There was a footnote on his medical file, written in red. "On no account must be allowed to use live ammunition", it said. 

 

From his apprentices, Duckface demanded unqualified discipline and he had a keen eye for the slightest signs of insubordination in his recruits, "a human barometer for signs of mutiny", as he described himself one day when the slashing rain came down, hurled at us like great fistfuls of dry rice. He told us he expected us to follow orders “without the slightest vacillation” he said, “no shilly-shallying on my watch!”  and that the non-compliant and rebellious would be punished “immoderately” he said, "and by the most radical conceits and methods" and it is of course a testament to the pungency of these threats and also to the general allure of his persona ("my force majeure!" he called it) that in practise his threats to "excoriate publically with the ultimate reprovals" were rarely put into force, and never a single time during the time that I received teachings and training from him. Nobody ever wavered in their obedience, their absolute unqualified deference to his command (“an atmosphere of total compliance and acquiesence”, he said) and, according to Blunt, Duckface believed fully in the “earth shattering correctness of my ideas” and “the epoch-making rightness of my thinking”. The few people that he had penalised in the past had "deserted the army immediately", according to Bell "radically frightened" by what Blunt calls this "outrageous contumely and fanaticism". Duckface also liked classical music, and often demanded that we listen (in absolute silence, “quite naturally in the absoluteness of quiet”) to the musical compositions of Stockhausen, Sorabji and Cage, as well as Schoenberg (“only at his least euphonic”), Schnitke and Birtwhistle. He liked in particular to play the whole of the Opus Clavicembalisticum of Sorabji repeatedly, sometimes for days, a work whose “nitric counterpoint grinds like the mills of God”, thus Duckface quoting Sorabji, an aggressive work of music that “I absolutely loath, and which is full of sounds that are almost completely unbearable” Whenever he played it to us he would stand to attention on a chair, motionless and transported (“spiritually concluded” he said) as we stood stiff as cadavers in our socks by our bunks with the music blasting from his giant stereo speakers at top volume. And if somebody so much as sneezed or let out a squeak he would scream at the top of his lungs ("kill it! kill the music!") and would then peer right into their faces with the most vicious imaginable insults and expressions of opprobrium, insisting that the whole record be started again from the beginning so that we would listen to the whole piece in its entirety "without missing the slightest detail of the complexities, textures and structure". During our second week of training, Duckface disseminated amongst the men pamphlets about anarchy, favouring in particular publications by the so-called Anarchist Collective, quoting at length in his little booklets  from volumes such as Days of War, Nights of Love, and Expect Resistance!, and Kropotkin's The Conquest of Bread, "an epoch-making set of ideas and principles", he said. According to Bell, somebody once asked him why an anarchist would ever join the military, and willingly submit to its stern rules, disciplines and procedures. “Because they are anarchists, quite naturally” said Duckface immediately. “Because they have nothing but the most extreme form of contempt for everything normative, which logically must include all known Anarchist norms and principles”, he said.

 

One day he told us he wanted to demonstrate and “to put to the test” an idea that he had just come up with, a brainchild that came to him “just lying in my bed”, he said, “an idea forged fresh in the living fire of thought”. He ordered us to do our jogging exercises and our marching practises and our weapons routines, and he supervised and inspected us intently, with the utmost scrutiny and intensity, as we polished our boots, made our beds, mopped our floors, shaved our heads. He fervently examined the lapels of our uniforms for the slightest signs of creasing and discolouration, ransacked our chests of drawers for the smallest signs of “parasites and things I can’t hear about” and even when he pronounced himself satisfied with all of our hard work and our perfectionism, he ordered us to do it all over again “just because I can”, he said, “just to show you a thing or two about what’s really involved”. Several hours later, he took us to the firing range and I noticed that he had been even more demanding in his expectations than usual, making us perform absurd forfeits if we didn’t hit our targets in exactly the way he considered artful and proper, and fervently insisting that the sound of the gunfire be heard in a tarantella rhythm so that he could think about the idea of “death chasing everything down”; several days before, he had  insisted that we revert to calling him by the name Barnstormer (“Are you nothing but a squirly maggot, son?”, “Yes I am Sir! Barnstormer, Sir!” etc) After shooting practise, we went to the mess hall where he ordered us all to clean our rifles, re-load them and then stand to attention so he could “peer down the barrels to check for signs”. He went down the line inspecting each one (“Clean!” “Not clean!” “Disaster!” “Exquisite!” etc) and upon reaching the final soldier in the line he put his eye to the barrel as he had to all the others and immediately ordered the solider without the slightest hesitation “to get on with it and pull the trigger”.

 

 

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