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PT 2. How to think about exercise

Posted June 15, 2014 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Part 2.

The Soldier’s Equipment

What kind of self is intensified in sprinting and other exercises? The stories of the Iliad and Odyssey suggest one obvious but exclusive answer: the soldier.

The Greeks were a warlike civilization, and running was obviously worthwhile because it made for fitter warriors. The hoplitodromos competitors sprinted in helmets and greaves, carrying shields, because that that is how they ran on the battlefield. Plato, in his dialogue Laws, sketched an ideal city in which citizens competed in full armour for prizes. He wanted soldiers, not professional sportsmen, striving for spectacle. ‘Body agility – quickness of hand as well as of foot – is a first-rate point in the soldier’s equipment,’ he wrote. ‘Fleetness of foot has its use in flight and pursuit.’

[illustration: Greeks sprinting in armour - caption: Hoplitodromos Louvre MN704, Side B from an Attic black-figure Panathenaic amphora, 323–322 BC. From Benghazi (Cyrenaica, now in Libya). Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Obviously the same point can be made for lifting weights, athletics, gymnastics, and so on: they make us tougher, so our pride is basically martial.

But I am not a soldier – not even a policeman or bouncer. Neither are most of today’s sprinters, doing laps in public parks, without the threat of rampaging Persians. Runner Cathy Freeman lives in a quiet Melbourne suburb and ‘shuffles’, she says, three times a week – hardly the Peloponnesian War. Power-lifter Clint Greagen might be built like the proverbial outhouse, but his days are spent folding linen (between reps) and preparing dinner.

Put simply, there is more to pride than this stereotypically masculine ideal of battlefield or back-alley toughness. The Greeks suggest a more profound, and also more democratic, idea: pride can suggest a more responsible character.

Racing Feet and Striving Hands

In the Iliad, the soldiers did not simply sprint for battle. They also ran to commemorate Patroclus’ memory. He was a famed sprinter, and the running races recalled his physical and moral virtues. As the crowds cheered ‘shining long-enduring Odysseus’, they recalled Patroclus. This was more than a sporting eulogy for the slain. It was a reminder for the living: glory in your muscles and lungs while you can.

Likewise in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus was, by this stage, middle-aged, weary and grumpy. Shipwrecked on Phaeacia, he was feasted by the king, but privately wept for his wife, son and island, Ithaca. To cheer him up, King Alcinous did exactly what Achilles did after Patroclus’ death: he held games. To taunt Odysseus into the contest, Prince Laodamas said: ‘What glory attends a man, while he’s alive, than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands?’ The wording makes it clear: tough luck, mate, but there is no point moping. Get off your bum and enjoy your muscles while you have them.

Odysseus replied angrily, but was soon sucked into competition. He won the discus in a single throw, and then insulted the youths:

Not match that, you young pups, and straightaway I’ll hurl another just as far, I swear, or even further! All the rest of you, anyone with spine and spirit, Step right up and try me – you’ve incensed me so –

at boxing, wrestling, racing; nothing daunts me.

Note the combination of intense pride and regained confidence. Like all of the Greek heroes, Odysseus is proud of his muscularity and speed. The youths goad him into competition, and this works: he loses his sullen tears, and walks proudly again. Put in Hume’s language, by regaining pleasure in his body, Odysseus enhances his idea of himself. This is because the relations of ideas and passions move both ways. Joy can bring with it an existential responsibility: this is my body, my life, and I will not be beaten by age or acrimony.

Odysseus’ pride is echoed in the words of Pindar, a fifth-century bc Greek poet. No stranger to running races or pride, Pindar was paid by games victors to celebrate their conquests. In 498 bc, he wrote a song for Hippokleas, winner of the double sprint in the Pythian games. ‘The gods may feel no sorrow, but a man should be accounted happy and worthy of song,’ he said of Hippokleas, ‘if boldness and power have gained him the greatest prize for the might of hand and foot.’

This emphasis on mortality highlights our human responsibility. For the Greeks, the gods had eternity to enjoy caprice and play. They did not get ill or old. We humans have a short span of life, and an even shorter span of prime fitness. ‘If a man attains his wish let him cling to it and not let it go for something far off,’ Pindar wrote for Hippokleas the sprinter. ‘There is no telling what will be a year from now.’ Enjoy your triumph, says Pindar, because life is brief and brutal. He cautions competitors against hubris: transgressing the sacred laws of men and gods. He damns avarice and cruelty. But for Pindar, physical pride is not only pleasurable, but also virtuous. It is rightful pleasure in activity instead of passivity – in stubborn exertion, which makes the most of precarious flesh.

Be the Rock

This message from the Greeks is simple but profound, and transcends their civilization. There is, as Hume argued with devastating precision, no happy afterlife, no cosmic plan for the redemption of immortal souls. We are bodies, and we will suffer and die – all of us, without exception. In this, the pagan outlook is surprisingly modern. But this grim disclosure can also be a source of pleasure. It is precisely because intense muscular effort is so fragile and ephemeral that it is bliss. When Odysseus met him in the Underworld, Achilles famously said he would prefer to be a servant to a poor man than a dead king of kings. To live, however lowly and briefly, is a chance to strive.

So pride in exercise is more than a firmer idea of ourselves, of the ‘I’ we imagine we are. It is also a sense of the worth of this achievement: that, with limited days and vitality, we still bother to hone ourselves by striving physically. Given all the possible ways to sit idle, and to justify this, we have dedicated ourselves to some act of uncomfortable toil.

This is why, as Pindar suggested and Hume argued, pride is also a kind of virtue. In the pride of sprinting, power-lifting or pedalling, we rightly celebrate ourselves for our committed exertion; for the willingness to move as hard and fast as we possibly can, instead of watching others do so on television. We are, in short, exerting ourselves when we might equally not.

This takes not only fitness, but also a keen sense of responsibility: recognition that we might die tomorrow having never touched the edges of our own abilities. This is less about ‘seizing the day’, and other positive-thinking slogans, and more about more firmly grasping ourselves: as fragile, precarious things, with a small portion of vitality. We cannot wait for God or gods to give us our souls – the self is something we must continually, often consciously, create. In this, exercise is a recollection of the burden of existence, which gives us pleasure as we lift it.

The French philosopher Albert Camus, famous for his love of soccer, once argued that Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill for eternity, was happy. It was his rock – that is, his duty, his task, and no one else’s. The pride of exercise offers this same strained happiness, only we are the rock.

6 Responses to ‘PT 2. How to think about exercise’

Dino not to be confused with ducks in to say...

Posted June 15, 2014
Damon's a good writer.
I've told him so.
But the last sentence?
Shouldn't 'we' be in " "?

Dino not to be confused with puts forth...

Posted June 15, 2014
Sweet fn Jesus do I feel lonely here!

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JG mutters...

Posted June 15, 2014
'The pride of exercise offers this same strained happiness, only we are the rock.'

So true. Exercising is a battle, a struggle at times, but it's also a source of happiness, pride, and self achievement. I'd rather try than not.

I ran 32km on the Gold Coast today. The three-week tapering period leading up to my first marathon now starts. Hallelujah!


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Barnesm reckons...

Posted June 16, 2014

I'm not the rock.

Dwayne Johnson is the Rock, everyone know that.

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JG swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 27, 2014

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JG reckons...

Posted June 27, 2014
Hmm. That's strange... my comment (above) didn't paste. Here it is again:
Love the book my daughter gave me for my birthday recently: 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' by renowned Japanese novelist and passionate marathon runner, Murakami. It's a memoir centred around long-distance running.

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Extract from Damon Young's How To Think About Exercise

Posted June 8, 2014 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Damon is one of the few philophers I know who engages with the general public in a way that doesn't make them reach for a hand gun. (OK, he is actually the only philosopher I actually know, but the point still stands).

This week and next I'm going to run some extracts from his new book, How To Think About Exercise.


Sprinting is one of the world’s most popular sports and has been since the ancient Greeks dashed around stadiums (sometimes in full armour). And the Greeks were unashamedly proud of their victories – often to the point of boastfulness.

This pride remains a vital part of committed exercise. It is not simply conceit or arrogance, but a pleasure in our own existence. In this, it is also a sign of existential responsibility: a drive to define ourselves more ardently before youth and life leave us.

Part 1.

Freedom and Nausea

It is an ordinary spring afternoon: fickle blue skies and copious pollen. I am at the foot of an ordinary suburban hill, next to red-brick retirees’ apartments with massed pelargoniums. Most of my neighbours are watching television, or in their offices, perhaps grabbing a takeaway coffee for the drive home.

My day, so far, has been equally ordinary. Transcribing edits for this book, I looked like a stock photo in a news story on modern sedentary ailments: typing at the laptop, my bum sinking ever lower into the faded bridge chair. At one point, it felt as if my lower back and the chair had become one: a grand union of the kind praised by mystics and rightly condemned by physiotherapists. Business as usual for a thirty-something professional.

But I am about to do something unusual: hill sprints. Despite my congested sinuses and the obvious fact of gravity, I will run up this hill, as fast as I can. I will then jog back down to the foot. Having pulled up my torn, sagging compression tights, I will then do it all again: fourteen times.

The sprints are, quite frankly, a buzz. After the day’s intellectual labour, they suggest freedom: the impression of reaching out and up, past myself, to the hill’s apex. Each burst feels like potential energy realized: not just calories converted into work, but all my morning’s restlessness transformed into a single unchecked, uncomplicated movement.

In Born to Run, Australian Olympian sprinter Cathy Freeman describes this as being ‘happy and free’ – even after ten laps of an old sawdust track, the young Freeman was ‘safe and strong, like [she] was the only person in the world.’ And running has no monopoly on this. Champion cyclist Cadel Evans, in Close to Flying, writes of ‘riding for the love of it’. ‘You float . . . drift . . . sweep,’ he says, like flying. Again: a feeling of being liberated from ordinary concerns, of being above the usual guff.

Much of adult life requires a quantum of caution or care – the need to censor words, restrain aggressive urges. My hill sprints are the antithesis of this: they have a purity to them – a simple, single- minded dedication, which refuses second-guessing and delicacy.

The point is not that running is an easy craft. On the contrary, it requires serious concentration on technique: footfall, stride, balance, rhythm. The point is that, as with cycling downhill or pushing weights, once I have committed to the exertion, it has an emancipating simplicity to it. This is me, unimpeded by the chair’s mahogany arms and my own moderating anxiety.

As the sets add up, I slow down. I push myself to run as fast as possible, but my ‘possible’ is more sluggish and breathy. Sprinting has become running has become jogging. By the fifteenth sprint, my body is numb from impact on the concrete, and my heart has a drum ’n’ bass cadence to it. The feeling of liberty has vanished, and what remains is plodding, slightly desperate stubbornness, and then retching disorientation.

I do not feel free. I feel sick.

But alongside my drained nausea is pleasure. It begins once the exercise is done, and continues well after the queasiness and fatigue have gone.

It is similar to the satisfaction I feel when running on an inclined treadmill, sprinting pell-mell on a stationary bike, or, with trembling quadriceps, combining kettle-bell squats with upright rows.

Importantly, this need not be enjoyed in spring sunshine. Australian writer and amateur power-lifter Clint Greagen writes about the ‘raw animal-type thrill’ he gets from evening workouts in his garage. Seeing the stacked bar bent over his back gives Greagen a buzz. ‘It’s very primal and a great change from the thinking part of myself,’ he writes, ‘which I’m stuck with the majority of every day.’

I enjoy this pleasure now, as I describe my puffing ascent: it is pride.

Pleasure in Oneself

What exactly is pride? To get to the bottom of this pleasure, we have to take a detour around Christian ideas. Pride was almost a four-letter word in the Christian West. ‘Do not love the world or anything in the world,’ says 1 John 2: 15–16. ‘If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world.’

There is an otherworldliness in this, which denies pleasure in general, and pleasure in oneself in particular. The more we get pleasure from ourselves, the less we attend to the Lord. In doing so, we make ourselves the source of beauty and joy, rather than the Godhead. This is why, for the Church fathers and theologians, pride was one of the chief sins: a love of oneself that turned away from God.

To avoid this, the Church recommended humility instead of pride – seeing ourselves as somewhat ugly. If we are born broken, then we need fixing: we will seek pleasure in God’s grace instead of our own ‘lust of the eyes’. No hill sprints for John the Evangelist.

A better source of wisdom on pride is the philosopher David Hume. He was not a sprinter or power-lifter. As his portrait suggests, he was not an avid exerciser at all – more a sedentary gourmand. But the great Enlightenment thinker gave a very helpful definition of pride, which avoids the Christian distaste for bodily gratification. It also fits with the ancient Greek pleasure in physical exertion, which we will turn to a little later.

Hume’s definition of pride is a deceptively simple one: pleasure in oneself.

In his landmark A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume pointed out that pride actually has two parts: the cause of the pleasure, and the object we attribute it to. The cause is something like muscular legs, for example, or a heart that beats steadily and strongly. I get pleasure from these, because they suggest power, speed, robustness. These, in turn, promise more pleasure: of safety from threats, cardiovascular health, desirability to my wife, and so on. (In other words, we can also find pleasure in the promise of pleasure.) So pleasure is not random. It is based on what we value.

But how does this pleasure become pride in ourselves? This is why Hume introduced the idea of the object. With pride, the object is myself. I can never actually see or touch this ‘self’, but I do have an idea of it. And this idea is related to other ideas: ‘my’ legs, ‘my’ heart, for example. So the pleasure is passed along psychologically: from legs and heart to ‘me’.

Hume noted that this pleasure is natural, but not everyone will feel pride in the same things. This gets back to value. We appreciate value by ‘constitution . . . custom, or by caprice,’ writes Hume. For example, we might agree that a leg is muscular, but not find this beautiful. It all hangs on the ties between ideas: muscular legs might make me feel more manly and desirable, or awkward, brutish and repugnant. Next to my sedentary friend’s soft calves, my legs encourage pride; next to my weightlifting friend’s striated quadriceps, they inspire humility.

And what is ‘cute’ to a spectator might be useless for an athlete. American Olympian Carmelita Jeter sees her naked body as beautiful: but for its strength and agility, not its petite prettiness. ‘I’m not here to look cute,’ she told ESPN. ‘I’m out here to be powerful, be aggressive.’ In short, there are no simple rules of pleasure.

This is why pride is often considered a virtue: because it shows that we value the right things. What is ‘right’ will change with age, geography, era – and profession, as Jeter’s example suggests. But civilisation works because we are taught as children not just to think about what’s important, but also to like it; to find it pleasant or fulfilling.

Put simply, pride is sanctioned pleasure in something worthwhile, which we associate with ourselves.

The Joy of a Firmer . . . ‘I’

But what is valuable in exertion? For this, we can return to the ancient Greeks, who generally had no religious hang-ups about bodily beauty and strength. They were also happy to boast about their muscles and swiftness – pride was a virtue, not a sin. If we cannot all have their climate, we can still learn from their seemingly arrogant attitude: they reveal the existential value of pride.

At the Olympic games, held in Olympia every four years, the most prestigious contest was the pentathlon. Pentathletes vied in five events: long jump, discus, javelin, wrestling and the stadium sprint, which was about 220 yards. As with today’s hundred-metre sprint, the sprint was the most prestigious competition. And it was not the only footrace. The Greeks also competed in a double sprint, a longer run of three miles, and another race in military armour, called the hoplitodromos.

Like today’s Olympians, the ancient Olympic track stars received no prize money, but some were given pensions, free food (for life), parades, portraits in sculpture and over-the-top adulation. (‘This is indeed a very wrong custom,’ complained the sixth-century bc philosopher Xenophanes, ‘nor is it right to prefer strength to excellent wisdom.’)

As this suggests, the Greeks were not ashamed to praise and be praised, particularly when it came to running. Achilles, in Homer’s eighth-century bc poem the Iliad, is regularly called ‘swift runner’. His friend Patroclus was ‘the fastest on his feet’. The Iliad also contains a description of a dramatic running race, which demonstrates how comfortable the Greeks were with physical competitiveness. After Patroclus’ death, Achilles held funeral games to celebrate the dead soldier’s memory and lift morale. In a contest resembling the pentathlon, Odysseus sprinted against fellow soldiers Ajax and Antilochus. Odysseus, known for his lies and tricks, was given extra speed by the goddess Athena, who also tripped Ajax, his chief rival. Ajax fell into a pile of fresh cow dung. Did the spectators condemn the foul play? ‘They all roared with laughter at his expense,’ wrote Homer. Odysseus was then given the prize by Achilles: a silver bowl, said by Achilles to be the best in all Greece.

This pagan braggadocio, however off-putting, is instructive. It reveals the source of pleasure: not just victory or fairness, but the basic fact of dogged exertion, displayed bodily. What mattered to the Homeric heroes were displays of physical excellence. Even if the sprinters had a divine coach slipping them supernatural steroids mid-race, the victors were celebrated. Why? Because they gave the onlookers pleasure. And the victors, in this, felt their own pride enhanced. As Hume noted, part of our pleasure in ourselves is gained in sympathy with others: we feel their pleasure in our success, alongside our own. This, in turn, firms up the idea we have of our own character: something more vivid, lively, intense. No doubt Odysseus smiled guilelessly as the Greeks cheered his prize, and heckled his crap-covered rival; it all increased his impression of himself.

Competition can hone this pleasure – not by giving us someone to beat, but by offering us a comparison: our self against others’. In this, exercise provides the physical proof of someone else’s striving, and goads us to match or surpass it. The goal is not simply to win, but to impress upon the world the stamp of our own existence; to walk away with a heightened feeling of our own enterprise, as Odysseus did in his race with Ajax.

So exercise is not merely a way to tone muscles or increase the heart’s efficiency – although it does both. It also offers a firmer idea of oneself: of the ‘self’ associated with bodily effort. We cannot see ourselves, this ‘I’ we imagine at our core. It is, as Hume noted, something of an illusion. But we can infer it with more solidity, as we watch ourselves step, pedal or lift – as we see the flesh hardening and stretching beyond its limits. Put simply, pride is the joy we feel at a more intense existential impression: a more vibrant, finely drawn self-portrait.

8 Responses to ‘Extract from Damon Young's How To Think About Exercise’

Dino not to be confused with reckons...

Posted June 8, 2014
The only reason Damon runs so much is so he can avoid debate!
I'll start training Damon.
I will catch up to you!

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Blarkon puts forth...

Posted June 8, 2014
Philosophy, by its nature, is exercise for the mind.

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Jacques Stahl reckons...

Posted June 10, 2014
I think, therefore I ran

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JG is gonna tell you...

Posted June 10, 2014
Thanks for the excerpt, JB. Very interesting. I enjoyed the historical and philosophical theories behind it. A well-researched book and well written.

Hope you are back to running following your knee injuries, John. You mentioned your running injuries here last year.

I also like the sound of philosopher and runner Dr George Sheehan's book, The Essential Sheehan. I read an excerpt from it in the January 2014 issue (marathon special) of Runner's World.

I run three times a week, sometimes four. My longest weekend run to date was 35km last Sunday. I'm training for a marathon.

I'm not a fast runner, nor particularly powerful (have only been running and training for 14 months), but running gives me pleasure, even though it's tough at times.

I reap physical benefits from running like having a resting heart rate of 48bpm, being stronger and lighter (16kgs lighter than I was a year ago), being more toned, and having a 'body health age' of 32 as against my (almost) 51 years. A body age apart from the inevitable face wrinkles of ageing that is.

Sure, I could be more toned, stronger, faster, and a couple of kilos lighter (would like to be 52kg, as opposed to my current 57kg), but I'm way healthier than I was in April last year.

The mental benefits of running, along with the physical rewards, also make the hard work worthwhile. I am more focused, calm, and confident than before I started running. I'm off all medication and haven't needed to see a doctor in almost a year. And God knows I am more determined now.

The sheer exertion required to train for a marathon has made me mentally tougher. Running is character building. It's a double-edged sword combining pleasure and pain/setbacks. The pleasure is in the journey.

It's less than four weeks until I run my first marathon--all 42.2km of it. I'm aiming for a time between 4:45 and 4:50 at the Gold Coast Airport Marathon on 6 July. It will be one of my greatest achievements, along with bringing up my daughter, and my university qualifications.

I encourage anyone who can to take up running. It's well worth the time, effort, injuries, and setbacks. Meh. All par for the course.

Joanna G

Dino not to be confused with swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 10, 2014
Congratulations Joanna G,
The last time I ran for 20+ minutes was 1981.
I am impressed and hopeful from what you write above.
If I have half the will power you have i'll be ok.

JG asserts...

Posted June 10, 2014
Thanks, Dino. :)
Anything is possible. I hadn't run since I was a teenager before taking it up again last year. Couldn't run a kilometre without being exhausted last April, even though I had and still, walk heaps.
If I can run a marathon, anyone can. It's all about determination, persistence, and hard work. Never give up.

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted June 10, 2014
Impressive effort, JG. Respect.

JG would have you know...

Posted June 13, 2014
Thank you, JB.

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Super Hornet vs a Dragon

Posted May 30, 2014 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

I'm buried deep in the editing of Dave Hooper 2 (The Last Temptation of Dave) and the writing of Dave Hooper 3 (unamed, so far) at the moment.

I need a little pick-me-up to stay at it, so thought I'd release a teaser into the wild.

The scene below comes from book 2. Dave and his Scooby Gang are flying across the US to a showdown with... well... I can't tell you. Spoilers.

But all you need to know is that by book 2 there are dragons in the air, causing a shut down of all non military aviation.

(I dips me lid to Orin for the very appropriate image below).

Extract. The Last Temptation of Dave.

"What is it?" asked Boylan, finally becoming animated as he synced back to reality. "Is it dragons, Dave is that what it is? Because I'm not ready for dragons. I prepared myself for giant pig demons and carnivorous monster dogs. Not dragons. Not on a plane. I can't do dragons on a plane, Dave."

"I think it's dragons," Dave confirmed. "Look."

And soon almost everyone was pressed up against the windows on that side of the plane, either shielding their eyes from the sun and staring out of the window next to their seat, or moving seats to do so. Everyone except Emmeline, who remained asleep, and Compton who had followed the instructions to strap himself in and was now craning around, looking very unhappy with his travelling companions.

It took a few seconds to find the aircraft against the background of the mountain range.

"Over there, near those lakes," said Igor, and Dave had them. Two bright geometric shapes, metallic flashes picked out in the morning sun, moving impossibly fast and straight amidst the visual clutter and chaos of forest and rock.

The Super Hornet, an arrowhead of the Gods, left the Warthog behind. Dave tracked its flight path for a moment then extended ahead a few miles, squinting with the effort to pick out whatever they were chasing. It didn't take very long; a plume of bright orange fire lit up the tree line well ahead of the fighter.

dar Drakon.

From this distance the torrents of beast-fire looked a trifling thing, like a barbecue flaring up in someone's backyard. And yet he knew that the arc of super-heated bile could reach out the length of a city block and was hot enough to crack rocks and melt sand into glass. Trees would be exploding down there, their sap flash boiling to vapor, detonating like a string of bombs dropped on the side of the mountain.

The Boeing turned in its holding position and they lost sight of the creature. Everyone hurried to the other side of the plane.

"Oh come on now," shouted Compton, still firmly strapped in, but nobody was paying attention. Even Joy had found herself a spot to view the battle from down near her station at the rear of the plane. Dave ended up crouched next to Heath who didn't need any superpowers to find the creature again, or the two human aircraft screaming towards it.

"At 10 o'clock," he said, pointing into the middle distance, where Dave saw the flying tank they called the Warthog and, by extending its flight path, the Super Hornet. It seemed that the very moment he locked eyes on the jet fighter, twin puffs of smoke appeared under her wings, as two small points of light appeared to detach themselves and speed away.

“AMRAAMs?" said Dave.

He’d read that in a Tom Clancy book.

Heath didn't turn away from the window and neither did Dave, but he sensed the officer nodding. "Heat seekers," he said. "Air-to-air. Pilot must've got tone. We'll see soon enough."

It did not take long. To Dave's untutored eyes, as quick as the jet was traveling, the missiles seemed to move away at two or three times its speed. He followed the burn trail all the way down to the slowly circling figure of the dragon. It must've been miles away, but he was certain he could see the great leathery wings as they flapped slowly carrying the monster across the forest canopy. It was possible, he thought, that he could even make out the great tail, although he had no hope of picking out details like the giant spikes at the end, with which a dragon could impale up to two or three Hunn warriors with one vicious swipe. He wondered how much detail the others could make out, but none of them were complaining.

“Praise God and pass the ammunition,” said Zach, just before twin explosions bloomed silently around the Dragon. Dave flinched, expecting to hear its death shriek, but of course he never would. It was miles away and they were safely sheltered within the insulating steel and glass tube of the Boeing. When the fire died away there was nothing to see. It was gone, but the A-10 pressed on anyway, and after a moment Dave saw long, fluorescent strands of light reach out from the tip of the plane to rake at the mountainside where, he presumed, the Dragon had fallen. The pilot poured on the heat for at least ten seconds, and fired rockets that followed the line of tracer fire into the burning forest.

"Nothing left of that sucker but loose meat," said Igor, standing up and returning to his seat. And indeed there seemed to be little left to see. The two aircraft were returning, and Dave lost sight of them as the Boeing came around to resume its original heading.

73 Responses to ‘Super Hornet vs a Dragon’

Adam_Denny mumbles...

Posted May 30, 2014
Really good (two thumbs up.) In the real world, a Warthog or Super Hornet would have anything biological for breakfast, but that's the thing about magic - you get to make it up as you go along.

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LennyMack is gonna tell you...

Posted May 30, 2014
Genuinely hilarious (Praise God and pass the ammunition) and that's definitely going on the buy list.

I am deep into my own editing and that gave me the pick up I needed too (thanks).

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Dino not to be confused with swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 30, 2014
Cool JB,
But no EMF/P from a Dragon?
Those fuckers could take out a city with a small fart.

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Dino not to be confused with ducks in to say...

Posted May 30, 2014
What I mean is there are biological systems reliant in EM for survival.
A large system would have a 'large EM' capability.

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MickH is gonna tell you...

Posted May 30, 2014
The real question JB is when do we get to read the books?

John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted May 30, 2014
March, April, May 2015.

MickH mutters...

Posted May 30, 2014

insomniac puts forth...

Posted May 30, 2014
just paper or electrons as well?

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted May 30, 2014
As well. With extra 'lectrons for some spin off ebook goodness

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan is gonna tell you...

Posted May 30, 2014
One a month for three months in a row? Cool! Has anyone ever done that before?

insomniac swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 30, 2014
Green Day did three albums in 4 months. Does that count?

insomniac swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 2, 2014

w from brisbane mumbles...

Posted June 2, 2014
You could say that it is the serial monthly publication of a single large work, in which case, it is closer to how things used to be done.
Actually, I think the whole thing is just a stunt to show up George R R Martin. Poor George, why does everyone pick on him?

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan is gonna tell you...

Posted June 3, 2014
Because he is fat. Fat people get picked on incessantly.

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tqft asserts...

Posted May 30, 2014
Am ready to spend on these. Waiting.

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Dave W has opinions thus...

Posted May 30, 2014
I don't can't tell the splodey things apart, either. Looking forward to this too.

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MickH asserts...

Posted May 30, 2014
I wonder what Dragon steak tastes like?

yankeedog mumbles...

Posted May 30, 2014
Chicken, of course.

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Chaz mumbles...

Posted May 30, 2014

Mick: smokin!!

JB: there was a front cover of Dragon Magazine form the late 80's (I think ) showing the inside of a Hornet cockpit as the pilot was about to engage a dragon

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Dave W asserts...

Posted May 30, 2014


There's a sub-culture that I never knew existed.


Blarkon mumbles...

Posted May 30, 2014
I linked to the original Dragon mag pic as well as this when discussing it with JB. It was from Dragon #143 (Mar 1989)

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Legless asserts...

Posted May 30, 2014
Point of order.

Now we've always been told dragons are reptiles. And reptiles are cold blooded. So how the hell is the sidewinders locking on to it? Admittedly - they could be locking on to the flames generated - but those flames would be in front of the dragon. The greatest heat source would be where the dragon isn't.

Think about this for a minute JB. It could make for an interesting plot twist.

You have a fucking *HUGE* flying dragon. And a multi-million dollar high-tech jet loaded with sidewinders. The pilot can see the dragon but the plane can't! It's sidewinders are blind. Radar guided munitions are useless against it as a dragon would have fuck-all of a radar signature. So you're left with mark-1 eyeball and cannons.

I think it would be kind of cool to have the jets all but defenseless against dragons as the weaponry can't see the bloody thing.

Mind you - the A-10 with it's 30mm cannon would turn it into dogmeat. You could also swap the sidewinders to be Mavericks in optically-guided mode and they would hit the fucker. But sidewinders? No.


MickH is gonna tell you...

Posted May 30, 2014
Not sure about the RADAR signature Legless. Something that big would have one.

Bondiboy66 mumbles...

Posted May 30, 2014
Fa18s have a 20mm Vulcan on board too. Just sayin!

Legless ducks in to say...

Posted May 30, 2014
Yeah - I was wrong about that. Be interesting to to see how a radar guided missile would cope with a dragon though. It might have a hissy fit of the target is too big. Or it might just bore in to the center of the signature

But sidewinders are heat guided so they may still be borked...

Legless ducks in to say...

Posted May 30, 2014
Just thought that a Hellfire laser-guided missile might be a good bet as well. Illuminate the sucker and let rip. Who couldn't love a missile called "Hellfire"?

Murphy mutters...

Posted May 30, 2014
Cold blooded or not, they breathe fire.

I'm not a big fantasy guy myself but most of the expository material on internal organs for dragons and the like usually have some sort of mechanism for sparking the flame plus organs which are responsible for generating the fuel. Further, with lighter than air gases, those could be used not only for the fire but also to assist with flight.

Thus, cold blooded or not, I suspect the dragon has a significant heat signature.

Other dragons are often purported to be covered in metallic scales, perhaps as a way to protect against other dragons.

Finally, Early Warning Radar during the Cold War used to detect flights of birds, prompting a freakout at NORAD more than once. If it can detect flights of birds, then I suspect it can detect a dragon the size of a 747.

On the Outer Marches

Darth Greybeard puts forth...

Posted May 31, 2014
Historically not all reptiles have been poikilothermic. Comparisons of the distribution of blood vessels in the bones of dinosaurs and living animals show that the dinos more closely resembled the homeothermic mammals. Predator:prey ratios support this as does the modern view that birds are indeed the descendants of dinos, if not simply actual living therapods. Birds must be warm-blooded or homeothermic in order to generate sufficient energy to fly.

It could thus be argued that dragons are more likely to be at least partly feathered - wings, body and tail - and partly scaled - head and neck. This would give them better aerodynamic properties, help retain body heat and frankly look absolutely spectacular. I don't believe anyone has ever used feathered dragons in fiction?

Now since the largest known flying creature (off the top of my head at 2 in the morning) was Quetzalcoatlus (sp?) which was about the size of a small Cessna, a dragon would need some pretty fierce metabolism to generate enough energy. Their internal temperature might thus be very much higher than a mammal's and easily provide a target for infrared heat seekers. The feathers on the other hand,might not show up too well on radar but i guess birds do. And it's goodnight from me.

NBlob mumbles...

Posted May 31, 2014
Ahh, the benefits of a misspent Holocene.

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Anthony has opinions thus...

Posted May 30, 2014

Given that there has to be some kind of reaction - probably a catalytic one involving stomach gases - in the mouth of the dragon in order to produce flame and the flame is that intense I would expect there to be a lot of residual heat in the head region for some time after it's flamed.

That would probably give enough heat for a lock-on. It would also depend on the sensitivity of the seeking mechanism. Reptilian in the draconic sense doesn't necessarily mean cold blooded. Traditionally they like cold remote mountain tops and the like. That implies some kind of internal heating mechanism.

Legles has opinions thus...

Posted May 30, 2014
Fair points Anthony.

But I still think it would be kind of cool to have the first encounter of a Hornet and a dragon where the jet is loaded for bear and suddenly has an "Oh shit!!" moment when the pilot realises that he can't lock on to something the size of a football field...

Darth Greybeard mutters...

Posted May 30, 2014
Superheated farts. Next question?

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Brother PorkChop mutters...

Posted May 30, 2014
Hooray!! Some splodey stuff for a bit of change from bashing Abbot and his evil pig demon minions. Although I am sure BWS will be able to poetically reflect his hatred of the Rabbit and Rabble. I thought the A10s were retired but I defer to the googling fingers of you all.

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Darth Greybeard mutters...

Posted May 30, 2014
PS. Please take my money now.

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yankeedog has opinions thus...

Posted May 30, 2014
I'll be saving the nickels and dimes. Looks great!

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Bondiboy66 has opinions thus...

Posted May 30, 2014
No matter, F18s have a 20mm Vulcan on board for just such an emergency

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Chaz ducks in to say...

Posted May 30, 2014

In FP there was an article about taking out Godzilla with a MOAB.

Dragons to manoeuvrable for that but mavericks or SLAM's would give them a worry and of course a GAU-8 would ruin their day IMHO

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Legless reckons...

Posted May 30, 2014
I'm spending waaay too much time on this but it looks like I'm wrong about the sidewinders as well. This topic has been discussed in depth before by other authors:

So because the dragon has to flap like crazy just to keep itself airborne it's going to be generating huge amounts of heat so it will have a significant heat signature.

Now I'm off to do some real work and stop thinking about how to take out mythical flying beasts with modern weaponry.

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted May 30, 2014

Legless would have you know...

Posted May 30, 2014
Yeah. I'm well aware of the irony. I waste productive work time to discuss how to take down a dragon and you're paid to think of ways to take down a dragon.


Want to swap jobs?

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Adam_Denny has opinions thus...

Posted May 30, 2014
If you were playing it straight, it would be interesting how the gatling guns on the Super Hornets, and especially the Thunderbolt, would impact on a creature large enough, that comparatively they could be considered anti-personnel weapons. High velocity, they would cause massive shock trauma to the dragon. Only then, what if especially the 30mm depleted uranium shells fragmented, and lodged in the dragon's wounds. Even if it survived, wounds that were irradiated like that wouldn't heal.

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JG is gonna tell you...

Posted May 30, 2014
Cool. Good to see that Boylan's in there. Guess you'd be pleased about that, professor/PNB?

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 30, 2014
That depends on whether John makes me tall and gives me hair.

John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted May 30, 2014
Mmm. Not so much. But you're prominent occipital crest gets a cameo.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan would have you know...

Posted May 30, 2014
Then I am quite pleased. My occipital crest has always been a "babe magnet" and, in the days when I was "on the market" - so to speak - the pickup line "hey, beautiful, wanna feel my head?" was wildly successful some of the time.

NBlob reckons...

Posted May 31, 2014
Where "Some" = more than or equal to 0

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan is gonna tell you...

Posted May 31, 2014
It worked once or twice, but only with women into that Neanderthal role playing fetish that was fashionable back in the mid 1980's. Boy, am I glad that didn't catch on.

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Therbs swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 30, 2014
Once they've done capping the dragon, let the F18 and A10 loose on herds of hobbits. Cap the fkn lot of the fkn smug little pyney fuckers.

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Anthony mumbles...

Posted May 30, 2014

You'd appreciate Mary Gentle's novel "Grunts!". Orcs who acquire a cache of 1960's Marine Corps weaponry along with a geas which slowly turns them into a Marine style force (but still Orcs) and a couple of particularly repellent little hobbits and forces of good who make the current government look nice.. Lots of violence and mayhem and dead hobbits and elves all over the place; also very funny.

Classic line "Pass me another elf, Sergeant. This one's split".

Therbs ducks in to say...

Posted May 30, 2014
Now that is something I'd love. Hobbits getting their come uppance.

Sudragon mutters...

Posted May 30, 2014
We're all a bit worried about Pink Squad

Surtac ducks in to say...

Posted June 2, 2014

Thanks for that Anthony. I just grabbed an e-copy from the Big River - less than USD5. :)

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she_jedi would have you know...

Posted May 30, 2014
That was great. All I can say is shut up and take my money

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Halwes swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 30, 2014

Can you have a look at what got Warren Ryan and David Morrow suspended from the ABC please? I can't believe this country anymore. Morrow got suspended last year for making an innocuous joke, that we make among ourselves, black and white together, here all the time, which related to how hard it is to spot a blackfella when the lights go out unless they smile. Now, fair enough, I can understand how people that haven't lived among blackfellas may think that a blackfella would find this offensive. Not the ones I know. In fact they've got some pretty good jokes about whitefellas themselves.

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Blarkon swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 30, 2014
Best way to fight Dragons would be Macross Valkyries (Robotech Veratech Fighters).

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Justin mumbles...

Posted May 30, 2014
sign me up!!!! but I hope it has dragons beating up on the airplanes as well.....

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virag0 ducks in to say...

Posted May 30, 2014
Who gets to clean up the carcass? I mean 800 tonnes
of dragon meat is going to go off pretty quickly.
That job doesn't make it in the book, I'd bet ;)

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted May 31, 2014
It will now.

Anthony ducks in to say...

Posted May 31, 2014

Giant ants to help with the clean up?

I really really want to read this series. How about a case of Red Bull and a bucket load of amphetamines? We could all contribute to a 12 month home delivery coffee service?

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Chicom Mick swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 30, 2014

Thanks for the read. Solid extract. My favourite bit - "He'd read that in a Tom Clancy book". Classic reference.

I really must get me a copy….. after I get Protocol, of course.
I'll let you get back to it.


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HAVOCK21 mumbles...

Posted May 30, 2014

NOTHIngs as satisfying as filleting a dragon with an oversized Gerber!

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Dan mutters...

Posted May 30, 2014

I have only one thing to say..

write faster!

Can I get you a coffee? Will that help?

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andrewmagoo19 is gonna tell you...

Posted May 31, 2014

Legless - valid point re the Sidewinder needing a heat source to home in on, but later marques can also follow a laser dot generated by a targeting pod, or a point designated by the pilot in his helmet display.

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Dirk would have you know...

Posted May 31, 2014

“Praise God and pass the ammunition,”
I think the term is Praise the Lord, ... and pass the ammunition.

Second why not go for the use of 70mm/2.75" Hydra or 5" Zuni rockets? Specs are on wiki, and there are multiple types of warhead to choose from. You would have 7 hydra's or 4 Zuni's per loadpoint, instead of 1 AAM.

Murphy has opinions thus...

Posted June 3, 2014
John McCain could probably answer the zuni question but since he isn't here, I will.

The Navy pretty much stopped using zuni rockets on their aircraft, USMC helicopters not withstanding, after some nasty carrier deck fires in Vietnam. I believe an incident on the Forrestal, where a radio frequency triggered an accidental zuni launch, was enough to have them pulled.

I don't see using a helicopter to go up against a dragon at jetliner altitude. As for the A-10s, they'd probably stick to the gatling.

On the Outer Marches

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w from brisbane mutters...

Posted June 1, 2014
I thought your use of both spellings, travelling/traveling, was very deft and subtle. You know a society is under stress when even spelling convention consistency is beginning to fracture.

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Surtac ducks in to say...

Posted June 2, 2014

A nice tidbit of story there John. Thanks muchly.

I'm waiting patiently for these with shekels at the ready.

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Darth Greybeard is gonna tell you...

Posted June 2, 2014
Dave cracked open a bleary eye and winced at the ripe smell of armpits. If he didn't shower soon he'd be killing Orcs or Demons or whatever the hell the things were just by getting upwind of them. He was just deciding that he hated helicopters, military bureaucrats and several other things, in no particular order, when right on cue came a
standard issue rapping. "Annoying fucking door-rapping, civilians for the shitting of", he thought. "Piss off!"

"Sorry Mr Hooper" said a smug voice, "you're wanted right now in the Colonel's office."

"Fuck the Colonel, I'm having a shower."

"I'm a sergeant Mr Hooper, that would be against regulations. And he said right now."

"So shoot me" Dave mumbled, opening the door and slouching off to the ablutions area for a fifteen minute scalding shower. When he emerged the sergeant hadn't drawn his pistol but his grin implied Hooper's troubles weren't over. "This way Sir", making it sound as if it was spelled c-u-r. Past the office door marked Colonel Weeks was a subdued looking colonel, a three star general and two civilians who looked as if their sympathies should be with the Demons.

"Sit down Mr Hooper. We're here to help you with the dragon problem" said the younger and slightly less oily civilian.

"Great. Would you like a Barrett or an axe?"

"Mr Hooper", said the older one "You know since they started the night raids on our airfields we've lost our advantage in the air. They took heavy losses but they're hard to kill and with their natural night vision being better than our best NVGs, we're barely able to hold our key positions." Young oily chipped in with "And that means the dragons are back to attacking in daylight and almost impossible to bring down!"

Hooper scrubbed at his eyes with palms of his hands and wished he'd brought the axe. "Thank you Captain Obvious, and how is that supposed to help?"

The civilians looked at each other almost with embarrassment. "It turns out that there are, um, unconventional forces available who are willing to help us with the dragons. At least in an advisory capacity. They've had past experience with them and like them even less than they like us. Two, ah, experts have been flown from England to liase with us. On dragon killing."

Dave was at least mildly curious, if nothing else because the three-star looked as if he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Fine, wheel them in and let's hear it."

The older one nodded. "Show them in Dr Smith". Smith returned with what Dave took to be two children in tow, before he saw their faces. And their feet. Their unnaturally large and hairy feet.

He leaned back and groaned "Oh you are shitting me. You cannot seriously mean we've got fucking Hobbits now?"

A slight pressure over his groin made him look back down. The smaller of the two was standing two metres closer than he had been a second before and holding a viciously barbed black knife lightly against Dave's balls. The knife looked sword sized on the little bastard and like some fantasy piece of shit from a newsagent, but it also looked very, very sharp. "My name" he said in a kind of comedy-Irish accent "is Therbadoc, son of Egfroth. But you can call me Therbs."

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Therbs mutters...

Posted June 2, 2014

Fancy that, being taken down as a fkn hobbit by GB. The impertinence and sheer audacity!. Funny as fuck but.

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andyf asserts...

Posted November 21, 2014

there may be a problem. how far would cannon ammo actually make it into flesh before running out of steam/ exploding ?

the 30mm ap- I can see that going a couple of metres in, leaving a decent sized hole. the 20mm flavour, maybe not very far at all. the stuff that explodes will surely be triggered by the scales, it would sting, but not do much, be like being paintballed - at 6000 rounds per min, <owww!>

I would think the best toys would be rockets / radar missiles,

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted November 21, 2014
These are the sort of discussions I'm very much looking forward to having after Xmas.

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Respond to 'Super Hornet vs a Dragon'

Anzac's Long Shadow - James Brown

Posted March 21, 2014 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

ANZAC Spirit: Now available in fridge magnets.

The breathless Irish voice on the end of the phone had been singing for four minutes straight on the majestic scale of the Anzac centenary. ‘It will be the biggest thing you’ve ever seen,’ she said. ‘It’s going to start with a gorgeous re­creation of the Gallipoli convoy departure in Albany, Western Australia, on 1 November 1914, to bookend the whole centenary of celebrations. ‘Everybody’s involved,’ she gushed from her call centre: ‘Legacy, the City of Albany, the West Australian Government, the RSL, the Australian Light Horse Association – it’s going to be magnificent. You don’t want to miss out.’ Untroubled by the silence from my end of the phone, she homed in with her sales pitch: ‘So we’re producing the commemorative publication for the whole centenary, Gallipoli 100, distributed to 84,000 people and with introductory letters from the likes of the prime minister. Would you like to book a message of support and show the defence forces what you do?’ She outlined the options: the best spots upfront had already been taken by the National Australia Bank and a ‘gorgeous’ advertisement from the Australian Submarine Corporation, but $14,950 would buy me a full page. For a 50 per cent premium she could reserve a special spot right after the ode of remembrance.

I hesitated, and asked her to email me through a pamphlet. She duly did so. A thoroughly unsentimental advertising rate card was placed alongside a sweet photo of a World War II veteran being helped along to an Anzac march. ‘Gallipoli 100 aims both to commemorate the sacrifice of Australians who fought at Gallipoli, and by extension in other wars, and to educate the reader about what actually happened during the Gallipoli campaign,’ it read. ‘Many other scholarly and popular books are likely to appear for the Gallipoli centenary. This unique publication will stand out as the most comprehensive, accessible and attractive of them all.’ With the promise of fifty ‘lavishly photographed’ and ‘thought­provoking and satisfying articles’ written by world experts, it was hard to say no. I told my new friend Nicky I needed time to think about it. She promised to follow up with me in a few days, adding, without the slightest trace of irony, ‘Lest you forget.’
A century after the war to end all wars, Anzac is being bottled, stamped and sold. Nicky is not the only one spruiking the Anzac spirit. The Anzac industry has gone into hyperdrive. The year 2015 will be a bumper one for battlefield tour operators as thousands of Australians wing their way to Gallipoli for what is being marketed as a once­-in­-a-­lifetime opportunity. One company, with a flash of brilliance and a tenuous link, is arranging a surf boat race across the Dardanelles. Another is organising marathon swimmers to make their way from Europe to Asia Minor. Off the shores of Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove, cruise ships will anchor so that thousands might nestle alongside the Anzac legacy. By morn on 25 April, pilgrims will embark in small boats as Anzacs once did, to join the throngs on the sand. By night they’ll rock away to Daryl Braithwaite and Kate Ceberano. Bert Newton will narrate the war.

It’s an all­-Australiana jamboree. Just issuing tickets for the Gallipoli event will cost more than half a million dollars, and an events management company in Melbourne is pocketing a cool $27 million for a multi­year contract to keep everything well organised on the day. What started as a simple ceremony is now an enormous commercial enterprise. Cartoonist Michael Leunig has captured it best: ‘they’ve put a big thumping hoon outboard motor on the back of a tragedy’.
Anzac Day is also a time to honour and remember. That might best be done with a purchase from Australia Post’s limited edition ‘Sands of Gallipoli’ range of keyrings and medallions, which promises to ‘keep the spirit alive’ while earning millions for its savvy creator. In the view of the historian Ken Inglis, these little vials of sand are ‘relics from the holy land’. For just five instalments of $39.99 plus $19.99 in postage and handling, the Bradford Exchange offers the chance to ‘honour a loved one who served our country courageously’ by purchasing a ‘Lest We Forget Remembrance Watch’ with ‘iconic rising sun and slouch hat reproduced in shimmering golden­tone’. The Australian War Memorial, too, is devising an official ‘Anzac Centenary Merchandising Plan’ to capitalise on ‘the spirit’.

Selling Anzac is not a new phenomenon: one of Australia’s official World War I historians wrote of the scandal when a real estate venture was advertised as ‘Anzac on Sea’. Had the sacred word not been protected, he wrote, ‘the name was likely to become vulgarised’ and ‘Anzac companies would soon have sprung up like mushrooms’. For that reason, since the early 1920s the federal government has legislated to protect the word Anzac from commercial misuse. But just as restrictions on Anzac Day sporting events and trading hours have wearied over the years, so too have restrictions on the commercialisation of the spirit.

Preparation for the four years of the Anzac centenary is, in every sense, monumental. Governments, rarely able to lift their gaze beyond daily, even hourly, media cycles, have meticulously prepared for this anniversary for nearly half a decade. A federal Minister for the Anzac Centenary has been appointed under successive governments. In a small country already home to thousands of war memorials, debt­struck governments are quarantining funds for more commemoration. The numbers are staggering. Australia will outspend the United Kingdom on the commemoration of the Great War by more than 200 per cent. All told, the centenary will cost Australian state and federal taxpayers nearly $325 million. With an additional $300 million expected in private donations, commemorating the Anzac centenary might cost as much as two­thirds of a billion dollars.

While there is bipartisan consensus that the actual defence force is underfunded by 25 per cent, Australians are racing to outdo one another with bigger, better, grander and more intricate forms of remembrance. In Canberra a $27­million renovation of the Australian War Memorial’s First World War galleries will give the gore of interminable trench warfare new zest. In Albany, Western Australia, a $9­million Anzac Interpretive Centre will rise on the shores of the Indian Ocean alongside a further $8 million of Anzac infrastructure providing a peace park, an Avenue of Honour, an improved lookout and a refurbished war memorial. In Europe, years of diplomatic effort with the governments of France and Belgium will underpin a $10­million Australian Remembrance Trail to link the Western Front’s most significant Australian battlefields and another interpretive centre. In Sydney, the state government is considering funding a multimillion­dollar ‘NSW Commemorative/Educational Centre of Excellence’. In Victoria, $45 million will go towards new World War I ‘Galleries of Remembrance’ at Melbourne’s already magnificent Shrine of Remembrance. The Queensland government has pledged more than $60 million towards the centenary, including a major capital project to upgrade Brisbane’s Anzac Square.

A cacophony of ceremonies will be needed to maintain the spirit for the full four years. The federal government is providing $125,000 to every electorate for community activities focused on World War I. The NSW and Tasmanian state governments will provide similar grants as well as funding the refurbishment of local war memorials. In anticipation, bronzing and stone masonry companies are advertising to veterans groups, helpfully advising them on how to best capitalise. The official start of the centenary will be a $3­million re­staging of the departure of the first Anzac troop convoys from Albany to Egypt. Current soldiers from the Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy will be ordered to reprise the roles of their doomed forebears setting sail for defeat and bloodshed at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. This festival will be broadcast live nationally.

Government’s role in all this will be hyperactive, leaping over veterans groups to become the ‘choreographer of commemoration and guardian of public memory’. The NSW Anzac Commission has recommended that the government ‘negotiate with media agencies for a palette of stories in daily newspapers, television, web, social networks and mixed media to provide a historical narrative throughout the Centenary period’. The NSW Ambulance Service has offered to sport commemorative banners on the side of all ambulances for the duration of the centenary. The NSW Roads and Maritime Service wants an Anzac logo to be placed on all departmental documentation. Sporting authorities have suggested convening international commemorative test matches. In New South Wales and Victoria, governments are leading the wholesale renaming of roads, avenues, rest areas and bridges in accordance with Anzac themes.

It is entirely fitting and proper to commemorate World War I and Australia’s military campaigns. Yet all of this ingenuity and industry is for an anniversary which is ultimately arbitrary. The only reason the centenary of Anzac is considered a special, once-­in­-a­-lifetime experience is because we have imbued it with that meaning. To be sure, we often mark centuries as significant. But the struggle and sacrifice of our forebears at Gallipoli will not be any greater in 2015 than it is in 2014, or was in 1915. The centenary marks an epoch that we have chosen for ourselves. And we have chosen not to commemorate it with a respectful silence and quiet reflection. At the War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park, inscribed words decree: ‘Let silent contemplation be your offering.’ Instead, Australians are embarking on a discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four­-year festival for the dead.

12 Responses to ‘Anzac's Long Shadow - James Brown’

Rob puts forth...

Posted March 21, 2014

'four­-year festival for the dead.' would make a great band name.

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Dick would have you know...

Posted March 21, 2014

James Brown could be the lead singer.

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Barnesm puts forth...

Posted March 21, 2014

That looks like being a useful anodyne to the wave coming in 2015. "Australia will outspend the United Kingdom on the commemoration of the Great War by more than 200 per cent" yeah right there - thats we we should say collectively "this needs a bit of a rethink".

I dread to think what it will mean for anyone who speaks with a dissenting voice regarding this festival of the dead. Better start practicing "but I totally support the soliders ...."

Lulu ducks in to say...

Posted March 21, 2014

Also probably better for me not to mention my two greatgrandfathers who fought in WW1. On the losing side.

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S.M. Stirling mutters...

Posted March 21, 2014

Frankly, this article strikes me as pickle-up-the-ass, I-am-so-much-more-enlightened-than-you-vulgar-bogans priggishness.

First, Australians are not as a group noted for prim restraint; they tend to go large, which is part of their national identity.

Second, all national symbols (if looked at from the outside) are arbitrary. They exist because people feel they do; that, and that alone, imbues them with meaning.

A celebration like this is a festival of belonging, a pledge of collective membership.

Lulu puts forth...

Posted March 21, 2014

One man's 'festival of belonging' is another (wo)man's festival of exclusion. The questions are 'belonging to what?' and 'membership of what'? As an immigrant (of 50% non-Anglo heritage) and a woman, I don't feel that 'Anzac' has much to do with me at all.

Dino not to be confused with asserts...

Posted March 21, 2014


30 seconds...

Dino not to be confused with mutters...

Posted March 21, 2014

SM Stirling,

I have read a little of James Brown and heard him speak a couple of times on the radio.

I admire him greatly, as much as Robin admired King Richard.

His topics are varied and well thought out.

I agree with him that there are Veterans here and now that deserve more than the tiny percentage of energy given to a 'long weekend'.

I cannot remember the exact figures. I am sure you could find them and find out who he is if you care to look him up.

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Rob is gonna tell you...

Posted March 21, 2014

suddenly has flashbacks of aussies doing that tedious 'oi oi oi' thing at the vatican square on TV. Then has flash backs of skin heads shouting 'oi oi oi' to Blitz's someones gonna die.

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Blarkon would have you know...

Posted March 21, 2014

Is Barnsey playing the cove?

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Guru Bob has opinions thus...

Posted March 26, 2014

If you are in sunny Melbourne tomorrow he is speaking at the Wheeler Centre...

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Varangian78 puts forth...

Posted March 31, 2014

I thought it was a great article. SM Stirling, I don't think Brown was commenting on Australians in general, but about the industry itself trying to make a buck from a day of the year that many Australians (and New Zealanders) hold sacred or at the very least, have some respect for.

LuLu, I'm a first generation Australian myself, and I have a great respect for ANZAC Day. With all due respect, I think it's possible the exclusion you feel about ANZAC Day is perhaps self appointed. If you turned up at one of the ANZAC Day ceremonies, you may well be pleasantly surprised.

Having served in the Australian Army for 8 years (and deploying to 3 conflicts) I can safely say that the Army is very much a cross section of society itself. It is multi-cultural, and members who weren't even born in Australia proudly serve beneath the Australian flag as fellow brothers and sisters.

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Respond to 'Anzac's Long Shadow - James Brown'

'The Spy' by Mr James Phelan

Posted December 7, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

The latest wet work from the machine that calls itself Phelan. With a cover quote from Mr Lee Child. I am envy.


Washington DC

Dan Bellamy looked at the highlighted screen of his unlisted cell phone and considered bumping the call. He’d had confirmation of the job just fifteen minutes ago, and now his field operative was calling him again. He had been expecting a call, but not this call. It was too soon.

A complication, at their end. Calling him from the field.

He leaned back in his chair and rested his feet upon his desk. Looking out his window, he could see straight to the Capitol Building. It was after midnight. He had come by the office to handle some paperwork; at least that’s what he told his wife. In reality he was here to make sure the operation was successful. Bellamy had a lot riding on it. Too much.

Across the room – a modest wood-panelled space that was swept for surveillance bugs every week – his daughter slept on the couch. Still in her soccer uniform; she had won tonight. A good omen. His baby girl.


Bellamy answered the phone. ‘This call came sooner than expected.

You can’t be outside Rome yet.’

‘I’m still here. There’s been a complication.’

‘What is it?’ He thought the worst: carloads of Italian cops have his operative’s team surrounded. If that were the case, it would be gut-wrenching stuff until his lawyers did what they did and he did what he did to bury it all.

‘There’s someone on scene,’ the voice said.

Bellamy relaxed a little. ‘Someone?’

‘A man.’

Bellamy paused, said, ‘A man. On scene?’


‘Define “on scene”.’

‘Inside the target’s apartment.’

Bellamy winced. ‘I don’t want to know such details.’

‘It’s a complication.’

‘And you’re still there?’


Bellamy thought it through, then said, ‘Forget it. Get out of there.’

‘No. Not like this. I don’t like it.’

Bellamy processed the implications: the op had started barely half an hour ago, they had been in and out within fifteen minutes, and yet his team was still there, watching the scene of their crime. Why?

‘Who is it?’

‘I don’t know,’ the voice replied. ‘A guy. Could be a cop, but I doubt it.’

‘But you’re spooked by him. Enough to break protocols and contact me.’

‘I thought I’d check in first.’


‘Before I proceed.’

Ah, right . . . it’s about money. Trust, too, but money. To those guys in the field, this was another job.

Bellamy didn’t have time for complications. He checked his watch.

Eighty-one hours until deadline.


Inside the apartment in Rome it looked like a bomb had gone off. Jed Walker entered warily, unarmed, using the heel of his boot to push the door closed behind him, leaving it unlocked as he had found it. The place was empty, but the trail was warm.

He scanned the rooms in ten seconds and learned all he needed to. It was late nineteenth century, well made and maintained. A corner site on the second floor, with two windows looking south, three to the east. Opposite, two doors ran off to a kitchen and a bedroom with en suite. Everything was tastefully appointed, the furnishings sparse and modern: hardwood parquetry floors, herringbone pattern; an expensive TV and stereo the centrepiece of the living area; a set of custom-made golf clubs by the door. All of it fitted the profile of a successful banking executive – the cover job of the CIA operative who had lived there.

It had all been tossed. Recently.

Walker looked around each corner of the apartment and concluded that whoever had tossed the place was looking for something specific. They’d done a messy job of it, like cops do in the movies when they search a perp’s apartment: lamps and vases broken, the sofas slashed and overturned, the carpets lifted, the bed flipped on its side, the kitchen cabinets emptied. The refrigerator had been pulled out and its panels separated; the oven and washing machine and dishwasher too. Piles of screws were everywhere: they had used cordless drivers to pull things apart quietly rather than pinch bars to wreck it loudly. The desk was upside down. A mess of cables remained, but at least two hard drives and a laptop were gone. Whatever was in the desk’s drawers was also missing. No useful physical evidence remained.

This had been a search for something small, or a clean-up of anything incriminating that might lead back to the guy’s employers. Could have been by the CIA or another crew. Either way, no friends of mine.

Walker knew that this had been conducted by pros.

And he knew that the occupant had been killed here, within the past hour.

‘It’s your op,’ Bellamy said quietly to his man on the phone while his daughter slept across the room. ‘It must be clean, that was my main requirement. Clean and final . . . but that’s not why you called me now.’

There was a pause, and then the man said, ‘I thought maybe you sent another crew.’

‘Now, why would I bother doing that?’

‘I don’t know.’

Bellamy was silent.

‘Okay. Well, this guy,’ his contact said, ‘he’s not local. He looks ex-military. Big guy. Late thirties. Caucasian. Can handle himself.’

The wheels in Bellamy’s mind turned on that one. He trusted his operator on this mission, and trusted that like could spot like. So, who is this ex-military guy in the apartment? A competitor? The target’s protection, arriving too late? Could be anyone. Could mean anything.

Could mean that they were too late . . . either way, this is getting messy.

Bellamy said, ‘Can you pick him up? Take him in? Question him?’

‘When he gets out,’ the voice said. ‘Though it will attract attention.’

‘What if he makes a call from inside the apartment?’

‘We’re scanning for that.’

‘What do you want to do?’

‘Go back inside. Deal with him in the apartment.’

‘Do it,’ Bellamy said. ‘Question him first, see who he is and what he knows, then clean it up. Go in there and clean it up and be sure of it. Don’t leave a trace. Burn it all.’

‘Copy that.’

The voice was waiting.

Bellamy said, ‘Something else?’

‘My fee? This matter of another target . . .’

‘Consider it doubled.’

Bellamy ended the call. He stared at his cluttered desk. This op was not meant to be messy. Getting rid of a guy in the middle of Rome?

Getting rid of two? All in a day.

He looked across at his sleeping child. Some books and a field of McDonald’s debris were spread on the table in front of her. It’s all getting harder, busier, less certain. It’ll pay off, soon . . .

He looked through his open doorway, to the large open-plan office empty of staff for the day; an office and business he had created from nothing more than a limited skill set and a lot of networking and risk-taking. Now INTFOR was on the verge of becoming the largest and most powerful private intelligence outfit on the planet. He swivelled around in his chair and focused on his collection of framed photographs: him with presidents and prime ministers and VIPs from around the world. Powerful men and a couple of powerful women. All of them more reliant on him with each passing day. He looked out the window to his left.

The sun was gone, now the streetlamps and uprights bathed the monumental town.

The end of another day.

A new dawn was just around the corner. Three more dawns before everything changed.


The blood the killers had left behind told Walker most of what he needed to know. The mattress in the bedroom held a bloodstain – large, the size of a frying pan, and still red. After about two hours’ exposure to oxygen, blood that has thinned and splattered and atomised onto absorbent material like a mattress oxidizes and turns brown.

They never got that right in the movies.

So, Felix was killed where he lay. Which meant that his killers entered quietly enough not to wake him. Which meant that this was an assassination: either to get what Walker had come here for, or to tidy up a loose end. Maybe both.

Two kill shots, through the chest, the heart probably. Not the head – less messy that way. Plus, like Walker they knew to protect the head; like Walker they knew what type of information was in it.

So, this was not a straightforward case of professional killers. This was the work of men in the know of current CIA tradecraft. Maybe they had asked Felix a question or two before they fired, but probably not – this was a quick job, and what they needed most was not known to their target. Yet it was on his person.

They, like Walker, had come for what was sewn into the base of Felix’s skull: a tiny chip containing information. Felix was a head-case courier, used by the CIA to transport intelligence from one wireless hot spot to another. Someone knew what was on that chip – if not the killers then whoever had hired them.

On the floor, blood had pooled where they had tossed the body from the bed. Once blood leaves the body, it begins to clot quickly, within five to ten minutes. After that the blood begins to separate as the clot retracts into a dark knot and squeezes out a halo of yellow serum. This process takes another hour or more, when the blood then dries to a rusty brown stain.

The blood here had clotted but not separated – this hit took place more than ten minutes but less than an hour earlier. The bed sheets were missing, so the killers had wrapped the body in them and then placed it in a wheeled duffel bag. Judging by the track marks of blood on the floor, it was a 120-litre bag, which meant they had folded and stuffed the body in tightly. They weren’t squeamish, these men, and they were strong. There were at least two, probably three, so someone stood sentry in the apartment while two dealt with the body. Or perhaps he had tossed the place while the others packed the body. The packers must have noticed the tracks the wheels had started to make, from where they had run through the blood pool, and wiped the castors clean with the quilt. The tracks then disappeared.

They had been careful and relatively quiet but they hadn’t taken the time to clean up. So, it was a quick job. A three-man crew, on the clock. Walker inspected the mattress. Two gunshot holes punctured the centre of the bloody mess. The underside was shredded. The floor below looked like it had been sandblasted, the surface pockmarked with dime-sized punctures, grouped more tightly in the centre, spreading out to a dozen chips in a diameter roughly the size of a dinner plate. Soft fragmentary rounds had been used, semiwadcutters with heavy grain, the slugs further slowed by a suppressor, fired up close, the soft lead tearing apart as it hit bone and bedsprings. So, the bigger and slower .45 calibre rather than a 9-millimetre.

Serious men doing a serious job of it.


Outside the apartment the three professionals in the back of the van readied and checked their weapons. Each had a Beretta .45 calibre, the PX4 Storm, locally sourced and made, custom silenced, untraceable, ten-round capacity apiece. Their leader was Brendan Crowley, a contractor who did most of his work for the CIA, from extraordinary rendition around the Mediterranean to making people disappear completely. He spoke half a dozen languages and could pass as a local in Italy, France, Croatia, Greece and Spain. As an intelligence operator he was a specialist in wet work; the messy end of the intelligence world. He and his team were known as ‘outcome specialists’. Those back in DC didn’t want to know specifics about the jobs these men took care of – just outcomes. Positive outcomes were their preference.

Crowley had planned that his team would stay on the scene for twenty minutes after their exfil from the apartment, mainly to be sure that their near-silent work had gone unnoticed, and partly to complete their cover. The van was marked as city-gas department, which in this middle-class but crumbling neighbourhood would not draw second glances. Outside the van they had erected a taped-off cordon around the street’s main supply and left the hatch open. It had now been twenty-five minutes since they had left the apartment, and they had sat in the air-conditioned van, silent, watching, waiting. In the back were two large duffel bags of rubbish to drop, weighted down, in the

Adriatic later that day. One bag contained the body of CIA courier Felix Lassiter, the other a collection of his papers and computer equipment.

The spoils of a job done.

The disposal, however, would have to wait.

Crowley and his team had another job to do.

Time to go back in.

Walker knew better than to search the apartment hoping for a clue missed by those who had worked here this morning; this was the well-executed job of a well-trained team. Maybe not the best operators, but they weren’t far from it. They were expensive, and not many entities had access to such men.

This fitted what he knew about the man who owned this apartment.

Not so much a target as a person of interest and an unwitting courier – a perfect cut-out agent. For the CIA, and for someone else. It was the someone else that was of interest to Walker.

And clearly Felix Lassiter had garnered the interest of other parties.

Time to leave.

6 Responses to ‘'The Spy' by Mr James Phelan’

Barnesm is gonna tell you...

Posted December 7, 2013

Another throughly enjoyable piece of work from the redoubtable Mr Phelan, though when I saw this book I thought it was a biography about a spy with the same name as the author.

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Therbs has opinions thus...

Posted December 8, 2013

Just in time for some lazy summer reading.

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Chaz puts forth...

Posted December 9, 2013

Great Book, everyone should buy at least two copies....

still not a fan of the cover

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Guru Bob reckons...

Posted December 15, 2013

Looks like it could use some customer reviews over at Amazon as well? Mr Phelan dropped into the last Burger gathering in Melbourne and it was great to see him...

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Naut would have you know...

Posted January 16, 2014

This series is going to take off big time. Be an early adopter so you can tell your friends how clever you are.

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Respond to ''The Spy' by Mr James Phelan'

Running With the Blood God

Posted November 4, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham


Blood and Ecstasy

The gutters flow crimson in downtown Zanjan from tens of thousands of sheep being slaughtered on the street and given away with rice to the several hundred thousand people cramming in for the marches. The dish, chelo gosht, is warming in this north-western city spread below snow-streaked ranges; the night breeze is frigid but so terribly sweet after Tehran. We arrived last night and today is Tasua, the eve of Ashura. I stand on the edge of a bloody jube and wave a small black flag that a friend of Mehrak has given me as vast lines of men stomp past smacking their chests and singing. Ahmad, a tall, leonine young computer salesman who seems to know just about everyone – soldiers, cops, marchers, butchers, knife sellers – thought it might help me join in the Shiite carnival of grief, but now he wants to give frowning lessons. ‘More sad,’ he says, pulling a misery face and punching me in the arm. ‘Feel the pain.’

I laugh and he hits me again.

‘Show more pain. Or is it not hard enough?’ He cocks his fist, his black eyes boring into mine, and then bursts out laughing, setting me off too.

‘No,’ says Mehrak, grabbing hold of me, his face tight. ‘Don’t laugh. It is very dangerous. People here are extremely serious about Islam. They have extremely strong belief. You are the kafir here, and the only kafir. What do you think will happen if you insult them? Don’t make any attention. Don’t laugh.’

Cheeks burning, I pull my thermal cap lower and turn back to the parade, trying to ignore Ahmad’s grins and pokes to the ribs. The marchers come in huge groups, each trailing a man standing on a pick-up truck covered in funeral wreaths and laden with a generator and loudspeakers, who blasts out rolling, bludgeoning chants about Karbala – or, as it sounds in the guttural roar, KAR-BA-LAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Each side of the march, the narrow streets are solid with spectators singing along and smacking their chests or waving flags. Family groups and others lean out of upper-floor windows lining central Zanjan. My hotel room overlooks one of the main routes and squares, and when I finally shut my window at one am last night the shuffling, stomping, shouting processions were still powering on, or overpowering on, as it felt after a day of hammering, concussive chants about death and glory in Kar-ba-la.
Mehrak has spooked me about being the only kafir in Zanjan. This is no cross-pollinating Latin carnaval bursting with eccentricity, irreverence, flamboyance, horn sections, sex and flesh of every colour. This is a male and singular drumbeat of Shiite grief. I keep my eyes down when police and soldiers are near but it is deeply unnerving knowing that the Basijis are just men in the crowd. Must stay very low-key.

‘Come,’ says Ahmad, taking my elbow and dragging me through layers of bystanders until we burst through into the marching zone. A panicked-looking Mehrak is right behind. Ahmad taps the back of a marcher who lifts his hand off the man behind, opening a spot for us. I’m shaking my head but Ahmad just drags me in and gets stuck into the chant. Ahmad lands his left hand on my shoulder and I plant mine on Mehrak’s, so come what may we’re in the line now, right feet forward for the stomp followed by a shuffle with the left. Flag up with the beat, and another short thrust and then thump, hand on the chest. We’re mirrored by a second line of marchers, while men patrol the centre yelling and shaking their arms at us to go harder and harder. Also free-ranging in the middle are young men wielding huge flags, red for blood, white for sacrifice, black for mourning, and Islamic green, the traditional colour of Mohammad’s family.

Ahmad says he has something he wants to show me tonight so we peel out of the parade, but the streets are so crowded that it is difficult to move. ‘Off the road,’ he says, leading us into an alley winding through an old walled section of the city and into the internal courtyard of a mosque. Men stand around chatting and Ahmad talks to a few while Mehrak shelters me. ‘It’s okay,’ Ahmad says, drifting back over. ‘Look,’ he says, pointing at a taped-up poster of the Supreme Leader in which Khamenei’s eyes have been painted red and his mouth torn out.

‘Wow, they’ll be in trouble, won’t they, if someone sees that?’

‘Bale,’ says Ahmad. ‘Let’s go.’ We climb another small set of deeply-worn stone steps into a lane that twists onto a street marginally less jammed than the last one. We stick close to the shop fronts – diners, knife sellers, clothes and grocers – and make some progress, gradually overtaking a march in which many of the chest-beaters wear headbands. Ahmad puts out his arm, stopping Mehrak and me, and stares at the group. ‘They are a Basij mosque,’ he says, talking about the plain clothes militia that the government dispatches to beat the hell out of protesters and dissenters.
‘What – those guys are Basijis?’ I ask.

‘Bale. Very bad, very dangerous.’ He clucks his tongue in disapproval.
If I see them perhaps they’ll see me, but flanked by Ahmad and Mehrak I creep forward.

The regime goons have the pugnacity of a volatile sporting team – the casually-worn aggression generally so absent from Iran. Milling thicker on the road than most other marching groups, they crane their necks, peering all about to claim their share of the pious limelight. They jostle and herd each other, hands everywhere as their throng engulfs the street. There are a few stereotypical martyr beards but many are too young to shave. I wonder who among them swung clubs at yesterday’s protest here and helped fill Zanjan’s jails.

‘Do you have any friends who are Basijis?’ I ask Ahmad.
‘No. You cannot.’

Mehrak is not sure if we are going the right way, and I ask where we’re headed.

Ahmad smiles, and claps his hand on my arm. ‘We go to a mosque where you can see something special.’

Teenage boys, men and music spill all around the mosque as we make a midnight approach. Half a block away Ahmad stops us to say that kafirs are forbidden to enter and there will be trouble if I am noticed. ‘Don’t speak. Don’t show your eyes.’

We join a flow of men heading towards the throbs and faint wails, and climb the steps to a kind of foyer, but I don’t see too much because it’s barely lit and I’m looking at the ground to hide my infidel eyes. Staff hand out cloth pouches for shoes to be bagged and dropped into barrels. One of the mosque crew is right next to me and I swivel away but Ahmad moves between us, taking two pouches and then gesturing for me to head in.

Mehrak shields me as we zip through the door and around a heavy curtain, emerging into a circular, domed furnace of heat and sound. I gaze dumbstruck: hundreds of men and boys stripped to the waist are leaping into the air and banging into each other as a trio of musicians thrash out an overwhelming cacophony of twisting, intertwined rhythms. A vocalist almost eats his microphone as he hunkers down in a rapid, heavily distorted chant of ‘Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein’ while another unleashes an incendiary account of the torments of Karbala: a performance beyond the most narco-assisted extremes of any psycho-rocker I’ve seen. And all the while their percussionist pounds out convulsive funk rhythms with brutish speed. Above the band hangs an enormous silk banner painted with a desert scene where lightning bolts pierce a burnt-orange sun dripping with blood as a riderless horse wanders the sands near chador-clad women lost in grief.

I’m about to lose my fucking mind, and the shirtless men hurl themselves higher and higher, smashing their chests as they fly, whipped up and up by a man in the centre swinging an immense black flag of death in wild arcs. The air is so thick and hot it burns my teeth and chokes me in its stench of superheated, supersaturated male flesh. It is all I can do to stand in this vortex of the blood god.

Two soldiers carrying AK-47s and binoculars enter the gloomy lobby of the high-rise Sepid Hotel, where I am the only guest. They talk to the woman at reception and then walk upstairs. I’m feeling so profoundly unwell, so fatigued, so weak-lunged and so nauseous, that it might have been a relief had they detained me, thereby excusing me from this morning’s garden party. But here’s Mehrak, right on time in his father’s car.

‘My mother was worried you would not have breakfast,’ says Mehrak, passing over a spoon and a bowl of porridge and shreds of lamb. Ahmad also scores a bowl of halim when we pick him up on the drive through the gritty but spacious Zanjani suburbs. Huge Farsi script has been fashioned in white on a hill overlooking the city, and Mehrak says it means Mahdi. Mehrak say this is also the meaning of Valiasr, the street bisecting Tehran. Many names; many faces. Mehrak takes the Tabriz road, and we drive north-west through a rocky, scrubby countryside. It is a bleak morning.

‘Where’s the garden?’ I ask, head pounding, chest wheezing. Last night’s plunges from frigid night to steaming mosque and back again did me in.

‘Garden?’ says Mehrak. ‘Oh, in Amin Abad.’ He points in the direction we’re travelling.

We pass an upside-down car, its occupants sitting in the dirt tending to their bruises. Every few kilometres police stand watching the traffic. ‘Think there’ll be any problem with the cops?’ I ask.

Mehrak shrugs, but Ahmad says no. ‘My friends do this every year,’ he tells me.

‘What do they think about the ayatollahs saying it is haram?’

‘They do not agree. Many people do not agree with the ayatollahs, many times even ayatollahs do not agree with other.’

‘What do you think?’

‘People can do it if they want,’ Ahmad says. ‘It is between them and Allah. They do it for a good reason: because they love Imam Hussein. As for me, I prefer what you saw in the mosque.’

‘You do that?’


‘Aren’t dancing and displays of the flesh forbidden in Iran?’

‘You can do anything for Imam Hussein.’ Ahmad grins and stretches back in his seat.

Twenty kilometres from Zanjan we reach a dirt-poor settlement of mud-brick houses. It is Amin Abad and my spirits sink to see police at the turn-off. They have stopped a car heading in and are questioning the driver. But they ignore a pick-up that barrels by them, and then another car, and we take the plunge, driving past and up a road narrowing into a rugged alley of dirt and mud. Mehrak has to go slowly and really work the wheel, taking care to steer well clear of women in full chadors leading children through the labyrinth of alleys lined with high walls. There are men on foot, too; men with moustaches and pockmarked faces, men with caps and grey beards, and young sharpies stepping gingerly in leather slip-ons and white socks. My jaw is tight with apprehension about the relentless, concentrated, grinding exposure of being a kafir voyeur hanging around in a tiny garden of devout Shiites on their holiest day.

The track is getting thick with traffic and the walls are now lined with parked cars.

‘They aren’t all going to the ceremony, are they? How many people usually?’

‘About a thousand.’ Ahmad tells Mehrak to park as soon as he sees a space.

Out in the teeth-chattering air we join a stream of people walking towards the fringe of this hard-scrabble village. A pair of policemen stand straight ahead eyeballing us all and Mehrak steps around to block their view of me but there’s not so much need anymore; I’m an old hand at shuffling with my head down and gloves buried in pockets – the trudge is automatic. If more Iranians wore sunglasses then I’d have mine on but very few seem to wear them, so downcast it is. The cops don’t look twice. A kid soon does, however, and the tubby little boy walks almost backwards so he can keep checking out the alien blues.

Stalls give away hot, sweet milk which I want to drink more and more of but we trek on through mud and litter to a football pitch built on a slope. The police are hovering so we walk to the summit of the pitch and watch its perimeter fill with a circle of about a thousand people. I try texting Arman to ask if he made it to Tabriz, but the SMS won’t send. I try texting Mehrak, who’s a foot away, but again there’s no service.

‘Look at his head,’ Mehrak says, nodding towards a man in front of us whose crown has a hairless patch exposing a pink and scarred scalp. ‘He has done it many times.’

A dozen or so men make their way into the centre of the pitch carrying a black banner and loudspeakers set on poles. The two policemen soon join them and word spreads that they have said ghammeh zani is prohibited and anyone practising it will be arrested.

‘That’s it?’

‘It will happen,’ says Ahmad.

Within minutes the scarred man and a bunch of his companions walk from the pitch and disappear down the side of a ravine. Shortly afterwards we hear the sound of chants and cries of ‘Ya Hussein!’ The police don’t move.

‘They’re not going to arrest them?’ I ask.

‘Two police and a thousand believers? The police don’t want to get killed,’ says Mehrak. ‘They will stay away.’

People start peeling off to the ravine. From the top we look down on about twenty men locked in a marching formation, the same as last night – left hands on each other’s backs or shoulders, right feet forward for the stomp – but now the steel of twin-edged swords shines from the right hands of several.

We skid down the dirt slope to join a swelling audience of men gathering at the bottom; women in chadors form a jagged black line across the top of the ravine. Some husbands stay with them up on the lip of the dirt wall, others squat a few yards down the face, holding the hands of the more adventurous of the numerous little kids.

Another circle of swordsmen has formed, the colliding chants of the two groups messy and loud. The participants are aged from their late teens to their sixties, most being in their twenties. Some of the older men have the worn faces and clothes of poverty while plenty of the younger ones are flash in designer jackets and jeans. Only three or four have the cultivated anti-vanity of the cookie-cutter fanatic: surplus jackets and choppy beards under dumb, hateful eyes. Watchers press in holding up cell phones and camcorders.

Blood trickles brightly down the face of the scarred man we saw earlier, but I never saw him cut himself. He is talking to someone holding a squirt bottle – of antiseptic presumably – and a bag of dressings. Now another man detaches from the circle, stepping into its centre and raising a sword in both hands. The mustachioed gentleman in his late forties rocks on his feet with the surges of the chant, tilts the sword down and whips it back. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang; he slams the top of his head again and again until an aide stops him with a hand to the shoulder. The hacked man drops to a squat, blood running onto his black shirt. He shows no pain and doesn’t seem to be breathing hard; he just stares into the forest of men’s legs until someone brings a bottle and squirts his wounds. The medic dresses the deepest cuts and winds a bandage from under the man’s chin up around his head. By the time he finishes another bleeder is waiting. The medic moves straight on. No gloves.

‘Infections not a concern?’ I ask Mehrak.

He shakes his head. ‘They believe Imam Hussein will heal them, and maybe a glass of whisky tonight.’

For more than ninety minutes the swords swing nonstop. The ravine is strewn with bloody bandages, and I’m so ill that I squat among them, unable to stand for long and too queasy to move up the slope. Men mill about with bloody and bandaged heads, smoking and watching ever more join their ranks. Ahmad has been bandaging and his hands are stained with blood and antiseptic. I stand again as he brings over his friend Roozbeh, who has organised much of this. Roozbeh, who runs a construction company, is a foppish fellow with a dreamy air. He is unusually colourful in a pink sweater. ‘You are welcome here,’ he says, taking my hand, even as his eyes track an ankh-shaped blood pattern on the back of a shroud-wearer walking by.

‘Thank you. Have you ever done this?’ I ask, knocking on the top of my head.

‘Yes,’ he says, his eyes now on mine. ‘Every year for five years.’

‘What does it feel like?’

Roozbeh takes a deep breath. ‘I cannot speak of it. All I know is that I miss Imam Hussein.’

Almost two hours now and I’m shaking and trying to think about being far away but the chants and Ya Husseins and blood and the impossibility of getting warm keep me entirely in the present. Loudspeakers have even made it to this spiritual abattoir, with the rants and chants jarringly loud. Mehrak has seen enough too, but Ahmad is still on bandage duty and until he is finished we are staying in this bitter, barren ravine.

‘Old man,’ says Mehrak. I think he’s talking about me but then he nods towards the far edge of proceedings, where a dense mob of shroud-wearers is hard at it.

Struggling to my feet, I see a man who must be in his seventies winding himself up for a cut. He’s a firebrand, too, putting the young motor-mouths to shame with the vehemence of his calls. His last cry is to the holy handless Abolfazl before letting rip with the steel of God. Clonk. Mehrak and I look at each other. It’s the day’s crispest sound of sword on skull. Clonk. He does it again and I have to squat. Clonk. Clonk. Clonk. Clonk.

Finally, it’s time to leave – but first we eat. The queue on the edge of the village for chelo gosht is long and slow and I need to lie down but my friends are hungry. The cooks have run out of meat, but a beautiful, purplish-dark, long-coated sheep is led past to have its throat slit.

‘Salam.’ It’s Roozbeh, his head wrapped, blood on his face and clothes, his expression soft and dreamy. ‘Khoda hafez,’ he says, wandering into the village. ‘Khoda hafez,’ says Ahmad, and turns back to Mehrak and me. ‘For Roozbeh, he cannot cut himself with other people around. He helps everyone, all day, and when there is nobody left he takes the sword for Imam Hussein.’


The cell phone wakes me up with a message. It’s night and I’ve been asleep since stumbling back in from Amin Abad. The text service must be working again. It’s Mehrak: Look at TV. I heave myself up, switch the TV on to the news channel. Tehran torn by riots. Police cars on fire. Banks burning. Government buildings attacked. Dead people.

2 Responses to ‘Running With the Blood God’

Therbs is gonna tell you...

Posted November 4, 2013

That mob are loco bananas. They should realise that beer is a better option to smacking oneself in the head with a sword. They remind me of those idiots who get themselves put up onto crosses at Easter. Fkn nutters.

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan ducks in to say...

Posted November 4, 2013

A story as in a short narrative here, or something more formal?

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