Beautiful but Damned

I’ve had this emotional impression that has deep resonance for me since I was very young, but I’ve always had a great deal of trouble describing it. It’s an archetype of a situation that has appeared in lots of media, but it’s always had a powerful emotional resonance for me. Whenever I’ve seen a character in a film or TV series who does this I’m immediately in their headspace.

The scenario: I’m usually an Englishman in my prime, usually well-dressed, usually handsome and full of life. I’ve just been told that my days are numbered, either because of a fatal illness, or an imminent execution, or some other dreadful event that I have no way of stopping.

I don’t descend into panic. I become stoic and extremely sincere, with a “Well, I suppose that’s my lot” attitude. Inwardly, though, I feel something drop, almost like a gallows door opening under my heart.

And yet, revisiting that emotion was always such a bizarre guilty pleasure. It was a feeling that, while not pleasant, felt strangely right in a peculiar way. It was an indulgent, sentimental, bittersweet sort of place emotionally that seemed to come out of a very old-fashioned emotional landscape. In many ways, throughout my life I actually wanted to feel that way for real, to have that moment, to be among the beautiful and the damned so that I could have that sweet moment of poetic stoicism to show the world what I was made of, and be remembered as a portrait of pride with a silver lining long after I was gone.

In the last novel I published (good grief, it’s been over a year! I’m getting slack) I had a character who, faced with imminent annihilation, suddenly stops driving away from it, gets a pack of cigarettes out of his glove box, climbs into the back seat of his touring car, and lights the cigarette, stoically accepting his fate. Of course, it goes somewhere much more transcendent from there (it’s a moment of epiphany ultimately) but that’s the beauty of fiction.

I hadn’t really thought that re-enlisting in 1914 was the source of this, because I had always assumed that it had to have been something beyond my control, a destiny I was faced with.

Then I had a moment today. After speaking at length with my bishop about some angst over having not transcended the bounds of material existence in my last life and my general existential crisis after the death of one of our most beloved parishioners, I took his advice and got out a little (actually, I’ve had both a bishop and a nun tell me the same thing in the last 3 days so I figured it was sound advice).

After mass, I drove south on 99E until I came to the little village of Aurora, OR, which has an idyllic historic district filled with antique shops. I seem to find it easy to meditate on the past in places like those. I didn’t find anything that triggered a strong memory, but when I came across a Victorian or Edwardian portrait of a man in his late 30s or so, his posture impeccable, his chest out, his clothes immaculate, a look of stoic serenity on his features and a soft light on his skin that gave him a gentle glow, it came back to me.

I pictured myself before making the final decision, walking the scenic parts of Hereford, to parks where children played, down by the river where the college boys rowed in the pleasant late summer. But I remember thinking at the time that it was more like Gethsemane for me, because I didn’t have a sense that I really had a choice.

I believed, with all my heart, that going to war was my destiny and I was there, in that familiar emotional space, a man in his prime, beautiful but damned, taking in the thought of my own likely demise.  I was so steeped in the stoic masculinity of the Victorian era I’d been raised in, brought up on stories and rhymes of God and empire by the like of Kipling and Tennyson, that I couldn’t see how it wasn’t the destiny of an Englishman to throw himself into the line of fire for his king. I was sold hook, line, and sinker on what Wilfred Owen called “The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.”

In short, I made a tremendous error in understanding my own free will, and I did it because I wanted to believe I had no choice.  I was falling into an indulgent, self-serving motivation for self-sacrifice.  I was thinking, “Lord, not as I will, but as you will” but in truth, it was exactly as I willed. I had every opportunity to walk away and have a peaceful (if impoverished and boring) life as a retired soldier.  I had a choice.

And now that I know where that emotion comes from- now that I’ve remembered how I turned a stroll in the park into a prayer in Gethsemane 102 years ago almost to the date, I’m left with a strangely desolate feeling about the whole thing.

Memory Fragment/ A Thought On My Upcoming Trip

I had a flash of memory from John’s life on Wednesday, during class of all things.

I remembered being in a dentist’s office on what I took to be the high street in Ledbury some years before the war.  It was a narrow store front affair, with cabinets full of dentist tools to one side.  I was there getting a tooth pulled which was very unpleasant.  Afterward, the dentist handed me a squat brown bottle which I assume had some sort of patent medicine that would probably get you 20 years hard time for having on your person nowadays.

Also, on this upcoming trip to California, I’ve warmed up to the idea of treating it more like a real vacation.  I’m actually pretty excited about some of the things I’m going to see along the way.  Hopefully I’ll have time to spend an evening with a friend in Eureka, and of course I’ll be sure to cruise the Avenue of the Giants with my fiance.

I think the time for me to suspend disbelief that I was Phil is over though.  The time has come for me to approach this trip as if I know nothing.  I’m still going to see if I know my way around the area better than I normally would from clicking through the route on Streetview and I’m going to make note of anything unusual that happens on the trip (including flashes of memory), but I’ve let go of my main goal of confirming and triggering memories.  It’s just not worth it any more.  Even if I was him, it doesn’t matter any more.  I’m not him any more, I’m just someone who is oddly similar but with my own identity, history, name, and achievements.

As far as anyone, from my friend in Eureka to the owner of the B&B and the waiters at the Cafe Med will know, I’m just a hipster writer from Portland taking a literary tour and soaking in the scenery and culture.  I’ll happily embrace that role, because the alternative is really not helpful to think about right now.

A Couple Things

First of all, many thanks to a friend on a reincarnation forum I post on for information about Ile de Re’s climate.  While I don’t know how it was in 1225/26, he pointed out that at least currently, it’s fairly mild there in the winter and it wouldn’t be out of the question to see something like snowdrops growing in February, which might support my memory of leaving the island around the time the first signs of spring had come.

Also, I had a brief flash of memory from John’s life.  I may have remembered a girlfriend.  I think her name was Ann.  She had light brown hair and a fair face that I can’t recall in detail, except that she had heavy eyebrows that didn’t detract much from her looks, and wore simple beige dresses with burnt-orange colored floral prints.  There was a green brooch too, I can’t remember if it was a green cameo or a stone of some kind.  I think she was younger than me because I was in my 30s (her dress seemed very late Edwardian so I’m thinking this was between 1909 and 1914) and she was probably not much more than 23.  She was the one I used to tour those ruins with.  I think that abbey outside Shrewsbury was our last time together.  She’s the one whose face and smile I still can’t bring myself to remember clearly, but whose presence I had some sense of whenever I had memories of touring ruined castles and abbeys while hearing the song “Scarborough Fair.”

I could be entirely wrong about this.  I have no way to prove that Ann ever existed; anyone who knew of John’s life and loves is gone now.  I do know that in my previous life I was married to a woman named Anne for a while but it ended badly.  I could have gotten the name from her, but from what I’ve read (I have no memory), Anne wasn’t anything like the person I remember Ann being.

I wish I knew more.  I wish I could trace this person.  Finding the right 23-year-old woman named Ann living in Hereford or Shrewsbury around the time of the Great War would be like looking for one particular needle, in a stack of needles, inside a haystack.

Did I Remember a Past Life in 1914?

I’ve had a chance to sort it out and here’s what I’ve got so far.

What I know for sure:

1. My memories of a previous life correspond well to those of one John Harris (1877-1915).

2. John was a private in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, based out of Shrewsbury

3. That in Sept. 1914 (when John is known to have enlisted) there were regiments closer to his home in Hereford, but instead he chose one based more than 50 miles away in a town where I can find no record of direct relatives living at that time.

4. I also have memories of a Romanesque abbey in ruins which I can’t quite place; I had seen similar ruins before but not exactly like this one.

5. There are two abbeys of a Romanesque type near Shrewsbury. 

6. I have had possible memories of a life in the 13th or 14th century.  These memories have not been confirmed or traced to a specific individual yet.

7. One of these memories involves becoming a monk against the wishes of my family, and being from a family of means.   The abbey where I became a monk was also Romanesque.

8. There was a family by the name of Harris in the late Middle Ages in the Shrewsbury area, but I cannot trace them back further than about the 15th century with the records available freely online.

9. “John Harris” was among the names I came across among the Shrewsbury Harrises, so if I did live before in the Middle Ages, it’s possible I had the same name in that life.

What I strongly inferred from intuition but have not confirmed:

1. That I was the third son of a noble house meant by order of birth to be in the military in the Middle Ages, and that I had chosen to be a monk to get out of that obligation.

2. That I was John Harris in my most recent previous life.

3. That I remembered that medieval life in 1914 while visiting an abbey near Shrewsbury and that this influenced my decision not only to enlist, but to join the KSLI in particular rather than enlisting closer to home and family.

4. That I learned Received Pronunciation in Hereford, and that after leaving the farm I took work in a position that required me to look and sound posh, but paid little (e.g. a butler or waiter).

5. That I regretted my decision to not become a soldier in my life as a monk, and that I had ambitions of becoming an officer and held the misguided hope that my age and my efforts to learn received pronunciation would mark me as a candidate for becoming one.

Ideas that I’ve so far disfavored:

1. That I had a mistress in Shrewsbury.  This was based only on intuition and the vague idea that a woman was there with me in the old abbey in 1914.  I have since realized that it could just as easily have been my wife if there was anyone with me at all.

2. That the ruined abbey was somewhere in Herefordshire or Somerset.  A search reveals most of the ruined abbeys in those counties are of a later Gothic style (including the famous Glastonbury and Tintern abbeys).

3. That the ruined abbey was actually a childhood memory from this life of a plantation near Charleston, SC.  None of the plantations (including Mepkin Abbey, which was built on the site of an old plantation) have the sort of architecture I recall seeing, particularly the columns and rounded archways.

I’m not sure what to think, or how to dig up anything more on that medieval life aside from maybe hiring a researcher (which is sadly out of my budget).  I have a feeling the records I need to fill in a lot of these gaps are tucked away in dusty libraries somewhere in England and it’s very discouraging.  If I can confirm the details of two past lives, that alone will be remarkable, but it seems I may have just gotten very lucky with the records on John.

Edwardian Wheels

In the time I’ve been learning about my previous life in the late 19th and early 20th century, I’ve really fallen back in love with the look and feel of cars from the Edwardian Era.

Unfortunately, it’s not practical for me to own one.  To get an actual Edwardian car would first be very expensive (about a million for a good one unless it’s a Model T Ford built at Dagenham), and it would probably be a car that is not particularly easy to drive or maintain. 

The next option would be a motorcycle from the same era; however, price is an issue there.  I’ve seen them as low as $30,000, but realistically you could expect to pay several times that for a nice example. And you still have to live with the quirks that 100 years of mechanical engineering have since ironed out of the design, which not just anyone can do.

There are only two options for replicas when it comes to cars: build it yourself which requires expert fabricating skills (which I don’t have), or buy sacrifice a poor, unsuspecting Citroen 2CV and turn it into something that looks like an amusement park ride.

However, when it comes to the motorcycles, there is an easy option.  It seems that with all the various parts for replica board track racers, vintage replica bicycles, and motorized bicycles, I’ve come to the conclusion that you could easily assemble all the required parts to make something closely resembling a 1910 Triumph or 1914 Humber.  I need to refine my estimate with some actual figures, but I’m figuring about $1200-1800 would get you a very nice one in 49cc.

I wouldn’t go with much higher displacement for two reasons.  First, anything higher requires a motorcycle endorsement in my state, and getting one here is too much of a headache.  Second, any higher than 49cc would be too fast to control unless it was heavily governed.  The brakes on an actual bicycle aren’t as robust as modern moped and motorcycle brakes and anything over 60 is really suicidal on a bicycle.  As it stands I predict a 49cc engine will give me top speeds of about 55 miles per hour, much faster than an Edwardian bike with more than twice that displacement.  It’ll also perform better on hills than an Edwardian bike (I once had a 49cc moped that could climb very steep hills, if you didn’t mind doing 20 in heavy traffic).

I think this project is very feasible.  I’ve got a truck and a moped back at my Dad’s place on the East Coast I need to sell before I can do it but if anyone wants to know what I’ve got, leave a comment with your e-mail address because I’ll let both of them go for $1200 and yes, they do run.

I want to build this bike!


Something I Forgot (A Mystery)

I had a hunch a few nights ago and decided to see if I could pick up any features near Weston-Super-Mare (Somerset’s biggest beach resort) that would suggest an artificial island and/or a wooden statue being built there some time in the last century.  I figured, since it was a little further out than the piers, the amount of sand required to make an artificial island like that would create a sand bar that might still be visible.

While I didn’t find anything near the pier, I did find a feature that’s a little hard to explain.

South of Weston near Brean Down, there is an island-like feature with a straight line running out to it, like the remains of a pier.  Most of the photos in the area are looking out at the down itself, so I can’t get a clear view of what it is.  

If anyone knows what this feature is, please let me know!  And if you know of a wooden statue being built there one summer between about 1880 and 1914, please let me know.

Deeper and Deeper We Go…

I was doing some quick research on medieval Shrewsbury this morning before heading out to class.

Lo and behold, I discovered that one of the family names of the noble houses in the area was Harris.

I don’t know if John was a blood relation to them or not; it could be too that there was a fictive relation between the two families that John believed.

I don’t know if the monk whose life I remember was from the House of Harris, but it’s a distinct possibility.

But what would really be interesting is if I could establish a blood relation between the warrior-turned monk and the farmboy-turned soldier, and things would get to a new level of weirdness if I could connect both of them to me by blood relation.

Quickest Ever “Plausible” Result

Not even ten minutes.  I told you this research thing was getting stupidly simple.

Google Docs brought up this analysis of poaching in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Some quotes:

Archer, Hopkins and Thompson have followed some contemporary observers in
rejecting the view that urban poaching was a response to poverty, and maintained that
it was driven by a thriving commercial market for game which was at its height during
times of prosperity rather than depression. (p. 204)

We were certainly not desperate.  Based on the neighborhoods the Harris family lived in, we weren’t terribly rich but we were far from broke; we were solidly lower middle-class, father was a skilled laborer and had the means to move himself and his family from Somerset to Hereford.  I think buying the occasional pheasant on the sly to make us feel richer than we really were would be a luxury we could have afforded.

Pheasants are mentioned too:

…the expansion of artificial rearing of pheasants and partridges meant that it was increasingly difficult for both offenders and the wider community to claim that these birds were wild and consequently ‘fair game’. (P. 207)

I think we can label this one “plausible.”  The young man in tweed may have dressed like a titled lord, but it was probably us upwardly-mobile working families who made him rich.

Brief Memory

In one of the towns I lived in back in England (I don’t remember which so I can’t tell you how long ago this was), There was a fellow in a tweed cap and a green jacket and breeches, sort of youngish (in his 20s I assume), and with a pipe forever on his lip and a gun forever on his shoulder.

We used to buy pheasants from him; somehow, I think he may have been a poacher, but I’m not certain.  And yet as I remember, it was quite ordinary to buy from him at least once in a while.

There wasn’t much meat on a pheasant, and if not for the luxury of eating pheasant I doubt we’d have bothered; a goose was a far better value.

Now this would be interesting to look into.  Was poaching ordinary, or were there channels through which you could legitimately pay a hunter to shoot pheasants perhaps?

By the way I remember him being dressed, my guess is that this was later on, perhaps on into the Edwardian era, but could have been Victorian.

Recollection Backlog

What’s the use in worrying?  It’s never worth the while!

Anxiety about my physical and mental health is going to make me sicker than just living my life the way I want to.

I have some recollections I recorded while I was waiting to be told I’d gone insane, and I think it might be better if I just go ahead and share them and- when possible- research them.

Written Dec. 24, 2012:

I recently found what may be the house where I lived in Yeovil. It is clustered around a number of houses of similar age, right across from the High Holborn Guest House. 

I found it due to an article dated October 23, 2012 that said that a cannabis grow-op had caught fire there.

The house looked too modern to be the right one, so I used an online tool at a site called Bricks and Brass to date it based on the features that were visible on Google Street View.

The result came back with a date range of 1855-1902, with a median date of 1877. This means it is almost certainly from the time I would have lived in Yeovil, and very near the spot where I believe our house stood, though as far as whether or not it’s the right place, I can’t be too sure.

Unless I could gain access to the top floor and compare the view, I doubt I can ever know for sure. 

Written Dec. 25, 2012:

It turns out I had a memory of my previous life when I was very young.  Whenever I heard Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” I saw a garden similar to the one at Middleton or one of the other plantations near Charleston, grown into the landscape and maintained only slightly to keep the grass in certain areas short enough to walk through. I was 6 or 7 and assumed I was just visualizing Middleton, but one detail stood out: an old building, possibly a ruin, with Romanesque arches and vaults. That always puzzled me, because Middleton didn’t have anything like that. But places like Segovia and Toledo in Spain where I had been as a toddler did have them, and even though the amount of greenery around it seemed odd, I figured I’d just dreamed up the combination to make a pretty mental image.  But then I thought about all the ruined abbeys across England. Many of them were preserved in a park-like state from a very early period, when Romantic poets first discovered them. They would have been popular destinations for holiday makers and young lovers in the Edwardian era just as they are now. The abbey grounds are often grown into the landscape much like the grounds at the Charleston plantations are. Atalaya at Litchfield Beach, SC comes close, but Atalaya is more Spanish than Romanesque, and doesn’t quite look like the low entryways dug slightly into the ground to wide Romanesque arches I recall; Atalaya is flat because it’s right on the coast.  I heard that “Scarborough Fair” had been a popular tune in Northern England (particularly around York) around 1890. It’s possible I would have heard it living in Hereford.

It also makes sense that I took a number photos of abanoned abbeys while in England.

Written Dec. 27, 2012: 

I seem to remember seeing a show in some music hall, some time around 1903. The proscenium had an odd, sort of rounded shape where instead of a square frame around the stage, you had an undulating shape reminiscent of a seashell opening. It was painted in glossy white enamel and trimmed in gold. There was a chandelier too, a slightly tawdry one with feathers of red white and blue. The gas lights dimmed to a soft pale orange glow and the first bars of the overture played.

Written Dec. 31, 2012:

I remember it was common when one went over the top to get bits of blood and organs on you.It came up in a gruesome slurry mixed with the mud that every shell kicked up. Any living thing within five yards of the thing was not so much a corpse as a tangled mass of flesh that nobody bothered to recover or record them dead. Many of the missing simply had their bodies destroyed beyond what would be recognized, and it was a common enough occurrence that we had all seen it. I can’t remember if we had a name for that slurry but it seems we did.

Bullets would whiz by your ears, and nearly everyone got grazed at least once in the raids we took part in.  

The worst thing about our raids was when you had to shoot someone while looking at them.  You never forget the look in someone’s eyes when they know you’re going to kill them.

So I now have several details to research:

*Where did the Harris family live around 1876?

*Do my memories correspond to any abandoned abbeys that I would have likely visited in my previous life?

*Is there or was there a music hall in England that had a proscenium like the one I described?

*Was there a name for that gruesome battlefield slurry?