Thoughts on Fergal Keane

Last night I watched a documentary produced by the esteemed broadcast journalist Fergal Keane. The programme was ostensibly about his battle with PTSD, an injury he sustained over years of reporting on some of the most horrific conflicts in recent times.

I am particularly interested in Fergal Keane for several reasons. I first became aware of him in the mid 80’s when he was an aspiring journalist working in Northern Ireland reporting on “The Troubles” at that time I was serving in the British Army in the border regions of The Province. It was a time of realisation for me, an awakening to the often hidden connivance and true nature of conflict which at its very core seeks power, influence and wealth. I realised that moral arguments and offered allegiances were frequently smokescreens for deeper more basic human desires and instincts. Fergal Keane went on to report on conflicts in The Balkans, The Middle East, Southern Asia and numerous countries in Africa. He is currently covering the conflict in Ukraine.

At some point in the first half of my military career which extended between 1983-2005 I realised that Fergal’s broadcasting assignments were taking him to the same regions of the globe I was finding myself in. He popped up In Beirut when I was there, then in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1999 during a time of savage civil war. The conflict in Sierra Leone was very much cast in the shadow of what was at that time occurring in The Balkans. Consequently, much of the bloodlust and genocidal nature of events went unreported, even worse it was ignored as being an irrelevance to what was happening closer to European borders back home.

It has been my experience that the further away from Europe one travels and/or the darker a victims skin the less interest people back home have. I believe this attitude may be changing, although possibly only due to lines of communication becoming more accessible to all . The emergence of new commodities often in what is termed the third world is creating prospective future battlefields. This in turn may focus the attention of developed nations upon those specific regions and give rise to a greater awareness of the poverty and suffering of their populations. We can only hope such development harnesses investment rather than the traditional tendency for exploitation we have witnessed historically. In terms of people truly caring I am not entirely convinced.

I slightly veered off my intended course in my previous paragraph, my apologies.

In 1999 whilst in Freetown I was fortunate enough to meet Fergal in the famous watering hole known as Paddy’s Bar. Paddy’s Bar is renowned for many reasons all of which are stories in themselves. Consequently, I will simply say that those who frequented Paddy’s would unlikely forget it (mostly the good) I met Fergal on two occasions at Paddy’s, once in the company of the legendary Fred Marafano who was discussing his own experiences of engaging with the RUF in the unconventional conflict. Paddy’s Bar was a place where NGO’s, Journalists, Mercenaries, and other strange animals, savoury and unsavoury would meet in the late afternoon to swap stories and information of what was happening in and around the Capital. After these sessions we would retreat to our various lockdown locations to observe the imposed curfew. I do recall chatting with Fergal, although I do not remember the specifics of the conversation I can say I sensed he was truly disturbed by what he had seen in Sierra Leone. This was approximately five years before he reported on the Rwandan genocide, I do recall him saying he had never witnessed anything like he had seen in Sierra Leone, something I doubt he would say after his visit to Kigali.

I mention my meeting with Fergal only because I felt at the time he was under some kind of burden. I could tell he was an eager journalist and for that reason was wary of him. I sensed he was pushing himself into areas he found repellant and disgusting but that he felt somehow driven to do so. I suspect I thought he was reckless, that was/is my default belief regarding most journalists I ever met in areas of conflict. I wondered why he did what he did. I remember thinking how I could account for my own reasoning of what I did for a living but not being quite able to understand his motivation. On reflection I now completely understand what drives a person like Fergal. Additionally, being able to retrospectively assess my own lifes path and having the knowledge and experience of my own PTSD I can understand the desire to be where the action is perceived to be happening. That desire is almost unstoppable and in many cases can prove to be fatal.

Fergal Keane went on to report on hotspots worldwide. I left the Army in 2005 and went directly to Afghanistan, specifically to Kandahar. Although I had witnessed conflict and death whilst I was serving in the Military I never felt as vulnerable as I did when I subsequently moved into the world of Corporate/Private Security. It is true to say that my attitude toward indigenous populations became less compassionate when I was employed by Business rather than Government, although now I see the two entities as the same thing adorned in different garments. Governments are businesses, although I would argue that nations no longer truly exist as they once did, although the illusion of them is sold to their citizens and subjects. Nations hide behind whatever moral superiority they can construct, or create diversions by which they can justify their actions. Businesses buy off and trade with governments, groups and individuals to achieve their goals. Effectively the two different bodies are reaching for the same results utilising similar behaviours, it is only the noises they make which differ. As we move further and further into this model of behaviour the harder it will become to distinguish between Government and Business, some may say we have already attained such a coexistence.

Again I have gone off piste.

In 2008 Fergal’s and my story converge yet again. In that year Fergal found himself in The Priory as did I. My life had spiralled into a kind of madness which found me abusing alcohol and at times more or less homeless. Thankfully a few people helped me, in 2008 I was diagnosed with PTSD. The story of recovery is a long one which continues to this day. I remained working in areas of conflict and was involved in several incidents which could be defined as violent and hostile. In spite of those subsequent events I did not have a return to the depths of despair I experienced in 2008. I have suffered from depression and anxiety sporadically since 2008. I am now better equipped to deal with the fallout of those days although I very much doubt I will ever be completely free of it.

Currently I am struggling with increased anxiety, I am not quite sure why, I don’t think it is unusual to not know why. I have spoken to a few former colleagues recently who have indicated they too are suffering with similar afflictions. I mention this as at the conclusion of Fergal Keane’s documentary he suggested that the thing he has found most useful in his recovery was not necessarily talking to his therapist but to others who had experienced the same damage he had.

Although I am able to rationalise all the above there are times when I fall into a pit I feel I can never crawl out of. The ridiculous thing is it might happen for a period of 24 hours or 3 months. That for me is the scary thing, not knowing if the next time it happens whether I’ll be able to rationalise my way out or not. The anxiety comes from having responsibilities toward others who I care about, I know I can survive in a doorway or a tent, it is those I care about that I worry for.

I write this largely as an exercise in exorcism, it makes me feel better when I express it outwardly. I can do the same with a walk in the woods but I hope that this is somehow of more use beyond my own self.

I definitely do not seek sympathy, neither am I asking for any kind of help I simply find it helpful to be honest about who I am. I have not been a Saint (not that I believe in them) I bare my scars (such as they are) as a badge of honour.

Maybe I’ll get to see Fergal again someday..but he has given up The Drink so it’ll be Tea, I guess.         

    

Invisible

 

The Museum is a glass monstrosity,

It is an abortion of architecture.

Built to please the eye’s of those not yet born.

 

In a Wing Designated “European Conflict”

there are Weapons displayed with gruesome glee,

Tools once held by young mens hands.

 

Outside in the courtyard refreshments are available.

Children are laughing and playing, joyous noises.

Old men sit, quietly staring at their palms.

  

Limbs

 

Thunderous almighty Hymns

offered up in glory tones,

cannot replace our severed limbs

Or grow new flesh on splintered bones.

 

Nor, all the well oiled smooth prosthetics

fuse a mind flashed white with shock,

enough to jolt what stalled kinetics

Restoring life where now there’s not.

 

Through their smiles and stoic grit

there stalks a shadow lurking low,

and yes I see the curse of it

That only those who’ve lost can know.

 

The pride that shines in Un-warred eyes

is pity inside out,

just like a promise turned to lies

Forgot, it counts for nowt.

 

Late November Country Walk

 

I tramp for miles across low Field

from chalky cliffs through ancient Wield

from Spire to Spire and all between

beneath each stride lie those unseen

 

November’s light is quick to fade

as were the souls with which was paid

the credit that with every Step

we promise them “We wont forget”

 

Yet in the swathe of Fallen Leaf

the scarlet petals wilting grief

seems soon forgot by passers by

as were the voices asking “Why”

 

Then as the early fall of night

casts shadows on my failing sight

I’ll stand before a Wooden Cross

to contemplate their greatest loss

Left Behind

 

The man is in a plateau’d valley,

It stretches between the rising humps of desert beasts.

 

The expanse is full of dust it shimmers but is not hot,

An endless wind shifts all traces of life.

 

It is cold in Sunlight and bitter by Moon,

The Children wear dead Fathers shoes.

 

No-one here knows his name or that he exists,

He might die and not be found.

 

He holds a handful of golden grains and lets them fall away,

He sits to curse The Bone White sky, and waits.

 

Shadows

 

The Sunburst of trauma the explosion of a moment,

Rips the colour from the day and turns it inside out.

 

Black and white, X-ray sharp it permeates all that’s solid,

It exposes what is hidden to the glare of constant replaying memories.

 

Now burned against the white walls of cranial caverns,

As if the first confused scrawling of early man.

 

We tentatively explore the brushstrokes of residual time,

Probing the meaning of what indelibly remains. 

 

They are nothing but the imprint of Shadows,

the cast off pupa from which everything after flourished into flight

 

Killing’s easy Talking’s not

 

It’s not enough to sit in the quiet of night and conjure peace,

for it’s in moments of furious hatred

We need the noise to cease.

 

When the steel or the Bludgeon fills the Hand,

and the defences are all but breached

when the lines are crossed we drew in the sand

 

When the end of Civility’s Reached

 

It’s not enough to withdraw and Blame War,

in the aftermath of an act

But to stem the Blood with the Words spoke before.

 

When the Pen and the Dialogue fade in Retreat,

and young men are pushed to the fore

it’s then the march must be stopped with the feet

 

It’s then that we must ask, what for?

Headstone (On the first day of the Kabul evacuation)

 

Where do you start after twenty years of blood?

A thousand miles from the origins,

On a blank page like a tombstone awaiting the chisel.

The names have all been carved in stone and flesh,

 

They are burned in the memories of orphans and widows.

Some even breathe tonight that will be gone tomorrow.

Messages of love are punched on keyboards,

Anger is raging yet resigned to the calm of inevitable deliverance.

 

That brief sublime before the bullet hits the skull and in comes peace.

I see their faces smiling and grimacing alike,

I hear their laughter, their joy at being alive in troubled times.

I reach out into the night that takes us all, and imagine hope.

 

Behind the Lines

 

Don’t worry too much that someone isn’t having their throat cut

while you sit on your couch, 

while you flick through the channels,

While you peacefully slouch.

 

Don’t worry too much that there’s no-one beyond the wall

while you turn the next page,

while you inwardly rage,

and you do nothing at all.

 

Don’t worry too much that some hold the tide

while you splash in the shallows,

while you pray at All Hallows,

While you comfortably hide.

 

Don’t worry too much that their names are unknown 

while you make your donations,

while you curse those cruel nations,

While they die alone.

 

Don’t worry too much that young men are dying

while you swallow the Kool-Aid,

With the price only they paid,

While our leaders are lying.

 

Don’t worry too much while you sleep fast tonight

that you’ll not wake in the morning,

to a new day that’s dawning,

That you’ll not be all right.

 

Our leaders sit in comfort while our young men and women put themselves in danger attempting to fix their incompetence. Armchair experts write poetry and advice to anyone who will listen, imagining they know what the streets of Kabul might be like. A small group of silent men and some women work tirelessly in ways that will never be reported in their own lifetime to save life and take life, in order to save life. They will come home quietly unannounced and Un-flagged to a nation of virtue signalling ignoramuses who imagine they could do what they do simply by thinking about it in a bloody armchair. Many of the silent actors will descend into madness and drunkenness, some will make good but none will get the credit they deserve and all will have to live with what they did and saw with no thanks or recognition. While every tom dick and harry knows better than those who can never speak.    

 

 

Meat

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Does a body need a passport when it crosses borders?
Who vouches for the grimaced face if one is still attached?

A loadmaster or an administrative clerk?
A paper shuffler, a Northern line strap hanger in training shoes?

The piece of meat that once was a living thing, where will it come to rest?
The birds pecked it while it smouldered, recently detached.

I recall staring vacantly at the matted mess wondering whose flesh it was,
It didn’t matter anymore as both minds had ceased to function.

I will never know what part of you that carcass was….
I hope that it got home and someone lays flowers where it lies.

© Wolfgar 2020

Bottled

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Getting a ship into a bottle is easier than getting a man out of one,

Trapped in a town,
In a house,
In a room,
In a mind,

Bobbing like a cork, a crows nest among the swell.
He see’s land then not, so puts his head back under for another shot.

The Sober Sextant defies blurred eyes,
Measuring fixed points of reality in liquid-like skies.

In the noise of the gale there’s the sound of a War
but the wind in the sail helps deaden its roar,

So it’s further and deeper out into the foam
his voice screaming madly the echo his home.

Until at its centre the voyage is done
and in the eye of the storm a battle is won.


© Wolfgar 2020

Demob unhappy (An alternative VE Day)

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The garden is no more grown than was when left,
the Sea Spray of Portsmouth the Grime of Waterloo
Cling fresh beneath the reawakening memories of you.

Between the leaving and their return the world shifted
their brains rattled by battery and bomb,
Something replaced the life in them and something now is gone.

The surrender of innocence on English Summer evenings
was stolen by the rape of youth and a fleeting fuck of liberation,
Is a bottle of flat brown beer enough to drown their bitter indignation?

They must now retreat from the front they made themselves
to cower silently in their peaceful rage,
Returning to sweet freedoms won, inside a gilded cage.

© Wolfgar 2020

Post conflict reconstruction

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Reverse search a pool of blood to its foetus of ideas,
calculate trajectories to a pin-head through the years.
While stippling marks proximity the silenced tongue won’t speak,
for its hell that takes our liberty when damp Earth entombs the meek.

In cavities of ancient skulls the dust of time drowns words
where cave walls once were libraries, now echoes fall unheard.
Where hit-list’s flamed in burn-pits and armies forged their prize,
re-written were our histories and their curses damned our eyes.

Then blinded willingly or not we sweep ahead in time
we carve sacred memorials in elevated rhyme,
and the horrors of reality will not be writ upon this page
as we flounder in our duality it is guilt that we assuage.


©Wolfgar 2019

A thousand faces

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These eye’s now laid on natures wings
have seen the sum of hateful things,
enough that English Winter Skies
as Pale as death cannot disguise

the salty sorrow in a tear,
intrusive nightmares ever near.
An empty voice shocked free from words
which when it speaks is never heard.

Yet by the River from the hide
I saw a bird and almost cried,
as through its feathered curtain shone
a thousand faces dead and gone.

© Wolfgar 2019

Airport Circle Kabul

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Viewing the world through Inch thick glass,
the traffic chokes to a halt.
A veiled shadow holds a face to the window.

Its gaze encrusted with disappointment
eyes as pale as a moonlit desert,
We stare at each other from our different worlds

I silently mouth sorry
whilst thumbing my passports pages,
The Child Spirit sees me whole.

Frozen for the longest moment
in a humming steel cocoon,
I watch the wagons circle, vulturesque.

A hand-print is smeared on the window
I touch it before walking to the terminal,
less than the span of my palm or the fold of a Dollar bill.

Ascending through dust and cloud I curse the City,
Roads spinning out from the Circle below, the people are no longer real.
The Dubai lounge is first class cool just my Duty free and me.

© Wolfgar 2019

Here Is

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“Listen you fuckers you screw-heads you cunts”

He never talks so no need to ask them to listen
He used to talk

He builds his strength so he can destroy
He used to protect

He thinks and reads so he can express himself
He used to write

He looks at beautiful things to avoid the horror
He used to keep an open mind

He embraces a religion which he despises
He used to fear his damnation

He has knuckle dusters in his glove compartment
He used to bestow benefit on doubters

He sang his babies to sleep and raged against wrong
He curses children and cracks dull skulls

Here is what you made him
before you
Here is what you wanted from him
Here Is
Here Is
Here Is


© Wolfgar 2019

We gave them names

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On roads between the tribal territories we would stop
to hide amongst the green of things,
some lads would smoke and some be silent.

We talked to horses and forgot our lives,
most often the stillness would calm us.
From hidden hillsides we’d watch our enemies move.

We gave the horses names and fed them apples,
they became our friends they listened to our confessions.
They were not aligned to flags or kerbstone colours.

The radio static broke the spell like lightening strikes,
the rains would wash us back to streets
where our calmness would evaporate to hate.

On the Derriaghy Road between the hell of sink estates
we harassed joyriders and freedom fighters,
terrorists and lovers too, the green and gold, red white and blue.

We gave them names and labels from folklore, rhymes and fables
just like the horses in the stables
we gave them names.

We fed their hungry bitter souls with reason and with cause,
we never thought we might be wrong
when kicking down their doors.

We gave them names in a language laced with spite
we cursed our enemies so, to make our cause seem right
We gave them names.

And when I hear those names again, spoken, spat and screamed
I think of friendly horses
and wish the rest was just a dream

© Wolfgar 2019