James: What I Know So Far

For those who don’t want to wade through a lot of other material, here’s what I know so far about James.

James was probably born in England around 1810 because I remember being a young man at the time of Queen Victoria’s coronation.  Rochester is a good match for where he lived as a young man in the 1830s.

He served in the military and I suspect he spent time in India (much like Jack did about 60 years later).  The name “Chundaree” rattles around in my mind (I checked it out, there was some significant action there during James’ day) but specific memories elude me.  If the dream I had a while ago is correct, he was discharged dishonorably.  This dream gave me both the name “James” and an accurate memory of a 19th century military barracks.

I have a vague memory of having punched someone so hard they died.  This may have figured into James’ decision to become a sailor.

He made port in the northeastern US.  New York is highly likely.  Boston perhaps.  The detail that clued me into a northeastern port was a dream I had about a floating sailor’s chapel of a type that was common in that region in those days.  I don’t think he was involved with blockade running during the Civil War and remember nothing of southern ports.  I do remember a stop in Argentina, but only the faintest flicker of a gaucho’s boots of a style I traced to the mid-19th century. From there he sailed round the horn on a sailing ship.

The rest is a blank until San Francisco.  I remembered traipsing around Chinatown specifically (probably up to no good).  Then there was another memory from further up the coast, of having survived a shipwreck and staring down at a paddle steamer lying on its side in the surf below the cliffs of Marin or Sonoma County.  I confirmed that this stretch of water was indeed a bit of a graveyard for paddle steamers in those days.

I suspect I may have made it to Portland but I have no specific memory, only a nagging familiarity from old photographs of the ramshackle construction down by the old riverfront, long before they built all that nice park land.  If I did come here all those years ago, strange that I should settle here.

Then somehow, I remember being in France during the Paris Commune.  Exactly why or how I got there is a mystery.  All I know is that there were a number of Englishmen there at the time, all of whom survived the collapse of the commune as far as I’m aware.

The last clear memories are of working as a stagehand in a small opera house, the location of which I haven’t been able to pin down.  It was an old building even then.  Watching a production of “The Magic Flute” performed with costumes and staging based on the traditional interpretations of that opera brought back a flood of sense and sight memories, including the flare of a limelight, starting orange and then glowing bright and starlike; I confirmed this.  Verdi’s “Nabucco” is another opera I remember being performed there.  I was excited to confirm that it was common in those days for sailors to become stagehands.  This was probably the birth of my love of opera, which has stayed with me across several lifetimes.

The death I saw under regression was rather pointless.  It involved getting drunk at a party for the crew after finishing a production and taking a tumble into a canal.  This would have been before 1877 since Jack was born circa June of that year; for the sake of argument, let’s say circa 1875.  James was in his 60s at the time and to date this is the life where I probably lived the longest out of all the lives I’ve remembered.

I had suspected for a while that maybe he’d been hanged, since I have an extremely strong feeling that at least one of my lives ended that way; however, I can find no reference to anyone who sounds quite enough like our James having been hanged in England between 1860 and 1880.  If he killed a man, he got away with it.  It makes the end of my subsequent life- blown to bits on the Western Front- seem that much more tragically fitting; perhaps we do pay for all our crimes one way or another.

War, Mostly…

…is tedium.

I’ve mentioned it in posts before, I think. The long hours spent in a trench were mostly just going about daily routines, trying to keep one’s mind occupied.

This film gives a pretty good impression of it:

About the only major details (besides the trench being a bit too clean, forgivable because it would take many weeks of weathering to get it looking grungy and wet enough) is the fact that there’s only one actor in this.  The trenches were much more crowded than that; we had the better part of an enormous modern army strung that front!  It was close quarters for sure.  Also, you could be guaranteed at least a small barrage most days even in a quiet sector (it certainly seemed that way at Houplines, anyhow).  But yes, a surprising amount of time was spent waiting with frazzled nerves for something to happen.

Stunning Discovery

scan to about 28:50 in and take a look at that recruiting poster.

It is a vivid, colorful variant of the famous “Lord Kitchener” poster.  One detail I’ve remembered about the day I decided to re-enlist was the poster being in more than just black, white, and red like the usual version.  It had a full-color portrait.

The one in the documentary is closer to the commonly-seen one.  However, it does have an interesting detail: it specifically calls for ex-soldiers up to 45 years of age!  This tells me a little bit more about why I made the fateful decision that would bring an otherwise-unremarkable past life to an early and violent end.

Just on a whim though, I did another search for variants of this poster after I found this documentary.  I did not expect to find this full-color variant which is without a doubt the poster I saw that day in September 1914.

One of the things that always bothered me was that poster.  I had remembered it in full color but an initial search failed to turn up any such poster.  It was always the classic one that has been reproduced innumerable times.  This was one of the details that had always cast a shadow of doubt over the first memories to break in late 2012.

Every time I think I can’t confirm anything else, a new detail like this pops up.

Incidentally, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on exactly why I made the decision back then.  What I remembered was that Lord Kitchener reminded me of my father, and that I probably felt like I ought to do this.  A sense of what might be termed filial piety, I suppose, but in a uniquely British context.  I have little doubt that my father (who, according to what I’ve read in the official records, outlived me by about four years) wanted me to enlist and that it was out of a near-religious respect for him that I was initially moved.

On the other hand, I remember my “Gethsemane moment” too.  I remember wrestling with the idea and ultimately subscribing to the myth that I was destined to put everything on the line and either become a sacrifice or a gentleman by the end of it all.  This does not exclude the above but was probably an exacerbating factor.

Another factor I seem to remember was not having much of a civilian life to begin with.  I remember taking diction classes to learn to speak in a posh dialect and getting nowhere with it, though I had my eye on jobs waiting on the well-to-do as a means of learning the ins and outs of high society from an accessible spot.  It didn’t work out; after a while I began to miss the security and structure the army gave me.  Once again, this is not to the exclusion of either of the above but adds fuel to the fire.

There had to have been some reluctance, though.  War was declared in July, and I could have re-enlisted earlier in the summer.  Instead, I waited until the big recruitment drives at the end of the Summer.  I had a memory of being in love with a woman named Anne and although it can’t be confirmed, it is rather interesting that after the war, my brother Albert probably married a woman whose middle name was Anne, if the grave in Yeovil is indeed my Albert.  I don’t believe I was Albert myself because the poster was definitely in Hereford when I saw it.  I very likely left her without a sweetheart and that couldn’t have been an easy decision for me, since I remember us being head-over-heels for each other.

Nonetheless, I have a feeling that by the time I traveled to Nuneaton (which I have since learned, at the time, was a staging area for the Regular Army of which I was a part), I was completely sold.  I had fewer reasons to stay in Hereford than to march off to the front.

Fewer reasons, perhaps.  But I did have a choice and I still carry a burden for that.  I made the wrong choice, and now, 101 years after that life ended, I’m still dealing with the fallout from that, trying to make sense of where it all went wrong.

Now This Is Strange…

I had a brief memory flash of serving in India during colonial times.

Now, I know for a fact that Jack (the life I lost in WWI) had served most of the Edwardian era in Secunderabad.  However, the flash I had was of going into arid hills with a band of soldiers to hunt bandits.

According to a quick scan of search results on Google, hunting bandits in arid hills sounds more like the 19th century.

I am pretty sure that I was a soldier in my mid-19th century life, but could I have been in India during that time as well?  That would be two lives, back-to-back, as a British soldier serving in India.  I’d had a strong feeling that I had been to India in that life before, but after I discovered Jack’s tour of duty in Secunderabad I had nixed that.  I hadn’t considered that I’d been there in two subsequent lives.

That would explain why the flowery trappings of British Victorian orientalism seem so stuck in my head, in some deep place that I can’t quite see.  Two lifetimes of that is enough to make a deep impression.  Every time I saw some fragment of that cultural phenomenon while I was in England in this life, it gave me weird feelings.  The Royal Pavilion at Brighton was downright eerie in that respect, with its orientalist whimsy bordering on madness, stylized banana leaves all around in places where they were really not needed.  In some part of my mind, I see flashes of dark, smoke-filled rooms with dim lanterns and brightly-colored fabrics all around.  I smell a hit of exotic spice.  But this isn’t a place I’ve been necessarily; it’s a cultural construct of a place I thought India might be all those ages ago and it’s still there, in my mind, a dated and ego-dystonic construct born of Imperialist naivete.

I wish I could remember something more, something concrete that I could track down and confirm once and for all.  What did I do as a soldier in that earlier life, and what went wrong that saw me drummed out and turning to the seafaring life?

Thinking of doing a past life regression again soon.  It seems that earlier life has come through pretty clearly in regressions and dreams, so it’s probably not very deep in my subconscious.  Exactly why this life in particular would be so close to the surface is anybody’s guess.

On Yesterday’s Breakthrough- More Thoughts

I think part of the reason it came to me in an antique store out in the country is because of the fact that this setting has a deep connection to my psyche.

In fact, I think if my subconscious was a building, it would be an antique store in the middle of nowhere.  Chock full of fragments of lives I’ve lived, many of them forgotten to conscious thought but not lost forever; in the nooks and display cases I can still find them, if I explore long enough.

I often have dreams of taking long drives down narrow country roads and stopping at antique stores.  It’s an archetype that is ever-present in my mind.  In a way, what happened yesterday was like descending into a dreamscape where I could freely explore the subconscious.

There was also a disinhibiting stimulus- I had attended mass that morning, and was still feeling that sense of timelessness in the road with its old bridges and roadside fixtures and in the little town and its antique stores.  I had opened myself up to that timelessness and was in a liminal state when I drove into Aurora.  I still felt that time had stood still for me after the third or fourth store.

Also, I had to really sleep on it to gather this, but that one moment in Jack’s life and the place it came from is significant to so many of the things I angst over here and now.  This is relevant to my lingering questions about gender (after all, I still have that impression of stoic Victorian masculinity lodged in my being some place where it won’t be removed easily). It’s relevant to my tendency to see myself not having much of a future, seeing myself being killed in prison for something I’ve done or said as if it’s an inevitability. It’s relevant to my courageous and idealistic but ultimately self-serving tendency to rush headlong into causes where I know full well that I’m putting myself in danger. It’s relevant to so much of my angst about the upcoming presidential elections.

This probably isn’t the only significant thing I can learn from past lives, but it’s the most significant thing that I’ve come across in a very long time and it’s a pretty big deal.

One more thing: I tried to find a piece of music that carried the same emotional charge for me as the feeling I’ve tried to describe.  I tried the usual British flag-wavers like “I Vow to Thee My Country,” “Land of Hope and Glory,” and “Nimrod,” but they just don’t do it.

The only piece of music I could really think of that does it for me was the Adagietto movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, especially the first few bars of it.  Imagine that playing over the story I posted, during the part when Jim is telling Evelyn not to cry.


Thoughts on my Last Post, Part 2

While I won’t post anything from my most recent novel (keeping with my promise not to promote my published work here), I will share a short story I penned around April and revised slightly in June but have never had the nerve to post anywhere else.

Here is a perfect example of the doomed Englishman archetype resurfacing in my work.  It’s very telling that I had in mind that he was roughly Jack’s age, if he’d survived the war and lived into the late 40s.

Incidentally, the ending was meant to be enigmatic, though at the time I was going through questions about my gender related to the prevalence of this very male archetype in my psyche.

Farewell, Mr. Bagshot

Wandsworth Prison- 18 November 1946, about 7:45 AM

“I must admit this is the first time anyone’s asked for their solicitor,” the warden, a tall, severe man with thick glasses mumbled. “Most of the time it’s a priest they want to see. Do you reckon he thinks you can get him a last-minute pardon?”

A woman in a smart, professional-looking dress walked alongside him, the hard soles of her shoes tapping lightly on the walk past cell after cell. “Not likely,” she said. “Not knowing him.”

“You know him well, do you?” the warden said, arriving at the condemned cell and reaching for his keys, sliding the big heavy key into an ancient steel door and opening it.

“No better than any other client,” she lied.

“You’ve got fifteen minutes, if you’ve got any business do be quick about it,” the warden bellowed, shutting the door of the cell.

The inside of the cell was white-washed with a single window with heavy bars at one end. Little else except a lone cot with a thin mattress, a table, two chairs, and a single electric bulb in a fixture high overhead furnished the room.

Mr. Bagshot sat at the table, looking as well as a man could be in his predicament. He had a smart tweed suit on, with a red brocade waistcoat and a green bowtie, his mustache immaculately groomed into a perfect pushbroom. In his hand he held a glass of brandy that was half-finished. The solicitor winced as the noxious smell of the cheap brandy- the only nicety afforded a condemned prisoner- hit her nose.

“Ah, Miss Moore! Wonderful to see you!” he said, his warmth genuine and his tone strangely calm. “Well, come on, do have a seat!”

She sat down, scarcely able to look at him. What could she say?

“Hello, Mr. Bagshot,” she said quietly, the name sitting heavy on her tongue as she took a seat across the table from him.

“Oh, come now, let’s not be so gloomy, Miss Moore,” Mr. Bagshot said. “My troubles are nearly over. And it’s Jim now, there’s no business left for us I’m afraid, so we might as well talk like two people who know each other, eh?”

Miss Moore fought back tears, swallowed hard and gazed at the rough surface of the wooden table. In it were carved the names and dates of nearly every prisoner who had passed through this cell; the oldest date she could see, stained dark by the passage of time, was from 1893 and the freshest, scratched only an hour before, was an inscription that read J. Bagshot-1946- Innocent.

“I failed you, Jim.” She forced the words painfully, her eyes still fixed on the tortured wood of the table.

“What utter nonsense, Evelyn,” Jim replied with a curious warmth, taking a delicate sip of the brandy and swirling his glass as if he were drinking a fine Bas Armagnac. “They wanted me dead. The truth didn’t matter, they wanted someone to hang for treason and by God, they chose me. There was nothing you could do. I was dead the moment I walked into the Old Bailey.”

The words twisted at her heart, though Jim had spoken them so nonchalantly. “No, I didn’t do enough,” Evelyn insisted.

“What could you have done?” Jim asked, taking her delicate hand and looking her in the eye.

That gaze… that touch… she couldn’t remember the last time she felt this way about anyone. Perhaps her father might have made her feel this way when she was young. Why, oh why did it have to be a condemned man that brought these feelings out in her?

She searched deep… Jim deserved an answer. He didn’t insist upon it, except for the gentle squeeze upon her hand when she was most lost in her thoughts. But as much as she searched, she could think of nothing; it had been a kangaroo court, a show trial of the worst order, and nothing could have saved him.

“I don’t know,” she finally admitted. “I tried everything I could think of.”

“You see? There was nothing,” Jim said calmly. “They wanted blood and they found a chap with the same name as the fellow they wanted. Didn’t matter that Jim Bagshot from Battersea died when the bombs fell on Dresden. It didn’t matter if I didn’t know the poor bugger from Adam. They couldn’t admit a clerical error after they arrested me. They had to have their pound of flesh and by God, they got it.”

The two gazed at each other, Jim still holding her hand, his eyes softly imploring her not to cry, but it was no use. She felt tears begin to fall, and in only a moment he was by her side, embracing her.

“No, no, Evelyn, please don’t cry,” he insisted. “I’ve had a good life. I’m almost seventy now. I buried a wife and two grown children in the Blitz. My heart broke a long time ago, and I mean that in the most literal way! I’ve got a dicky ticker, dear. Grief can do that. Turns it all big and bulbous and useless, like an old cider jug. I’m going to die soon whether or not they hang me. This isn’t the way I would have wanted, but at least it’s quick. I hear Mr. Pierrepoint is quite the expert in these sorts of things…”

“I failed you…” Evelyn repeated, her voice weaker.

“You did no such thing! Enough of that, now,” Jim chided her gently, wiping a tear from her face. “Now, Evelyn, will you deny a condemned man his last request? I want to see you looking beautiful. Please, don’t let tears smudge your mascara and turn your eyes all red… is that what you want me to remember for the rest of my life? Save the tears for when I’m gone.”

“Sorry,” she said, sitting up straight in her seat and putting on a weak smile.

“That’s the spirit,” Jim said, his smile deeper and warmer… how did he do it? There was no trace of fear, pain, or resentment in him though, she reckoned, he must have been in a dreadful state behind that calm exterior.

Jim returned to his seat and took another sip of his brandy, then looked at the glass. “I suspect you need this more than I do, though. Care to share a drink?” He slid the glass toward her, a sparkle in his eye.

Evelyn took the glass. “Thank you,” she said, looking at it a moment.

“Well, go on, drink up, we haven’t got all day… well, I certainly don’t,” he urged her, chuckling a bit at his own gallows humour.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“Bah, I’d have much preferred a cigar,” Jim replied.

Evelyn took the glass, held her nose, and drank deep from it, then coughed slightly as the burn of cheap alcohol hit the back of her sensitive throat. “Oh God, it’s horrid!” she said, gagging slightly.

“Yes… not the best I’m afraid,” Jim said matter-of-factly.

At that, the bookcase against the wall slid aside. Three men entered the room. “I need you to come with me, Mr. Bagshot,” said the man in the middle grimly.

Evelyn’s heart fluttered in her chest. “Wait! Wait, please, not yet!” she pleaded.

Jim stood obediently. “Evelyn, it’s no use!” he said as the guards pinioned his arms. “But before I go, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What is it?” Evelyn said, choking back tears and feeling faint.

The guards turned Jim around and hustled him toward the death chamber where the noose awaited. “I am you!” Jim said, turning his head as far as he could to look at her. For just a moment his eyes met hers- not fearful, but full of earnestness- then they were out of sight forever as a white canvas hood was placed around his head.

“What does that mean?” Evelyn pleaded.

There was no answer. Jim stood tall and proud as Mr. Pierrepoint, the hangman, worked the noose over his head, checking the knot placement. Jim nodded affirmatively, sticking out his chest a bit and turning his nose up as the hangman walked to the lever, his fear betrayed only by a slight tremor in his legs.

Then there was a sharp bang, and Jim Bagshot fell into eternity. It was all over in just a few seconds. Evelyn’s eyes went wide with horror; just out of sight, below the level of that trap door and at the end of that taut rope was the moribund shell of the man who had stolen her heart.

Evelyn felt a tightness in her chest that grew and grew, crushing her until she could no longer breathe. She gasped, her legs buckling as the room began to grow blurry.

Her body hit the floor of the cell, lifeless as the body on the gallows nearby.

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.