Reminders of the Ordinary

“Going into my billet [temporary officers’ quarters, usually a farmhouse] I almost fell over a goat which was tethered among some currant bushes in the garden.”
~ Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

I meant to write earlier about my experiences with the joys of plumbing in sub-zero weather, but this fits in too.  So the drain of my kitchen sink froze – or more accurately, the drain outside to which the pipes which drain the water from my and my upstairs neighbors’ kitchen sinks leads.  This meant not only that all the water I or my neighbors drained down their sink (yes, dish water) came back up my sink and got all over the kitchen, but that the sinks are basically unusable until they can unfreeze the drain, a tough job in this sub-freezing (with windchill, subzero) weather.  Luckily the water has been turned off and the building super is working on it, but we’re looking at no sooner that Tuesday, unfortunately.

As I was carrying buckets of water from my sink out to the storm drains on the street, I reflected on how such inconveniences are reminders of the ordinary, kind of like how when you have a cold you think “How did I take being able to breath for granted?!  This sucks.”  And really, carrying those buckets out (and Mr. Cleaning the crap out of the counters, floor, sink, cabinets afterwards) wasn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, inconvenient though it was.  (Having just read about a woman’s life during the Soviet occupation of Berlin 1945, and also reading a great deal about the reconstruction of northern France after the First World War, really put that into sharper perspective).  One of the most striking parts of the woman’s diary, to me anyway, was the description of the water from the radiators, broken, running out onto the floor, down the stairs, and all the way through the building and to the street, in little rivulets.

Then I started thinking about how important the infrastructures of a city really are – if my water had been completely turned off, what would I have done?  Or electricity or heat?  Clearly human beings, as survivalists, can make do without these “modern conveniences” like heat brought to us and running water, but in a modern city, can we really?  We really are dependent on the systems which we’ve built up, and life gets substantially disrupted when those systems are.  All the plumbers in the city are overwhelmed with unfreezing people’s pipes, especially where they are city property and thus cutting off water to several outlets; think of how quickly snow and ice need to be cleared from busy highways, city streets, and train tracks so other areas can function; even having to clear trees from the roads and sidewalks after a big storm (like that which happened here in October).

Anyway, I guess my point is that although I definitely went through stages of annoyance and frustration about this pipe problem, I’m not writing about it here to complain – just to reflect on those ordinary things, the infrastructures of modern conveniences that we cease to really think about, until we have to somehow go out of our way to meet a need when some part of that infrastructure has a problem.   And, taken to an extreme, how much more focused you can become when meeting your basic needs (here I don’t mean electriciy per se, but water/food/heat/shelter) becomes more or less your own responsibility, as happened to the woman and many others in Berlin and other war-damaged cities.  And the problem becomes even more pronounced for those in places which suffered almost complete devastation, to the extent that the few who remained basically had to get as far out as possible to rejoin civilization.  Tokyo 1944(?) comes to mind.  Apart from the moral and more abstract considerations – bombing as wrong or necessary, the huge human and material cost, bombing as a military strategy, the ethics of total warfare, etc. – there is also that of the “ordinary” … Where do I get food and water?  If I or someone I know gets injured, where do I go?  How do I leave the city or go to another area, other than on foot?  What, if anything, can I save of my possessions?  Are they worth taking with me?  Does anything still belong to me if I can’t physically carry it around with me?

Anyway now this really is a ramble, but it’s interesting to think about what happens when so many assumptions, patterns, conventions, etc. are suddenly gone or compromised or re-configured, and how people deal with that, individually and in groups.  I guess that’s what interests me about those stories of someone foraging around and trying to pull an existence together.

Anyway.  Oh, I forgot to link to that quote in the beginning.  I hadn’t read (or noticed) that line before in the memoir, but it struck me as really funny, as a little mention of something very ordinary in an otherwise very extraordinary, bizarre, and at times horrible experience of living in war.  That’s what reminded me about the other thoughts on the ordinary.  Plus, the image of one of the First World War’s most famous British poets (probably only trumped by Wilfred Owen in common conception of war poets) tripping over a goat was brilliant in itself.

Another note – unfortunately I can’t elaborate on this observation in my thesis, but a lot of the writing about the war (First World War, of course!) suggests that they, the soldiers who wrote memoirs later, described their experiences as a combination of a travel diary and a coming-of-age, “my education in school and in life” kind of story. Which makes sense. I’m sure someone has written on the coming-of-age stuff but the travel part is the really interesting one to me. Especially compared with Swofford’s descriptions of the desert (the alien landscape) in Jarhead, and the relative absence of people other than soldiers… the symbolic and literal occupation of a foreign territory during war?

I should look into this sometime eventually. Maybe a Fulbright committee will buy into this and sponsor me to go back to Oxford.

Oh and one more war-related thought:

Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon were good friends during the war, both serving in the Welch Fusiliers. Sassoon got to know Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart Mental Hospital in 1917 (Owen was killed in 1918). Graves also knew Edward Thomas, who was killed in 1916 or something. And they must have at least known of Edmund Blunden, who shows up in one of their memoirs. And they all ended up (especially Blunden) editing everything ever that was published in fiction/memoir form after the war, e.g. Richards’ Old Soldiers Never Die. And Blunden and Sassoon pretty vigorously responded (in marginalia form) to some of the nonsense in Graves’ Good-Bye to All That pretty soon after it was published in 1929. Basically, these 3 (forget Thomas and Owen, they were killed during the war) ended up writing the First World War. Okay, British soldiers’ memories of the First World War.

And this seems to have stuck – every lit crit, literary history (I’m glaring at you, Fussell), and study of soldiers on the Western Front (including mine) relies in varying degrees on these guys.


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