The Sussex Variations, or Two Boars (Ch. 5): Courage, Bravado, or Daring
Chapter Five: Courage, Bravado, or Daring
Snow began to fall in the East Sussex countryside late on Christmas day, 1962 and sometime after midnight, its depth was enough to short-circuit the electric fences at Great Crouchs farm. An adventurous boar crossed from the relative comfort of his own covered shelter into the next field, and attacked a boar that resided there.
The confrontation between the two boars was halted by a middle-aged war veteran and an eighteen-year-old boy, but they intervened too late. Shortly after, the elder of the boars died of heart failure. The boar that died had fought courageously despite being physically overmatched by his younger and slightly larger attacker.
Wait a minute. Is it accurate to say that the dead boar was courageous? Isn’t it more accurate to say that he was deprived of alternatives by the circumstances and by his inability to improvise, and therefore was without meaningful courage or cowardice? And what about the “adventurous” boar? Wasn’t his intrusion into the other field more likely a product of testosterone and random chance than of some abstract anthropomorphizing property called “adventurousness,” which might be fueled by testosterone, too, but has a virtual infinity of other possible sources? One thinks of Amelia Earhart….
I’ve already recorded, for instance, that as a teenager I didn’t have much appetite for adventure but blundered into my own share simply by covering a fair bit of territory and by responding to novelty and confrontation with a constantly-shifting combination of naiveté, curiosity, resourcefulness, slue-footed goofiness and, once or twice, what might have been courage. It always seemed to me that I was just doing what I could, and sometimes, what I had to—and that luckily, bad outcomes had been rare.
Courage—what it is and where it comes from—interests me for both general and particular reasons. Nearly everyone admires courage and wants to know, at some point, what enables it. You never know when you’ll need courage, and it helps to understand if you’ve got the basic set of character traits for it to show up. At eighteen, I still wasn’t sure which way this would go for me, because the two genetic streams in my background had manifested radically opposed histories in the face of physical danger.
My mother’s side—Ronald Surry’s as well—had a very long history of indifference to mortal danger, going back to the earliest traceable family occupation as British coastguardsmen. For as far back in time as I could trace them—to the early 17th century—my maternal ancestors were those lunatics who went out in small dories off the Suffolk coast to try to rescue mariners whose boats had run aground on that coast’s often stormy waters. It seemed to have been the main family occupation for at least several centuries, and how many of my ancestors drowned or had their brains squashed from their heads in rescue misadventures has been lost to time and Suffolk’s shortage of dedicated record-keepers.
What did survive all this boating fun, along with, obviously, my direct genetic ancestors, was an indifference to mortal danger and death that permitted Ronald Surry to earn an army commission by defusing unexploded German bombs in London during the Blitz. My mother had told me, while I was still a child, the story of how Ronald’s older brother Alan, a sergeant in the Canadian artillery fighting in Italy, responded to danger. After he’d had every piece of clothing save one boot blown off when an enemy shell exploded over his gun and killed the rest of his unit, he returned to combat just three months later, minus most of his hearing and with a raft of half-healed burn scars, eager for more.
On my father’s side, however, were a very different sort of men and women, an equally long lineup of, um, moral pragmatists who, over more than a century, had succeeded in not having voluntarily sent a single person into a situation more dangerous than an Alberta beer parlour on Saturday night—and sober Presbyterians that they were, even that situation hadn’t come up very often. Two of my father’s older brothers, when they were drafted to fight in France toward the end of the First World War, took off into the harsh bush country around Hinton, Alberta and didn’t come out again until late in the summer of 1919. They lived on the moose and small game they were able to shoot, and they admitted that they’d nearly starved to death. But they managed to elude military service and the Spanish Influenza, and as far as they were concerned, screw the opprobrium of being known cowards. Two decades later, my father avoided army service in World War II, according to some snide accounts, by getting my mother pregnant with me in 1943, when men of his demographic had become draft eligible. Long after the war ended, he was quick to opine that he’d had no interest in, as he put it, “getting my ass shot off for other people’s inability to get along.”
I admired the Surrys for their consistent, persistent, and occasionally idiotic courage. They didn’t duck and run when the Grim Reaper swung his scythe in their direction, and when they couldn’t get out of its way, they weren’t afraid to die. But I have reservations: risking one’s life without having an intense desire to go on living incurs, I think, a certain discount, and so does not wanting to live unless it is on one’s own terms. My mother, at 90, didn’t want to live after suffering a major stroke, and literally willed herself to die—and her children to witness it. A few years earlier Ronald, with a hemorrhaging stomach ulcer, committed suicide by lying down on his living room carpet and allowing himself to bleed out. Those each required will and character, but was it courageous?
An alternate explanation of Ronald Surry’s courage during the war and that of his older brother, meanwhile, is that their disregard for danger was part and parcel of their very odd competition for their father’s affection. They weren’t competing with one another, according to my mother. Their father—my grandfather—had cruelly withheld affection from all his children while they were young as he mourned an older son killed in the First World War. The emotional scars the younger brothers carried from this were deep and not to be talked away. From one overly therapy-saturated perspective, it could be said that both spent the war trying to get killed so their father would love them the way he did their dead brother.
But there was something still more murky involved that this off-centre Oedipal trope, I think. In the face of physical danger nearly all the Surrys were fearless to the point of heedlessness. What they shrank from, nearly all of them, male or female, was emotional adversity. A wife or husband who wasn’t faithful, a lingering illness, even a career setback could shatter them. A single thoughtless act or remark ruined marriages, minor slights ended friendships and alienated one family member from the next for decades. These people took offense easily, rarely forgave anyone or anything and never forgot an insult, intentional or innocent. Petty arguments raged on for years, unresolved and corrosive: brother on brother, sister on sister, mother and father on children, cousin on cousin. For all their courage and daring, they were, from another perspective, emotionally brittle and occasionally infantile.
It’s clear that Ronald Surry displayed unusual courage—or at least steely nerves—during the war. Aside from earning his commission defusing German bombs during the Blitz, he was later wounded—merely injured, in his telling—during the Normandy invasion in 1944. But he wasn’t ever able to explain his courage, not, at least, while he was sober. I heard the defusing bombs story only after his death in 1989 so I didn’t get to ask him about that. His explanation of what happened in 1944 was so self-deprecating that I sensed something fishy. He claimed he’d been knocked off a motorcycle during the invasion preparations on June 5th, that one of the bike’s handlebars had lodged in his groin, and that when the soldiers hit Normandy’s beaches the next morning, he was sleeping peacefully in an army hospital near Dover, blotto on morphine.
When he told me that story, I took it with a grain of salt, and not just because I was a little foggy about the exact location of the “groin”. Alone among all his war experiences, Ronald was willing to dwell cheerfully and at length only on the gruesome details of the motorcycle accident. He wouldn’t show me the scar when I asked to see it—I didn’t know where a groin was, remember—and he was always too quickly onto the next story, leaving me with no route back for clarification. Did he worry that I’d think he’d injured himself to avoid combat?
Young as I was, I was able to see that I was getting mixed messages from him. I’m writing this carefully: the messages were mixed, but not muddled. He made it clear that, personally, he’d had a fine war and he was (as was the comedian Dudley Moore a few years later) open about how entertaining it had been. I could sort of see why he thought that: he’d survived it, first of all. And he’d begun as an enlisted man, showed courage and aptitude, and ended it a Signals major, although during his postwar service, ended in 1948, he’d seen his rank reduced to Captain as part of the general peacetime shrinkage of the Allied military. He still carried the social rank of Captain in 1962, and with great pride. He’d loved the army—the order, the discipline, even, I suppose, the ranking of human beings. He’d retired from active service only because as a member of the Canadian military, he would have been obliged to remain in Canada, and he had fallen in love with Joan, a British citizen who had no interest in emigrating to the colonies. He hadn’t just given up his army career for her, either. He’d divorced his Canadian wife and abandoned her and their two young sons as well.
“A pleasant woman with whom I had absolutely nothing in common,” was how he described his first wife. I hadn’t asked him for a character analysis of his ex, nor an explanation for why he’d deserted her and their two sons. I guess it was still on his mind fourteen years later.
The Second World War, and what it taught him about other people was a different and much more complicated story. My first clue that it might be complicated was that he always stopped short of saying that war was fun. I told myself that he was acknowledging that people died, many of them strong young men not much different than he had been. Some of them, inevitably, must have been friends and acquaintances.
How did he put this? “No one survives combat intact,” he said one night after consuming a fair load of Merrydown wine. “Your body might, but the essential part of you, once you’ve been under bombardment or within the radius of a Maxim gun, spends the rest of your days cowering, waiting to be killed.”
“You know this from experience?” I asked, not sure if I was asking a question, but perfectly certain that I didn’t have the right to, and that he didn’t have to answer questions of this kind. He didn’t answer, either. He stared at me for a moment, emptied the glass of Merrydown he’d been working on, and left the room. I thought he’d gone to get the cognac, and waited for him to return.
Twenty minutes later, as I was undressing for bed, I looked out the window and saw him standing in the middle of the concrete loading yard. I watched him for ten minutes, and he didn’t move a muscle. It was cold out there, too, and he wasn’t basking in the moonlight.
Over the next month I persisted with the enquiry behind my question, very carefully: I wanted the testimony and the facts, not a general theory. My persistence revealed only a prophylactic formula he employed to explain whatever had put that “essential part” of him permanently on the defensive if not openly cowering: everything, Ronald insisted, was finally about Hunger, Sex and Fear. The words were always capitalized, and if cognition could bestow neon illumination, those three words would have been lurid scarlet whenever they passed through his lips.
I was outwardly respectful, but that’s what I was thinking: Is this all? Are human beings operating by reflex, base instincts and reptilian paranoia? Wasn’t Hunger, Sex and Fear a reduction of Darwin to survival of the brutal, stupid and violent? I argued against his formula as best I could, which probably wasn’t very effective. But really, Hunger, Sex and Fear weren’t enough to explain everything. They didn’t even encompass my small world.
I’d just been on an ocean liner while the world seemed to be ending, and I’d made lists of the things that would be lost if the world were to be turned into a cinder pile. I recited one of the lists to Ronald: Jack Kerouac, Shelley’s poetry, the body of a girl I’d almost had and still had ambitions about, the Nechako river just west of Prince George at the end of September just before the leaves fall. It wasn’t a very long or sophisticated list, and he made merry of its most vulnerable item.
“Shelley,” he said, “is for schoolgirls.”
I’ve always been suggestible. It’s what you get when you come from nowhere. But at eighteen, and given my self-imposed duty to listen to whatever Ronald and Joan said and to heed what they did, my suggestibility was off the charts. Never mind. I tried to defend my list anyway, and my hero along with it.
“What,” I asked, hoping the question would slow Ronald down, “does that have to do with whether all that motivates human beings is Hunger, Sex, and Fear?”
“A lot, you churlish dolt. If Shelley is your example of an alternative,” Ronald said, “show me something substantial in Mr. Shelley’s poems, something that’s worth saving the world for.”
Before I could answer, he launched into a falsetto rendition of the first stanzas of To a Skylark”:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
I was lost: I couldn’t even parse the syntax of the poem’s first stanza—I stumbled over that “Bird thou never wert” line (and do to this day). And the rest of it, well, it was everything I didn’t think about the world. I turned beet-red with shame, and Ronald teased me about that, too. Endlessly, and without mercy, at least for a day or two.
Rendering Shelley as he had made To a Skylark sound fatuous and elevated. I could raise no defense. The unhappy reality was that I’d thought and talked about Shelley as an action hero with my friends, and I had a store of romantic anecdotes about his relationship with Keats and Byron and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wandering around on picturesque beaches somewhere in Italy talking about tuberculosis and revolutions and the Rights of Man (and I assumed, Woman). But the truth was that I hadn’t really read much of Shelley’s poetry. Ozymandias and To a Skylark, and maybe the first several stanzas of Ode to the West Wind were all I had, and then not very firmly. When I imagined Shelley’s skylark, for instance, my imagination translated the poet’s elaborate linguistic flourishes into a purple bird with a six-foot wingspan that could sing classical arias—probably Wagner, whose bombast I already disliked—while flying at roughly the speed of a Spitfire Supermarine.
I retreated to my room to read the second-hand hardbound edition of Shelley’s poems I’d brought to Europe with me. I concentrated on To a Skylark, looking to find some idea muscular enough to defend myself and Shelley with. I reread it several times and felt the skylark’s wingspan grow to that of pterodactyl acting like a kind of flying food-and-flower truck while I wondered if Shelley himself was as fuzzy as I was about the properties of the real bird—like a Poet hidden/in the light of thought/singing hymns unbidden/till the world is wrought/to sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.
Or a maiden or a worm or a rose or whatever. Ronald was right. Shelley was too imprecise, too precious, too ethereal, and I had no idea what in hell he was talking about. By contrast, Ronald’s three-headed formula of Hunger Sex and Fear evoked tangible images of tanks and battle cruisers and barbed-wire fences and people starving, of gangs of partisans firing submachine guns into a pitch-black forest in a world where no one was allowed a full heart, and unpremeditated art had no purchase on anything; where vast terrestrial forces, always sinister, rumbled at once beneath the surface of, but louder than, individual thought or song.
When I was in university a few years later I would take several courses on the Romantic poets and make a point of reading all of Shelley’s poems. There, I concluded from actually reading Shelley that he was in fact (or is it “indeed!”) a great poet, but even then, a part of my brain continued to render him in the tones of Ronald’s sardonic parody while I wondered whether Shelley was too ethereal, despite what I’d learned about the Romantics’ view of poetry as elevated language meant to capture the cosmic and the sublime, and to hell with the quotidian and the practical. For myself, I wanted a kind of poetry that both encompassed and answered the world I could see around me, one that reduced Ronald’s Hunger, Sex and Fear at least to lower case, with imagination and decency dissolving the bars of the prison it created.
So yes, maybe Shelley was only for schoolgirls but I have always been, intellectually, something of a schoolgirl. Eventually I became a literate and quite intelligent schoolgirl, but a schoolgirl. And there’s never been anything wrong with that, then or today.
In the months that followed the death of the defeated boar, that uneven ontological dialectic between Ronald’s nihilistic triad and my hopeful idealism waxed and waned. I wasn’t really in much danger of conceding the field because the “field”, as I’ve already noted, consisted of my most inspiring data. Rural Sussex—its flora and fauna, its history, economy, scarcities, human conduct—spoke on my behalf in wholly tangible ways against everything Ronald appealed to in his arguments, although I sometimes had to concede that hunger, sex, and fear made sense in the hardscrabble landscape I’d grown up in, so long as you didn’t also crown them with capital letters. The more I learned about the countries in which the Second World War had been fought, the more plausible it seemed that hunger, fear and madness had driven human actions, at least for a few years.
But then I would recognize that what Ronald was talking about wasn’t history and/or culpable deeds, but “invisible” currents, impulses that he believed lurk in the recesses of human personality, dark and uncivilizable, and in his view were inevitably bound to spill out in some kind of uncontrollable violence, collective or individual. This was, I guessed, the world according to a soldier, one who’d seen its violence up close. I didn’t want to live in such a world, not even inside my own head.
“No one,” Ronald said one evening after several more bottles of Merrydown than needed had been drunk, “can ever know enough about the war. It defies human understanding. It did in 1940, it did in 1945, and it does now.”
“Then isn’t everything hopeless?” I said. “I mean, won’t it just happen all over again if it isn’t understood?”
“No,” he said. “That isn’t quite what I meant. I meant that one must keep trying to understand it. And you. You must never, never, turn away from the responsibility to understand the world, even when you know you can’t succeed.”
We both stared into the fireplace, where the coals—it was in fact, coal, but in the form of remanufactured briquettes that were to be phased out across the U.K. over the next decade—were still glowing. “I think,” he said,” that this calls for a snifter of cognac. Will you pour?”
He’d been teaching me how to drink cognac, something I’d taken to quite well even though two months before I would have insisted that any hard liquor be laced with sugar before I’d drink it. I pulled two snifters and the bottle of Remy Martin VSOP from the cabinet in the dining room, put all three on the table and carefully poured 3/8s of an inch of cognac into each snifter.
“Okay?” I asked when I returned to the fireplace and handed Ronald his snifter.
He rolled the cognac under the rim of the snifter and brought it to his nose. “Yes,” he said. “People will tell you to heat the snifter. They’re wrong. That merely evaporates the alcohol. The heat of your hands provides adequate warmth to intensify the bouquet, which is the reason for using a snifter in the first place. ”
I tried to steer him back to what he’d said, but he easily dodged me, that night and after. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What he meant, I think, is that the Second World War—I now make it both world wars—was beyond the capacity of any direct participant to comprehend without inflicting severe intellectual and moral trauma, or, alternately, vast oversimplifications that would also cripple understanding. Ronald was trying to convince me—and himself—that this trauma was a necessary one. I’m grateful to him for this, both for the admission and the insight it gave me.
Ronald once said, also late in the evening and deep into the Merrydown, that I would have made a good soldier. He didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t invite him to. I decided he’d said it because I didn’t complain when I was given unpleasant things to do, and I’d shown some of the Surry’s instinctive courage—or was it stupidity?—in the face of danger. I wasn’t so sure the endorsement was a compliment, in other words. Even at that tender age my father and his risk-averse ancestors were whispering in my ear, telling me that I was too similar to those spectacle-wearing privates who are always killed in the first reel of war movies. In a real-world war, I’d likely have lasted a little longer because despite my youth and foolishness I wasn’t a nincompoop, or accident prone: I put out my hands to stop my falls and that was more important than how frequent those falls were. But the part of me that was channeling my father’s ancestors quietly acknowledged that the first artillery shell or hand grenade that landed close to me would have knocked off my glasses and shattered a lens, and that would have been the end of me.
I’ve lived with this character tension for more than fifty years now: a man who is easily moved by other people’s grand gestures, tries reasonably hard to do the right thing, and then scoffs at the silliness and pretense a split-second after the violins start in and the flags start to wave. I’m also a man who remembers that Welsh boar struggling to stay on his feet in the snow and the cold and the churned-up mud and the darkness of winter for god knows how long against a stronger and younger opponent. I still don’t have the answer to the question I framed in the days and weeks after Ronald and I dragged his carcass through the fields to the concrete pad where the Hunt was able to hoist it onto their truck: Did the Welsh boar’s stubborn resistance constitute courage, or was he simply a dumb animal trapped in a situation without alternatives, the way I am and most of my fellow human beings seem to be, most of the time? And in the end, given the millions of casualties, what difference can courage make?
* * *
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.