I did not know at that time – the time of hearing Roper on the molecular structure of the Eucharist – how soon both our futures were about to begin. The year was 1939. Roper and I were both coming up to eighteen. Father Byrne had intimated, in various morning assemblies, that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was nothing more than God's own castigation of a race that had rejected the Light, a castigation in brown shirts with a crooked cross. 'They crucified our loving Saviour, boys.' (Roper, sitting next to me in the prefects' front row, said quietly, 'I thought it was the Romans who did that.') 'They are,' cried Father Byrne, 'a race on whom Original Sin sits heavy, much given to sexuality and money-making. Their law forbids neither incest nor usury.' And so on. Father Byrne had a long and rubbery body and more than he needed of neck. He now, with great skill, made himself both neckless and tubby and gave us a sort of Shylock performance, full of lisping dribbling and hand-rubbing. 'Dirty Chrithtianth,' he spat. 'You vill not cut off your forethkinth.' He loved to act. His best performance was of James I, and he would willingly spice any teacher's history lesson, whatever the period being taught, with a session of blubbering and slavering and doubtful Lallans. But his Jew was not bad. 'Oh yeth, ve vill do you all down, dirty Chrithtianth. You vill have none of my thpondulickth. Oy oy oy.'
Roper and I were too liberal to laugh at this. We understood that the Nazis were persecuting Catholics as well as Jews. We learned a bit about evil now from the newspapers, not from the religious tracts that stood in a special rack in the school library. Concentration camps fascinated us. Mashed bloody flesh. Bayonets stuck in the goolies. Sir, say what you will, we half-become what we hate. Would we, any of us, have had it otherwise, the film run back to the time when there were no gas-chambers and castrations without anaesthetic, then a new, sinless, reel put in the projector? We will these horrors to happen and then we want to feel good about not wreaking vengeance in kind.
Roper and I, instead of Father-Byrne-Shylock dribbling over the reports from black Germany, would have done better to sweat it all out in a decent bout of sex in the chapel. I said to Roper: 'What about good and evil?'
'It seems reasonable to suppose,' said Roper, chewing on a fibre of stewed mutton, 'that good is the general name we give to what we all aspire to, whatever thing it happens to be. I think it's all a matter of ignorance and the overcoming of ignorance. Evil comes out of ignorance.'
'The Germans are said to be the least ignorant people in the world.'
He had no real answer to that. But he said: 'There are particular fields of ignorance. They're politically ignorant, that's their trouble. Perhaps it's not their fault. The German states were very late in being unified, or something.' He was very vague about it all. 'And then there are all those forests, full of tree-gods.'
'You mean they have atavistic tendencies?'
He didn't know what the hell he meant. He knew nothing now except the trilogy of sciences he was studying for the Higher School Certificate. He was becoming both full and empty at the same time. He was turning into a thing, growing out of boyhood into thinghood, not manhood – a highly efficient artefact crammed with non-human knowledge.
'And,' I asked, 'what will you do when war breaks out? Just say that it's all a matter of ignorance and the poor sods can't help it? Because they'll be coming for us, you know. Poison gas and all.'
He suddenly seemed to realise that the war was going to touch him as well as other people. 'Oh,' he said, 'I hadn't thought about that. That's going to be a bit of a nuisance, isn't it? There's this question of my state scholarship, you see.' There was no doubt that he was going to get one of those; his examination results were going to be brilliant.
'Well,' I said, 'think about it. Think about the Jews. Einstein and Freud and so on. The Nazis regard science as a kind of international Jewish conspiracy.'
'They have some of the finest scientists in the world,' said Roper.
'Had,' I said. 'They're getting rid of most of them now. That's why they can't win. But it'll take a long time to persuade them they can't win.'
That was a lovely summer. Roper and I, with ten pounds each in our wallets, hitch-hiked through Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and France. We had a month of bread and cheese and cheap wine, of the 'J'aime Berlin' pun about Chamberlain the umbrella man, of war talk under brilliant sun. We spent one night in our sleeping-bags near the teeth of the Maginot Line, feeling well protected. We were back in England three days before war broke out. Our examination results had come through in our absence in soon-to-be-locked-up Europe. I'd done well; Roper had done magnificently. There was some talk of my going to the School of Slavonic Studies in London; Roper had to wait for news of his scholarship. We were both drawn, during the interim time, to the only community we knew; we went back to school.
Father Byrne was now very good as Suffering Ireland. He came from Cork and hinted that his sister had been raped by the Black and Tans during the Troubles. 'Warmongering England,' he cried in morning assembly. Antichrist Germany never came into it. 'She has done it again, declaring war, backed by the Jews with their wads of greasy notes.' A brief impersonation of International Finance. 'This war, boys, is going to be a terrible thing. Europe will soon be swarming, if not swarming already, with ravaging and pillaging soldiery. It will be Ireland all over again, the leering and tramping louts, not a thought in their heads but this damnable sex, an abomination before Almighty God and His Blessed Mother.' Soon Roger Casement was brought in. And then he gave us the news that all scholarships were temporarily suspended. I said to Roper, after a morning of yawning lounging in the school library, 'Let's go out and get drunk.'
'Drunk? Can we?'
'_I__ certainly can. As for _may__, who's to stop us?'
Bitter beer was fivepence a pint in the public bars. We drank in the Clarendon, the George, the Cuddy, the King's Head, the Admiral Vernon. Bradcaster smelt of khaki and diesel-fuel. There was also a sort of headiness of promise of the night – this damnable sex. Did not the girls in the streets seem to flaunt more, more luscious-lipped, bigger-breasted? It wTas always unwise ever to think Father Byrne totally wrong about anything. Over my sixth pint I saw myself in uniform of a subaltern of the 1914-18 War, girls panting as they smelt the enemy blood coming off me as I passed the ticket-barrier at Victoria Station, London, home for a spot of leave. Hell in those trenches, girls. Tell us more. I said now to Roper: 'Going to volunteer. This dear country we all love so much.'
'Why?' swayed Roper. 'Why so much? What has it done for you or for me?'
'Freedom,' I said. 'It can't be so bad a bloody country if it lets buggers like Father Byrne attack it in morning assembly. You think about that. What are you going to choose – England or bloody Father Byrne?'
'And,' said Roper, 'I thought I'd be going to Oxford.'
'Well, you're not. Not yet you're not. They're going to have us both sooner or later. Best make it sooner. We're going to volunteer.'
But before we could go and do that, Roper was sick. He had no true hearty English beer-stomach. He was sick in a back-alley near the Admiral Vernon, and this rationalist moaned and groaned prayers like 'Oh Jesus Mary and Joseph' as he tried to get it all up. The scientific approach to life is not really appropriate to states of visceral anguish. I told Roper this while he was suffering, but he did not listen. He prayed however: 'Oh God God God. Oh suffering heart of Christ.' But the next day, very pale, he was prepared to go with me to a dirty little shop that had been turned into a recruiting centre. The cold deflation of crapula perhaps made him see himself as temporarily empty of a future; the only thing he could be filled with in these times was his generalised young man's destiny. And, of course, that went for me too.
'What will our parents say?' wondered Roper. 'We should really write and tell them what we're doing.'
'Reconcile yourself to the jettisoning of another responsibility,' I said, or words to that effect. 'We'll send them telegrams.' And off we went to see a sergeant with a dreadful cold. I put in for the Royal Corps of Signals. Roper couldn't make up his mind. He said: 'I don't want to kill.'
'You dod't have to,' said the sergeant. 'There's always the Bedics.' He meant the Medics. The Royal Army Medical Corps. RAMC. Rob all my comrades. Run Albert matron's coming. Roper bravely joined that mob.
It seems strange, looking back, that the British armed forces had as yet no room for genuine skills, except of the most elementary trigger-squeezing, button-pressing kind. All the time Roper was in the army, nobody ever once thought that here was a brain that could be utilised in the development of the most horrible offensive weapons. For that matter, my own ability to speak French and Russian quite well, and Polish moderately well, was seized on with no eagerness. I even had difficulty in transferring to the Intelligence Corps when it was formed in July, 1940. My officers spoke French with a public school accent; the British have always been suspicious of linguistic ability, associating it with spies, impresarios, waiters, and Jewish refugees: the polyglot can never be a gentleman. It was not until the Soviet Union became one of our allies that I was allowed to bring my Russian into the open, and then there was long delay before it was used. It was used when there was some sort of programme of Anglo-American aid to Russia; I was brought in as a junior assistant interpreter. This sounds big enough stuff for one still so young, but it was only to do with the provision of sports equipment for the ratings of Soviet naval vessels. There was a bigger job that at one time I thought I might get, something to do with the putting of a bay leaf in every tin of American-aid chopped pork, the Russians finding pig-meat so un-garnished unpalatable, myself to explain that this would slow up deliveries, each bay leaf having to be dropped in separately by hand, but I never got the job. And now back to Roper.
He wrote to me first of all from Aldershot, saying that a bomb had dropped near Boy ce Barracks and he'd been thinking more than usual about death. Or rather what Catholics call the Four Last Things Ever To Be Remembered: Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven. He'd succeeded, he said, in blotting those doctrines out pretty well when he'd been in the Science Sixth, but what he wanted to know was this: did these things perhaps exist – the after-death things, that was – for somebody who believed in them? He'd been p^ut in rather a false position, he thought, from the point of view of religion. When he'd arrived at the Depot as a recruit, they'd called out: 'RCs this side, Protestants that, fancy buggers in the middle.' His intention had been to declare himself an agnostic, but that would have put him right away among the United Board. So he said he was an RC – 'on the surface, the army being all surface'. When he became a sergeant he found himself possessed not merely of authority but of Catholic authority. There was this business of helping to march the men to Mass on Sunday mornings. And the priest in the town church was decent, friendly, English not Irish, and he asked Roper to use his influence to make more of the men go to communion. But, after this bomb had dropped near Boyce Barracks, which was very early in his army career, he'd been made aware of the talismanic power of having 'RC in his paybook. 'You're an RC,' some of his barrack-room-mates had said. 'Going to stick close to you we are next time one of those bastards drops.' What Roper said in his letter was: 'There seems to be a certain superstitious conviction among the men that the Catholics have more chance of "being all right" when death threatens. It's as though there's a hangover of guilt from the Reformation among the common people – "We didn't want to get away from the Old Religion really, see. We was quite happy as we was. It was them upper-class bastards, Henry VIII and whatnot, that made us break away, see." '
And poor Roper, cut off from his science – though he learned the tricks of his corps so well that he was very quickly promoted – and living more with his emotional and instinctive needs, began to be aware of emptiness. 'If only I could be re-converted or else converted to something else. What's the point of fighting this war if we don't believe that one way of life is better than another? And that's not the same as saying that our way is bad but the Nazi way is worse. That won't do. You can't fight negatively. A war should be a sort of crusade. But what for?'
And then, God help us, Roper started to read poetry. 'But,' he wrote, 'I can't get much out of this very difficult poetry. I've got a scientific brain, I suppose, and I like a word to mean one thing and one thing only. That's why I've been going back to people like Wordsworth, who really does say what he means, even though you can't always agree with what he says. But at least there's a man who made a religion for himself, and, when you come to think of it, it's a scientific religion in a way. Nature – trees and rivers and mountains and so on – is something that's really there, it encloses us. I think of those Nazi bastards coming over and blasting England, and I get a sort of picture of England suffering – I don't mean just the people and the cities they've built, but the trees and the countryside and the grass, and I feel more bitter than if it was Christ on His cross. Is this some sort of new religious sense I've got? Would you say it was irrational?'.
A delightful and inevitable progression from bare reason to sentimentality to sex. He wrote to me from Chesham in 1943, saying that he was doing some sort of course on Army Hygiene and, in his spare time, going out with a girl called Ethel. 'She's tall and fair and has blunt fingers and is very wholesome, and she works in a snack-bar on the High Street. Would you say I was late in losing my virginity? We go out into the fields and it's all very pleasant and not very exciting, and I don't feel any guilt at all. Would it be better if I did feel guilt? I seem to have come very close to England since I stopped believing in Catholicism, close to the heart or essential nature of England I mean. What I find there is a sublime kind of innocence. England would take neither Catholicism nor Puritanism for very long-those faiths built on sin just rolled off like water from a duck's back. And then, when I think of Nazi Germany, what do I find but another kind of innocence, a sort of malevolent innocence which enables them to perpetrate the most incredible atrocities and still see nothing wrong there. Is there anybody anywhere who is feeling guilt for this war? I lie in the cornfield with Ethel and, to spice it up with guilt, I imagine this is adultery – she isn't married – or incest, but it won't work. Of course, in a way it is incest, for we're all supposed to be bound together in a big happy family, brothers and sisters, directing our sexual hate, all hate being really sexual, against the enemy.'
The really significant letter from Roper came from defeated Germany. 'I shall never eat meat again,' he said, 'never as long as I live. The camp was full of meat, layers and layers of it, some of it still alive. Human meat, sweet surely because it was so near the bone, with the flies buzzing over it and grubs moving. The smell was of a massive cheese factory. We were the first in, and we wasted no time in squirting our patent Mark IV antiseptic sprays, retching while we did it. I had met this word necropolis before and thought it to be a sort of poetic term for describing a city at dead of night, a city of locked houses from which all the living seemed to have fled. Now I saw what a necropolis really was. How many dead or dying citizens did this contain? I had not thought it possible that so many dead could be brought together in one place, and all arranged and stacked so neatly, sometimes dead with still alive. I passed along the neat made-in-Germany streets that had house-high hedges of piled corpses on either side, spraying away, but the spray, for all its powerful smell of clean kitchen-sinks and lavatory-bowls, couldn't at all erase the stink of the dead.'
That, sir, was Roper – QMS Roper – in the spearhead of the invasions of cleaners-up after the German surrender. The letter, and the three letters that followed (he was just talking the anguish out on the paper), spoke of vomiting and a mad fear that the near-corpses would suddenly topple their fully dead brothers from the pile and come to lap up half-digested protein. They also told of nightmares of a sort we all had, all those of us who'd entered the death-camps and stood paralysed, our mouths in rictu but whether for retching or out of sheer incredulity the mouths them- selves could not at first tell. We had to gape; it was the only possible oral response to what we saw and smelt. We didn't want to believe, since belief that a civilised nation had been capable of all this must overturn everything we'd ever taken for granted about civilisation, progress, the elevating power of artistic, scientific, philosophical achievement (who could deny that the Germans were a great race?). For my part, I went in as sole sergeant-interpreter with a small Russo-American group (I have deliberately forgotten where the death-camp was) and found, what I should have known, that words, whether Russian or Anglo-American, were otiose.
Strangely, my own nightmares featured Roper more than myself, perhaps because Roper had written those letters. I could see him very clearly as I read them – pale, fattish, bespectacled (with those steel-rimmed respirator-spectacles that made the wearer look like an idiot child), a shaggy straw nape under the eaves of the steel helmet. In my dreams he did my moaning for me, vomiting up such dream-objects as the flywheels of clocks, black-letter books, wriggling snakes, and he sobbed very idiomatic German, full of words like Staunen (astonishment) and Sittlichkeit (morality) and Schicksal (destiny). His own nightmares were of the forced evening walk (a lovely sunset, the birds' last song) through groves of corpses, along with burrowing into hedges of blue flesh and (this was fairly common with all of us) actual necrophagy or corpse-eating. And then dreaming Roper allowed himself to appear as a sort of British Christ, John Bull Jesus crucified on his own Union Jack. The crucifixion was either punishment or expiation or identification – he couldn't tell which. He'd done very little reading outside of physics and chemistry and very simple poetry.
But guilt was in his letters. These crimes had been committed by members of the human race, no different from himself. 'We should never have let this happen,' he wrote. 'We're all responsible.' I wrote back: 'Don't be so bloody stupid. The Germans are responsible and only the Germans. Admittedly, a lot of them won't have that because a lot of them won't believe what's been done in their name. They'll have to be shown, all of them. You can start off with the German women.' That's what I'd been doing. In a way, with their deep belly-consciousness or whatever the hell it is, the German women were already lining up to be punished. They didn't think it was that, of course; they thought they were just on the chocolate-buying game like the women of any conquered country. But the deep processes of genetics were calling out for exogamy, fertilisation by foreign bodies, and the deeper moral processes were shrieking for punishment. Wait, though: aren't those aspects of the same thing? Isn't the angry punitive seed more potent than the good gentle stuff that dribbles out in the pink-sheeted marriage-bed? Isn't miscegenation a means of destroying ethnic identity and thus getting rid of national guilt? For my part, I didn't then ask such questions of the stocky women of Bremen. I got stuck into them, not sparing the rod. At the same time, showing my teeth and manhood, I was dimly aware that their menfolk, dead or merely absent, had got the better of me by making me one of themselves – brutal, lustful, something from a Gothic bestiary. Ah, what a bloody Manichean mess life is.