Black Tartan Wombat

If you are near London, and hurry, you may find in the basement of Forbidden Planet a sale of the paperback collected editions of Brian Aldiss’ novels at a pound each. They were just coming out when I profiled him in 2001. I picked up there last week A Rude Awakening which is the last of his three autobiographical novels about a randy soldier in the Far East between 1943 and 1946. The first, A Hand Reared Boy, was a rather scandalous success in the late Sixties.

A Rude Awakening is scandalous, all right, dripping with coarse descriptions of licentious soldiery at play. But it is also funny, frightening, and tragic, sometimes all at once. It appears to be a novel about sex, but it is also and more profoundly a story of colonialism and race. The action takes place in 1946 in the last sputter of empire: part of the British army that had reconquered Burma was diverted, after the Japanese surrender, to administer Indonesia for the Dutch, who had surrendered it to the Japanese in 1942, and found itself in the middle of a nasty little war of independence.

They aren’t really fighting and most of their time is taken up with heroic drinking bouts on such unlikely elixirs as Black Tartan Wombat Wiskey, Made in Scottland, Bottled by PV Ramakrishnan Bottling Mart, Kuala Lumpur.

The British cannot properly understand that their defeats by the Japanese in the earlier half of the war have finished their authority, which was grounded on fear. They understand the role of fear, all right. There is a horrible portrait of a torturer, who boasts of his work in the mess at night; though some of the other men denounce him, and one beats him up, there is no question of the Army stopping him. One soldier is saved from execution by the rebels because they are afraid of the retaliation that murdering him would bring. But they can’t really believe that India will be abandoned, and that a bloodbath will follow, no matter how often they are told. They can’t, in the end, believe that anyone but a white man can run a country. This is a book that works on post-imperial smugness like paintstripper but the didactic or reflective purpose is beautifully concealed in the abundant and enchanting life of it. It has all the basic merits – you want to read more, you shout with laughter, you remember it afterwards.

The virtuosity of the drinking scenes is astonishing – think of Kingsley Amis without any showing off. Below the fold I will have scanned in the first seven pages because the whole scene is such a triumph of naturalistic writing.

bq.. The wild life in Medan was something neither night nor DDT could stop.
Beyond our steamy windows, the darkness held all the breathability of a sailor’s armpit. A winged and nameless shitbag came hurtling in from the murk, full of offence and fury. Its manner was of one intent on shattering — preferably forever — the world speed record for Tropical Hirsute Insect Nuisance Flying.

It burst across the room at drunken velocity, maintaining an altitude of approximately two inches above the heads of the assembled drinkers. The drinkers were tanking themselves up for the arrival of a lorry-load of unleashed Dutch girls, and failed to notice this freak of evolution. Still accelerating, the shitbag gained height and ploughed its way through a cloud of assorted mosquitoes, flies, moths, and fluttering uglies which had appropriated our central light as a zone for combined aerial combat and propagation of species.

I saw it because I was leaning against the far wall of the mess, listening with Jock Ferguson to Johnny Mercer on War.

‘The generals have done their best, but it’s been a bloody untidy war all along,’ he was saying. ‘Do you wonder we’re stuck here in such a right old cock-up? You can’t say the war is over, even now.’

‘Och, you’re exaggerating, man,’ said Jock Ferguson, straightening up, squaring his shoulders, and pouring a half pint of whisky down his throat. ‘You’ll be saying next it didn’t begin properly, either.’
‘When did it begin, then?’
‘September, 1939, of course, when Britain went to war against Germany over Poland,’ Jock and I said together, with minor variations.
Johnny shook his head. He had been a teacher in civvy street, and liked to lecture. ‘Wrong. I’m talking about when the World War began – the one we’re still involved with, not the little local European war starring Adolf Hitler. The World War began in 1931, when Japan invaded China. The poor old Chinks have been at it ever since. That was when Japanese aggression started.’

It was at this point that I spotted the winged shitbag, cutting a swathe through the lesser phyla of its kind.

‘Ah, but the real war started in ’39,’ said Jock.
‘If so, then it ended in 1940,’ said Johnny. ‘After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, all of Europe was at peace, unified by Hitler. Nothing else was going on, except the British buggering about on the fringes. The Yanks were reading their comic books. The Russians were frigging around doing nothing in particular. It was only later that the yellow-bellies got things stirred up again.”

Johnny gave his high-pitched laugh and scratched his arse.

Some of us had heard his weird version of history before.

‘Whatever you say, VE and VJ days finished the war, all the separate bits of it,’ I said.

‘Balls. There are wars going on everywhere still, in China, everywhere. What about Spain? What about here? What about Jndo-China?’
‘Yes, but they aren’t real wars. They’re not called wars.’
‘Horry’s right, and you’re wrong as usual, Mercer,” Ferguson said. ‘They’re just local conflicts.’

Mercer was not discomposed. ‘Speaking for myself, I prefer a war like a good book – it’s got to have a beginning, a middle and an end.’ He laughed and tottered oft in search of a drink.
‘The feller’s no’ heard of armistices,’ Jock Ferguson said, and also stomped off— leaving me exposed to the drunken mercies of Sgt Wally Scubber, shell-shocked survivor of the Arakan and already as pissed as he was every night of his life. He clutched my arm, cunningly detaining me and supporting himself at the same time. The winged shitbag executed a few crafty Immelmann turns overhead without in any way losing flying speed.

‘Merdeka, Wally, how’re you doing? Time for beddybyes?’
‘I was shaying to Charlie Meadows, in Blighty you got proper househesh to live in, with proper shanny — with lavatories that flush properly and all that. Not like bloody Medan, Horry — see what I’m getting at. Curtains. Carpiss on the floor…’

I took a deep drag on my cigarette. As Wally rambled on, I tried to listen to other conversations. My old mate Charlie Meadows was saying, ‘…since we are an army of occupation, we must conduct ourselves accordingly. There are certain laws which armies of occupation have to follow, but we are so bloody under strength that — ‘

The mess gramophone started up. Ron Dyer was playing the well-worn hit-record, ‘Terang Boelan’, and the glutinous words drowned out what Charlie had to say. I took a deep swig from my beer glass and sank into an armchair. Wally perched himself on the arm without interrupting the flow of his talk. He had even invented a way of drinking without swallowing which allowed him to go on spouting while the liquor trickled down.

‘Everyone agrees that Blighty’s the cunt — hup, sorry, the country with the highest culture. Good roadsh. Before the war, I was a member of the Automobile Asshociation. Well, that’sh special to England, the Automobile Asshociation. It’s all part of the shit -‘
‘What shit are you on about?’
‘Hup. The shituation as I shee it.’

The shitbag, infuriated by the smoke and heat of the mess, had worked itself up to maximum speed. Making a sudden banking turn, it dived and struck the wall just above my head with a resounding thhhwerr-ujjjkk.

Fast on the wing, slow on reaction time, the shitbag hung there for a moment, its head pressed thoughtfully against the wall, its multitudinous members still vaguely propriocepting. Patches of distemper and odd wing-cases flaked off at point of impact. Then the creature dropped. It spun tangentially away from the wall and nose-dived into my beer.

Wally noticed nothing. ‘Only the British, Horry, my dear old mate, only the British are truly shiver-shiverlised.’
‘I must go in a minute, Wally. I’ve got a date.’
‘You wouldn’t call the French or the Belgiums shiverlised, would your’

I stared down at the shitbag. It made vague motions in my direction, either swimming or beckoning.

‘America. They’re shiverlised, Wally. China — there’s a very ancient culture for you.’

Giggling, Wally jogged my arm. My glass slopped. The beer revived the winged shitbag. It caught my eye and made a spunky attempt to heave itself out. I experienced a moment of fear, in case it washed up on my flies and burrowed in before I could check its progress. It looked like the kind of creature that devoured sexual organs every morning for breakfast.

‘Ancient, yes, yes, ancient all right. Too fucking ancient by half. That’s China. No Automobile Asshociation there. I know the Chinks, Horry. RA — the Rickshaw Asshociation, that’s them.’ He laughed, leaking cigarette smoke, and his wrinkles opened and shut like the pleats of an old accordion.
‘Christ, Wally, the fucking AA isn’t the be-all and end-all of shivcrlisation. The Chinese were cultured when we were running round naked with our arses painted blue. The AA wasn’t invented then, either.’

He stirred restlessly on the arm of the chair, dropping ash in my lap. ‘Leave the AA out of this. We’re talking about the Chinks, now, and what a dirty lot they are. You’ve only got to look.’
‘Arseholes, chum, they’re a sight cleaner than we are — and more shiverlised —’
‘You only shay that because you’ve got this Chinese pusher down the bazaar. The Chinks shiverlised! They’re a tropical race, Horry, a tropical race, and you can’t name me one tropical race that’s shiverlised. Look at Africa, India and Burma…’
‘Don’t talk to me about Burma, mate. I was there in the thick of it with fucking 2 Div.’

Lighting up another cigarette, I glanced at my wrist. Two watches were strapped there. One was a beauty in a black gunmetal case; it had been made in Holland. Unfortunately, it did not work very well. The other was an expensive Indian watch with a red sweep second hand, which looked good although it kept poor time. Taking a mean reading, I decided it must be eight-fifteen or eight-thirty, or perhaps a little later. I could soon leave politely and go and see Margey.

The party was nominally in my honour, since I was flying home in only four days’ time; but there would be another party in the sergeants’ mess on the following night, just as there had been one the night before.

The winged shitbag was a terrifying mass of claws and antennae and legs, not to mention four stubby wings, with which it was whipping my lifeless Indian beer into foam. Its body comprised a chunk of chitin and armour-casing, from which a mass of pubic hair burst in all directions. It was a perfect scale model of a tank squashed in a bramble bush. Fixing two dull black eyes on me, it redoubled its efforts to home in on my flies or throat.

‘The Chinks are really beaten, schmashed, just like the Dutch… I mean, the Dutch are practically a tropical race too, they’ve lived here for centuries…’
The ‘Terang Boelan record finished. I was able to hear Charlie Meadows again, still talking about army conduct. A good man, Charlie, and an old Burma band. But Jackie Tertis kept butting in.

‘That’s okay as far as it goes, Charlie, but take it from me that no native population has ever yet been kept down by leniency. You must show ‘cm a firm hand. That’s all they respect. By God, if I had my way — ‘
‘Thank heavens, you aren’t going to get your way, Jackie,’ Charlie said mildly. Jackie Tertis was a slightly built man; unlike the rest of us, he was always dapper, his uniform always smartly pressed. Tertis was different, leading his dark sexless life under another star. The sun which baked most of us a solid brown had turned Tertis a hot foxy hue. He was always stoked to furnace temperature.

Wally was the temperature of cold Irish gravy. Blowing cigarette smoke over me, he continued his lecture.

‘Horry, you’ve been away from home too long, talking about getting demobbed here! There isn’t a man in this mesh tonight that wouldn’t give his head to go home next Monday in your place. I’m telling you this for your own good, Horry… These little Chink boors with all their dirty shexual habits-‘

Just for a moment, Wally Scubber interested me more than the winged shit bag. The latter had dived to the murky depths of the Indian beer to see if glass-drilling operations would get it anywhere. ‘What dirty sexual habits do you happen to fucking well have in mind, Wally?’

His mottled face was lopsided with reproof, as if he suspected that we were talking at cross-purposes.

‘There I think you know better than me, Horry, isn’t that right? I don’t wish to be spesh — speshicif — give details, but Chink girls aren’t brought up like English girls, are they? No churches or schools or – general discipline. No knickers. Bloody slant-eyed hoors – it’ll spoil you, Horry, onnis, going with your Chink bit down in the bazaar. When you meet up with some nice English girl —’

I belched and heaved myself out of the chair.
‘Finish up my beer, Wally, there’s a good lad.’

I handed him my glass, which vibrated with the enraged activities of the shitbag. I wove my way across the room. ‘You cunt, they do wear fucking knickers,’ I announced to the assembled company.

Johnny Mercer’s laughing face loomed into mine. Johnny was shorter than I, a red-faced, rat-faced Cockney who made an indifferent RASC sergeant.

‘I was watching you catch that bit of wild life in your beer, mucker,’ he said. ‘It reminded me of what the old Venereal Bede said about human existence, that it was like some horrible hairy flying abomination belting in through one window of a great hall straight into some poor cunt’s wog beer.’

He started howling with his homemade brand of laughter, and I joined in. Smiting him on the shoulder, I pushed through the crowd towards the mess door. It stood open to let the heat and smoke out. I blundered through, emerging almost at a trot into the steaming night.

You could tell blindfold that Medan was just one degree off the equator. The air suppurated like primaeval broth. A million monstrous little things unknown in England expressed their beings in sound so urgently that it was hard to know what was air, what noise. I stood there, swaying slightly, and flipped my fag-end away into the night. Its parabola was cut short in midair. Something had gobbled it up before it fell.
The headlights of a battered fifteen-hundredweight truck penetrated the darkness and moved down the road from the direction of the guardhouse.

They turned uncertainly in at the mess gates, revealing themselves as two eyes the colour of mule urine. They backed away to one corner of the enclosure. There was a smashing sound, sustained and quite leisurely, as the fifteen hundredweight struck our old wooden summerhouse and ignored it. RSM Dickie Payne was returning, drunk as always.

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