Strangers of Maresfield Gardens

Strangers of Maresfield Gardens from ‘A Coat Worth Wearing’ by Neil McSweeney

 

Around the time I moved up to secondary school I became involved in the local chapter of Children’s International Summer Villages. I think we heard about them via some neighbours but, as a registered charity, they were also sometimes in the habit of visiting schools to advertise. Each CISV chapter organises a four-week summer camp to receive delegates from abroad and also recruits their own delegates to send in exchange. It’s possible to find yourself, aged eleven, flying halfway around the world for your first trip away from your parents. But my brother (who, though younger, went before me) only got sent as far as Leeds.

CISV was originally set up by an American psychologist in the aftermath of the second world war. It was established to promote understanding and friendship between people from different cultures and also as a mechanism for developing and delivering ‘peace education’. I think on both counts this seems to align with Sigmund Freud’s formula for a vaccine against war, set out in a letter he wrote to Einstein (who else?).

Freud reckoned that war presented a near irresistible opportunity to fulfil simultaneously our strong instincts eros (creativity, unity) and thanatos (the death instinct). However, since mechanisation, warfare had come to represent an existential threat, not just to the immediate combatants. Accepting it as an inevitable consequence of immutable instinct therefore amounted to moral cowardice.

Freud suggested then that we should look on the one hand to encourage unity and creativity at the expense of our instinct for destruction and on the other hand try to evolve the human psyche towards reason and away from purely instinctive responses. Though he made these suggestions in 1932 it took me nearly sixty years to get with the programme. My first CISV experience was an interchange with Norway in the summer of 1989. Within four short months the Berlin wall was breached. My life’s contribution to world peace was apparently off to a promising start.

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According to some accounts I’ve read, the US WWII General George S Patton was all for having his Third Army build a wall around Red Square rather than leaving the Russians to build it through Berlin. He apparently foresaw as inescapable the conflict between these uncomfortable allies and felt it would be better to grasp the nettle while the gloves were on. If this was his advice it’s perfectly easy to understand the conspiracy theory that his own superiors had him killed (just as soon as he’d got them to Berlin).

Patton was clearly a complex character. His poem ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ is just one of the many he wrote between 1903 and his death in 1945. He seemed to think of war as a necessary and inevitable evil. He seemed also to think that when engaged therein it was better (i.e. ultimately less painful for everyone) not to pull your punches. That this philosophy was employed to pretty devastating effect on the battlefield resulted in a fair bit of glory but throwing unpulled punches at his own shell-shocked troops ultimately got him relieved of his command. So he was in England preparing for D-Day when his II Corps pushed north through Italy. I once gave English lessons to an old boy who remembered the GIs handing gum out from the top of the tanks as they rolled through the streets of Empoli towards the action on the Gothic Line.

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I taught English in Empoli for almost a year. I had developed a strong attraction to Italy when I visited my CISV friend Giancarlo in Padova while inter-railing in my late teens. I went back in my twenties to scope the place out with a view to finding work and settled on Tuscany. Most of the teaching there was OK but I spent Friday afternoons for a couple of terms with teenagers at the local Scuola Professionale and their absolute disregard for my desires and instructions hollowed me out a bit. I remember on one occasion after no-one came back in from the break I discovered the whole school, staff and all, watching a fight proceed in the middle of the street between a pupil and a local drug dealer. I just went back to the classroom and waited.

Before teaching in Italy I had taught for a couple of years in the UK. At Barnsley College I tried to prepare Chinese students for the rigors of UK Higher Education. And at Doncaster I tried to help men and women from a variety of nations jump hoops or build confidence so that they could move forward with their often brand new Yorkshire lives. We became very friendly and I enjoyed spending time with my students outside class. I remember towards the end of my time with them we went out for a drink to say goodbye. The conversation turned towards people’s reasons for being here in the UK.

*******

Those conversations I’d had with Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq came back to me as I looked at the rainbow coloured peace flags that festooned the palazzos of Empoli and Florence in the lead up to the second Gulf War. I remember asking myself ‘Peace for who?’. Not for everyone, certainly. My previously inviolable pacifist position was in doubt. I read any English language newspaper I could find. I discussed the situation with the few people I knew. I remember sitting with pen and paper and making lists of facts and suppositions and available courses of action in an attempt to reach a firm conclusion on what I felt should or should not be done. And then when the day of the marches came, when millions took to the February streets to disavow the impending invasion, I stayed at home.

 

 

The Strangers of Maresfield Gardens
{In which General George S Patton consults Sigmund Freud}

I’ve been told that I am mad
Herr Dr. please advise
In myself I don’t feel bad
And thus far have survived
Many other better men
Who perhaps more balanced were
But now whose balance is a noun
While mine remains a verb

Very well I hear you sir
I’ll begin with what I see
By chance the urn upon your shelf
Depicts a younger me
You’ll notice that I wield a spear
Against a yielding foe
Just how it ripped into his ribs
The image cannot show

The wind blows cold & the wind blows right through you

My mother was a Macedon
And so back then was I
When destiny awaited me
Upon the walls of Tyre
At the breech my sword did reach
Into the enemy
Before the murder was complete
She reached back into me

I then awoke as Hannibal
And then in Caesar’s ranks
Then again on Crecy field
As Phillip’s army sank
I rode my way across the Steppe
Alongside brave Murat
Made an end at Waterloo
My innards in my hat

The wind blows cold & the wind blows right through you

There is just one ambition left
In this my current life
And I mean to grab him fiercely
By the asshole and the eye
And drive him backwards underneath
His precious linden trees
And with my tanks pour death on him
For final victory

When the end comes round once more
I’ll happily be dead
And sleep a while until the world
Wants Old Blood & Guts again.
So tell me what’s the verdict
Have you reached a judgement yet?
How can you say that I am not the sanest man you ever met?

When the wind blows cold & the wind blows right through you

 

 

brass-art-shadow-world-writers-rooms-freuds-house-installation-image-11

A sonic image of Freud’s famous Vienna consulting room and its precise recreation in his home at 20 Maresfield Gardens, London where he continued to see patients until his death in September 1939 (three weeks after the panzer columns advanced into Poland). © Brass Art

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