There’s no telling why the good sometimes die young

A BBC drama about the first World War got me thinking

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Thu, Apr 17, 2014, 01:00

The General arrived two weeks ago, with a bottle of brandy. He wanted to watch The Cr imson Field – a BBC drama about the first World War – on my 50in TV screen. So we sat for an hour watching nurses in field hospitals washing dirty bandages and cleaning chamber pots, and young doctors, with their trousers held up by braces, playing chess.

“They all died too young,” the General whispered as we knocked back the cognac and watched the boys march to the front at the conclusion of episode one.

Halfway through the week I suggested he come the following Sunday and we could watch the next episode, so long as he didn’t bring any more brandy.

I know a cattle dealer who was born not long after the first World War, and he’s still sucking pints. I met him during the week in the back room of a pub. A man as big as a small turf stack, heaped against the wall beside the fire, a pint of Guinness before him as he smoked up the chimney like a delinquent teenager.

“The landlady allows me smoke in here,” he said, “if there’s nobody else on the premises.”

“They’re bad for you,” I said.

“I know,” he agreed. “But I blame the first World War. That’s when everyone started. My father used to tell me that when he came home from France he was smoking like a chimney.”

“Was he shell-shocked?” I wondered.

“No,” he said. “Funny enough, he was light-hearted after the war and full of tricks. He used to plaster cow dung on the outside handle of the door when I’d be going out to meet some girl in town. I’d grab the door on the outside to pull it closed and suddenly my hand would be all dung. I’d have to go back in and wash it. And he got a kick out of doing things like that.

“In old age he became very disturbed. And there was a whole lot of stuff after he died that I thought I’d like to get me hands on. Old cuttings out of newspapers and letters from the trenches, and I had an interest in that. But the family threw everything into the fire after he died.”

“What age are you?” I wondered.

“Ninety in July,” he said, sucking in a lungful of tobacco smoke with a wicked smile.

Strange depiction
When Noah built his ark things were different. The good didn’t die young and the wicked didn’t survive at all. I went to see the film Noah recently and watched in horror as great waves swallowed up all the living creatures on Earth, including the human race, just because the humans were bad. It was a strange depiction of God as an unmerciful loolah prone to apocalyptic hissy fits. I suppose God’s vengeance is a myth that still sustains many wars. But in fact there is no telling why the good must sometimes die so young.

I knew a good man, who went to the doctor with stomach pains recently, which turned out to be cancer. He was from eastern Europe. As a young boy he had been a shepherd in his own country, moving across the mountain ridges with herds of goats. He reached Ireland in the back of a transport container, and ended up in the fruit and vegetable business, forklifting pallets of fruit on to the early-morning lorries and talking to all the drivers about goats and how he was always homesick.

When he died his remains were flown back to his native country where he was buried not far from the paradise of his youth in the mountains and when they laid his body down they could hear the goats singing on the distant rocks. He was only 43.

War in the trees
Last Sunday I was at home in the garden looking across Lough Allen at the Cavan and Leitrim mountains and the flat plains of Longford and I was thinking again about the first World War 100 years ago, when boys from all those counties said goodbye to their mothers and never looked back as they went to embrace annihilation and lose their lives in the cause of a myth.

I lose myself in the garden at this time of year, although there is a sense of impending war in the trees, as magpies manoeuvre for territory, tits examine old nest boxes and every bird makes claim to its own bush.

And then I heard the General’s car labouring up the hill and I realised it was almost time for episode two of The Crimson Field .

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