Beautiful Catastrophe


There is something quite unnerving about revisiting statistics for an event which is long in the past. You could look at it as a way of validating the pedestal a particular event holds in time, which may be important. Or you could see it as a way of glorifying something truly horrific, and is likely never to happen again at least not in many lifetimes to come. It is with these perspectives that I clicked on The Fallen of World War II, a digital montage visualising the war casualties between 1939 and 1945.

…more at fallen.io

First up I should say that this is a slick and impressive display of the true cost to generations after the war ended. For major countries it is hard not to see how this war effected them. Often the dialogue surrounds the victors, and the price they paid for so called freedom (because, you know, the US and Britain were invaded and ruled for a brief period. Oh wait). Perhaps with the use of this video you can get a strong indication of how other countries really suffered. Indeed a quick scroll through the comments on Vimeo will show the level of appreciation of the maker’s visualisation.

Yet, I can’t really applaud this interpretation beyond the actual aesthetic, as there are far too many concerns raised here. This is especially important as this year sees the passing of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we will be reassessing this past in the coming months.

It is well worth noting, and I do have The Fallen of World War II to thank for this important point, that to have fought in the war, veterans now would be at least in their late eighties, many would be in their early nineties. It is highly unlikely that there are many remaining, regardless of what country they fought for, and soon there will be none remaining. It is with this in mind that we need to take more care about how we interpret acts in history.

It’s very easy to do a statistical analysis of a historical event. With World War 2 it’s is particularly convenient as primarily we are discussing the actions of armies, together with their large bureaucratic arms that detail the specifics of each and every recruit, from all those who survived to all those who died. Knowing all this information, like the average age of new recruits, the amount of people who signed up from a particular town or the amount of Sagittarians that died on a Tuesday in 1942 serves a function which distances us from the ultimate tragedy of the Second World War.

The names of some of the people who lost their lives during World War II (Image courtesy rootsweb.ancestry.com)

I’m kind of a geek when it comes to reading over figures and statistics in history. I’m interested in populations, costs, quantities, and pretty much any other detail which can be extracted. But statistics, whether disputed or not, are merely numbers. To turn the millions of people who died into levels on fancy a bar chart does not settle easily with me.

There is little difference in this elaborate display of colours and stickmen to a chart with the countries listed in alphabetical order and the number of casualties detailed beside them. Creating a graph that shows how many people who died rising epically into some digital stratosphere still holds the same level of shock as when the number 20,000,000 is printed. Short of celebrating one’s own ability to create a quite beautiful display, it doesn’t make the lives that actually make up these statistics any less or more valuable.

British troops arrive on Normandy beaches signifying the beginning of the Battle of Normandy which saw over 400,000 soldiers killed.

What I struggle to accept though, looking at the larger picture, is that for all these people who did die, how do we celebrate their story? Does Ireland, a country that suffered only slightly in the war, deserve to be any less remorseful about the events which took place in Europe and Asia? How does a country like Russia or China, two countries that lost a catastrophic number of people, actually account for these lives? These are places we can find it difficult to imagine life in during those times, but grief like love is a universal factor, we all suffer from it to a comparable level. To me it seems that these people’s histories, and the sheer size of their tragedy, have been forced into statistics before we could ever understand them truly.

We are fortunate that the rich television history of the twentieth century has documented many of the ways in which life was lived both on the battle fields and at home. Recently we have been extra lucky to see more real-to-life interpretations, or as real-to-life as we are willing to be trusted with. Story telling brings us closer to the sadness wrought by the sudden death of a comrade, or the brutality of a shrapnel injury.

It is a story that seems to have been ignored. The countries which suffered the greatest loss of life decided to forget what happened. Can you blame them? Even a country like Poland rarely discusses this. Indeed it is not a surprise that the war is not a topic of conversation on every German’s lips, but I can be sure that those people are more aware than anyone of the history their nation created. I wish the same could be said for Japan.

As for the gaping hole in the generations of Russian and Chinese people who had to have been slaughtered to have perished in the quantities they did, what narrative or remembrance can we learn to truly understand a greater significance of World War II? I would hope we can create one which is not dominated by fancy graphics and data, but by realities wrought in the death and destruction of individuals whose fate was decided by men in offices in search of some class of glory.

 

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P.S. Describing every German soldier who fought and died in the war as a Nazi is an unfair accusation. You wouldn’t say that all the Russians were communists, and all the Americans patriots, or whatever.

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The Maoul Bus*


I walked up and down the street looking for the bus stop on the opposite side of the street. Where I was going was only four stops away in that direction, but I soon realised that the bus only went in the opposite direction, which left me a good fifteen stops away.

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I bit the bullet and crossed the street. Before long a stubby little green bus trundled up to the bus stop. The doors jerked open quickly like a trap and an assortment of people disembarked. Once the bus was empty I stepped on, found a seat, and sat there waiting for what appeared to be the moment when the bus was full enough to move on.

I thought at first there was an age limit, me being the youngest on board by a good thirty years at least. This notion was shot once a school girl got on and buried her face busily in the screen of her smartphone, her hair hanging down over her ears and face providing the perfect shield from the banal surroundings.

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As the bus pulled away a woman carrying her toddler waved it down and she got on, sitting just in front of me, the child’s face buried in the cosiness of her mothers neck. Occasionally the child would peek up at me, and I would smile back, and she would bury her face again in her mother’s neck.

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The bus moved on and stop after stop more people clambered on, the bus seemingly rocking from each additional weight. It felt like it would collapse with every groove and divot in the street the tyres met. It hauled itself around tight bends, up hills, and over speed ramps. All the time the standing passengers held on tightly to the precarious handrails dangling from the ceiling.

There were all-sorts on this bus. An elderly couple who bickered back over each comment shared between them. A primly dressed university student talking quietly on his phone. A short and gnarled man with a glowing winter weather beaten face dressed from head to toe in black. A lady, out of place it seemed, in a long beige coat of smooth wool with a faux mink stoal around her neck, earrings glitzing, and her sunglasses black as her well dressed hair standing out against her pale makeup adorned face.

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I sat there watching as the bus winded through so many alleys I forget. It groaned up a steep hill and slipped back down on the other side, revealing a panoramic view of Seoul and its river Han adorned with highrise dressings on its far bank.

These streets it wound through were narrow and a constant battle for space ensued. Cars slipped into every possible space, while men and women walked up and down next to the bus arms full of bags and the likes. The bus wove its way through expertly and without apparent complaint.

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These streets were full with businesses whose trade was only barely recognisable through the window trappings. People gazed in at mannequins fashioned the same way for twenty years. Proprietors stood on doorways and gazed out at the world going by. The bus moved on, up another hill or around another corner.

And then I arrived. I pulled myself through the throng of passengers, pushing the stop button on my way. The doors flung open again with a clatter and I jumped clear before the shut on me as I escaped. I turned and watched as the diesel engine spluttered exhaust fumes as it excelerated away full to bursting with bundled black silhouettes destined for somewhere else in the locale.

(* the maoul bus – 마을 버스 – is a local bus service which services neighbourhoods in the bigger towns and cities of Korea. This particular bus was located in Yongsan-gu, and serviced Hanam, Bogwang-dong, and Itaewon)

Words and photographs © Conor O’Reilly 2013

“In Memorium” – New Planet Cabaret


More submitting by me here (and you wonder why I’ve had so few minutes to spare). This was for RTE Radio 1’s ARENA show which has been hosting a radio based creative writing course (yes you read that right) called New Planet Cabaret, with the assistance of the very competent and energetic Dave Lordon (I’d say more but I haven’t read much of his poetry so…).

I made my entry back in January and you can read the entry requirements here. I didn’t have mine featured and forgot to listen back to find out if it was at least mentioned – when I did listen to it there were mentions of some pieces which may have been a bit long for the radio – I imagine mine was also too long, if it was at least considered good. I thought I’d share it with you here as I’m not sure what else to do with it. It’s not a poem. It’s not a story. It’s just words and my imagination. Again, fun stuff. 

In Memorium

Christened Flatus Mac an Sídhe, he called himself Flatty for short, and Flatty Sheahy to a uniform or a skirt. He was not of the Sheahys of places known for their Sheahys, as this Sheahy was made up for sure, still Flatus wasn’t the worst sort.

He was a soft but robust fella whose age you’d never tell with a look, nor would you know if he was broad or short, stout or upright. He was just there.

Flatus really wanted to be the kindred sort, happily floating about mingling in and out with all types, enjoying the outdoors, strolls by the sea. Yoga. Hiking. Meditation, that sort of thing. Indeed a hike to a yoga and meditation retreat would be ideal.

A lover of life Flatty was. One who lived for lungs full to bursting and the whistle of the exhale through his nostrils. Life was all for Flatus.

But Flatty could kill if he wanted. Deprive you of his company he would, or hail down with the fury of a million factories in his poisoned effusions, drowning your crops and rose gardens, but only a rare breed could force that. At least that used to be the case.

Flatty could be full of himself, believed he was incomparable like a superpower, him with his blusters and gusts.

Sure enough he was untouchable and, for example, with a wisp a wall he could take down to its bricks, or pass through it as if it didn’t exist. Oh ould Flatty knew how to change everything, leaving a life and death distance in the difference.

Except for these notions of grandeur and his stance on issues environmental, he went about his existence like the best; god on his conscience, the day on his breath.

And we all knew him well, our Flatty, he who always played with our hair, his moods, his patience, and the fact he was never bothered by rush-hour, or missing buses late at night, and arguing about inconsequential things. We figured him to be at least.

However, Flatus Mac an Sídhe was old before he finished being young. Those muscles he once flexed fell flaccid, and to threats he grew apathetic.

Alas Flatty grew tired with himself. Finding moments to swallow the morning and drink in the sunshine and moisture of the dew just as the sun has risen had grown sparse. His skin grew grey and lifeless. His overworked throat went dry. The ducts in his eyes could not cry.

“It is what it is”, is what Flatty would say, “isn’t learning to live the best you can in company with it a better solution than arguing against it? Sure isn’t that that the way I’ve done it and never garnered further complaint?”

He would say that. Flatty could say that. Flatty had a say in things. Because without Flatty, well let’s be honest, there is nothing.

Yes Flatus, you and your molecules, you had a say and you could have done more. You could have gotten angrier and fought for those walks you loved so much. But now you have relinquished your title. Superpower or not, yours is a sunken flagship.

And then to be sure we killed you. We curried up enough filth and fear and vehemence to counter anything you could manage to rekindle until you keeled over breathless.

There you were, writhing in a blustering and intoxicating mess with your defecations all over the place. Tearing down everything you loved. Tearing down the walls of everything you thought was built from your influence. And you did not cry.

We woke the next morning and you were not there. Not hiding or buried or burnt or vaporized or departed or extinct or emigrated or arrested. Not gone. Just nothing

And now Flatus, there is only memory to define you.

“Getting There”


This is a short narrative post I initially set out to write for Groove Magazine‘s “Share Story, Win Trip” writing competition. The call came out for ‘funny’ travel stories where a lesson was learned. The winning pieces would be read out loud dramatically. Frankly, there just aren’t enough of these kind of encouraging writing opportunities in Korea. I could say more but I’ll get distracted.

I started writing mine and about two paragraphs from the end I decided that it wasn’t a travel story. So I stopped writing. I came back about a week later and took another crack at it, tidied it up but left it loosely over the 500 word limit, which kind of left it for any kind of flash litt and too short to be considered anything else. Still it’s a good story. You’ll laugh. I hope. 

Getting There

When I was bundled out of the taxi by the Englishless man who collected me from the airport, it was exactly twenty-four hours after my flight had left Dublin. He left me there shaking hands with a tall, spectacled and skinny Korean man with a mane of hair almost comically emerging from the top of his head. He told me his name was Richard, or Reeechard as he did his best to pronounce the R sound fully. He was dressed smartly in black pants, a grey jacket, white shirt, and burgundy skinny tie, all of which seemed to shine magnetically in the heavy overcast sky.
Richard helped me with my bags as we entered a building and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. I was brought into the school where I would be working, where I was introduced to the director, a man shorter than most I’d ever met before, but he effused authority and shook my hand confidently. He directed Richard to get everything sorted and then vanished into his office.
We picked up my bags again and made for the elevator. I was told that we would go to my apartment where I could get some rest or have some food. I would be sharing my apartment with my co-worker and with the teacher who I was replacing.
When we made it outside, we walked into a large apartment complex of twenty-five storeyed buildings. To say I was dizzy wouldn’t explain it properly. I had left an Ireland where buildings rarely stretched further than three or four storeys high, and in my home town of Dunboyne (pop. 6,959) there probably wasn’t a building, other than the parish church, more than two storeys high. Seoul (pop. 10,581,728) seemingly had no room for buildings that small.
We entered one of these behemoths and walked up to the elevator. There wasn’t much chat as I was tired and nervous, and Richard seemed a little uncomfortable with small talk for whatever reasons. When the doors opened he punched the number 23. I gulped and blinked hard. With a jolt we rose and the numbers flickered higher and higher, until they reached 23 where the elevator halted with a lurch. Outside on the landing Richard confidently asserted that “finally, we are here!”.
He pulled out a key and went to the door where he jerked to a stop with an “unghh” kind of sound coming from his mouth. He stood rigid with key holding arm outstretched towards the part of the door where a key hole would traditionally be located. I looked around unsuccessfully for Medusa but quickly found the problem was there was no keyhole in the door. Instead there was a small electronic pad.
He touched it and with a beep it lit up with numbers. Again an “unngh” sound. He looked at the key, looked at the pad, scratched his mane, and then looked at me. I looked at him and felt like replying “unngh”. He then rang the doorbell, whereupon a young girl opened the door, and Richard asked her if foreign English teachers lived in the apartment. The girl said no they didn’t, and closed the door. We stood looking at the green metal door in silence.
Richard sprung into action. He pulled out his phone, dialled, waited, and suddenly burst out chattering, then stopped talking, asked me to wait a minute, then started chattering again. He then hung up asked me to please wait where I was, and then he disappeared into the elevator which subsequently plumeted to the ground floor.
And there I stood, bags at my feet, jet lagged and clueless on a tiny landing on the twenty third floor of an apartment building a good 8,000 kilometres from home, diligently waiting a minute.
Richard eventually returned smiling and reassuring me repeatedly. We took the elevator down stairs to the ground floor again, and left that building, walked around the corner and into a completely different building. Here we took the elevator to the eighteenth floor, where a door stood with a keyhole in it.
Richard somewhat less confidently than before approached the door, inserted the key, and turned it. There was a loud unlocking click, and he let out a huge sigh of relief, then looked at me with a beaming smile. We entered the apartment.
Richard left a few minutes later, and I was left standing in the middle of a room looking around my new surroundings on the eighteenth floor. The large windows brightened the room. The was a purr of traffic outside but all I could see was clouds and mountains in the distance. I took a deep breath. I had arrived in Korea, and it was good. I think.

What’s in My Bookcase?


This is a permanent collection. There’s a lot going on here. A lot of history. Not that many history books mind you.These shelves contain a few stories in the own right, not to mention so many memories of friends who have left Korea over the years.

The most significant feature in my apartment is probably the bookshelf. It’s a tall double-rowed case five bays high, but we’ve pushed it down on its side and it functions now as a room longth mantle piece where our television and family pictures now sit. Each of the book shelf bays is full, although not completely with books.

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