When Eyjafjallajökull erupted and grounded flights across Europe, I was one of the last to hear of it. Indeed, my mother and I knew nothing of it until we got to the airport, only to be told there’d be no flights for several days because of the Icelandic volcano – didn’t you see the news? It wasn’t even for want of connectivity to the outside world, though I was spending a couple of days in the marshy outpost of El Rocío at the time, but because Spanish news the night before decided to prioritize a report on whether Spaniards actually react to STOP signs, as they’re written in English, over the eruption. Of all the nights…
Last night, once again, the world was rocked by explosions of a very different, more sinister nature, and I slept through them unawares – until I saw the news this morning. And if I’m being totally truthful, I heard plenty of explosions last night here in Extremadura, but they were all of them of my own making. IS declared its actions to be an act of war this morning, and another great and terrible power made a similar declaration the night before – in my head.
I’m here in Cáceres for the Fiesta de las Tres Culturas, ostensibly to do a bit of sightseeing but primarily in search of inspiration for my novel. Cáceres is a stunningly beautiful medieval city, especially so when the town is kitted out with a giant medieval market and the townsfolk are all dressed up. There are crepe-peddlers from Lisbon, camel farmers from Valladolid and a musical troupe from Tetouan, to name just a few. And of course there’s at least one Englishman wandering about the old city with a sketchbook, snatching the occasional character out of the street with his pencils. All in the name of the novel. As I’m now set on nothing else for a career, I’ve started to take this writing malarkey very seriously.
Last night I was scripting the grand denouement of my saga, involving a terrible siege and the destruction of several beautiful buildings, as is necessary for the eventual outcome. As the bombs went off in Paris and gunfire turned the streets into a second Beirut, I had musket and cannon salvos in my head. That the idea came to me at around the same time as the attacks began is probably pure coincidence. The realization this morning of said coincidence made me feel quite sick. Everybody in the hostel cafe was silent with their eyes fixed on the TV as the ticker tape spelled out Spain’s reportage of the dreadful events of the previous night. The whole of Paris in a state of emergency? Citizens told not to leave their homes and the army deployed onto the streets? It’s like something out of a story in itself. And once again, we’re told the perpetrators were operating under the shadowy veil of IS. A war of a very different nature to the ones going on in my mind. There, in the simplified romanticism of my imagination, there are always two clear sides, figures of questionable authority in leading roles on both fronts, and a battleground on which to resolve any dispute by military force.
Not so in the real world. Twenty-first century warfare is a far more sinister affair. It’s international. A war of proxy, of shady political dealings and old worlds dragged unwillingly into democracy and the present day. Of drone strikes and mobile phones. Skirmishes fought in the East are avenged by agents operating upon the civilian population in the West. A state of total war where nobody is safe, from the soldier out on manoeuvres in Damascus to the man back home who used to deliver him the mail. At least, that’s as much as I remember of the term from my wrangling with A-Level History (before it got tedious and became the study of historians and social policy, not kings).
In short, I don’t have the foggiest as to how to react. I’m just a wannabe author voicing my feelings as they come to me. Ask a history or international relations student for their views if you want a kernel of experience: my foray with Charlie Hebdo showcased my inadequacy for dealing with such weighty matters in a succinct, un-detached manner. That’s only natural; growing up as a writer, I’ve fought hard to hold on to my imagination, and with it the childish way of seeing things as fair and unfair, good and evil, where everything can be tied back to the condition of the human heart. Mine, at the very least, is a gentle one, and it doesn’t take much to make it bleed. Hence the moniker. But it would do us all well to remember that at the heart of this long and terrible nightmare are human beings like you and me.