There was a bloke in town yesterday who caught my eye: he was standing in the middle of Charles Street and signalling in the air. For a moment I wondered whether he could be communicating with someone, but I looked around and saw that he couldn’t be: there was nobody there. He was making signs with his middle finger as if he was writing in the air – Mark does this sometimes but mostly to annoy me – and then I noticed that in his other hand he held a can of beer. And then I looked down and saw that instead of two legs he had one leg and a metal creation. I tried to puzzle him out. Making signals in the air looks like typical drunk behaviour, I guess; but he wasn’t behaving like a drunk in any other way. He was standing quite still and focussing intently on his task, whatever it was. I wondered if he was a veteran of some war (hence the leg); he also looked Eastern European, which fitted with the type of beer can. As my bus pulled away I wondered what would happen to him and where he would go. He reminded me of the scary bloke I saw the other week, who was shouting furiously at the air, screaming and yelling about Afghanistan and how people ‘shouldn’t behave like that’. I wondered whether he, too, was a veteran of some war and how many others there are out there.
Whether or not these guys were ex-soldiers, it strikes me as quite appalling that those who have fought and suffered are often just abandoned once they leave the army. Sure, they may get a pension but they may also have severe mental and physical problems. Does the Army help with these? Not enough, surely – otherwise there would be no need for organisations like Help for Heroes. It seems the only thing there is enough money for is actually starting a war. Did Blair have to go cap in hand to some charity before he could invade Iraq? When was the last time they had a raffle to buy an anti-aircraft gun?
Anyway, last night I went with Steve and his friend to see ’71’, a film about what were euphemistically called The Troubles in Belfast. The film follows a young recruit as his regiment is unexpectedly posted to Northern Ireland instead of Germany (thus reminding us of the Cold War background to all this). He is immediately thrust into a stand-off with furious local Catholics, he gets separated from his fellow-soldiers along with a comrade who winds up dead, and the rest of the film shows his attempts to escape and find his way home to the ‘barracks’, which are really just a crumbling school building where the army are holed up. On the way he is helped by a young Protestant lad and a Unionist doctor and his wife, and the long climactic scene – filmed almost completely without dialogue -takes place on the walkways of a tower-block.
The film is remarkable for involving you and also making you work to figure out what is going on: nothing is given away or explained as you are effectively in the soldier’s position. Hand-held cameras increase the sense of confusion and chaos as he finds out the hard way just how corrupt and entrenched the society is. But the worst culprits are supposedly on his own side: he witnesses a Protestant bomb going off and as a result one of the under-cover officers tries to kill him. His commanding officer tries to stick up for him but is ineffectual as they outrank him.
You must go and see this film while it’s still on.