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Turning Japanese stomachs

Confessions of a Mask
by Yukio Mishima

Penguin, 170pp, £8.99

Born two years after the Great Earthquake of 1923, in ‘not too good a section of Tokyo’, Kochan is a sickly child, brought up by stultifying parents and a morbid grandmother.

His first reliable memory is of the ‘night-soil’ man, and he immediately becomes obsessed with tragic lives, particularly in story books: anybody who is ‘fated for death’.

He is furious upon discovering that his favourite doomed knight is actually Joan of Arc. But after seeing a performance by a female magician, he begins to dress up in his mother’s clothing – and by adolescence he is committed to playing his ‘part’ upon life’s stage, ‘without ever once revealing my true self.’

Kochan is a literally and literarily pained young man, quoting Wilde, Huysmans, and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. He edits a Hungarian fairy tale to make the hero’s grisly end more realistic.

He quickly realises his interests are not merely aesthetic. He is aroused by the sight of marauding priests, sweating soldiers, sea-bathers, male in-laws. He stashes away images of (thin-ish) wrestlers and samurai as other boys would hide their porn mags.

Aged 12, he jerks off for the first time – over a picture of Guido Reni’s St Sebastian.

He falls in love with the school jock – ‘because of him I cannot love an intellectual person’ – and falls back out again some pages later, having got an envy-boner at the sight of hairy armpits.

He struggles, naturally enough, to blend in, since he has no idea what other boys are even thinking. (In his defence, mind you, he’s at the sort of pretentious, rigid school where grabbing other boys’ cocks is viewed as a normal playground pastime.)

His anaemia is counterbalanced by a raging blood-thirst. He daydreams, elaborately, of his family being obliterated in an air-raid; of tying a class-mate to a pillar and then stabbing him; of slaughtering ‘many white slaves of Arabia, princes of savage tribes’. He has long-since been enraptured by his own death.

A schoolfriend’s sister appears to provide the social cover that he’s needed. The approach of war looks set to grant him what he wants: ‘some natural, spontaneous suicide’.

A tough and compact piece of literature – in the manner of a JG Ballard, say, or Anthony Burgess – the most surprising thing about Confessions of a Mask is that, for all its euphemistic delicacy (‘inversion’, ‘bad habit’, ‘big thing’), this boundary-pushing novel was published only four years after Japan’s atomic cataclysm.

It is also plainly autobiographical. But as an exercise in personal catharsis, alas, it did not do the trick. Two decades, several dozen books, and three Nobel Prize nominations later, Mishima launched a one-man para-military coup, and wound up disembowelling himself. At least one biographer suggests that this was his intention from the outset.

For The Amorist

Veterans of modern wars

In a mid-September interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Baron Richards of Herstmonceux (GCB, CBE, DSO, DL – better known as General David Richards, former Chief of the Defence Staff) made a comment to the effect that “a part-time soldier cannot be as effective as someone who’s devoted his life to it and puts on a uniform every day.”

This would have been news to the 60 or so Reservist men and women who gathered last Thursday evening for a dinner to recognise the contributions of members of the Honourable Artillery Company who served on operational tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Organised by Lt Gearoid O’Connor and LCpls Ben McAndrew and Hamish Dickie – the Commanding Officer having squared the hire of the illustrious venue – this social event was unusual in being attended exclusively by soldiers (including guests and regular army training staff) with an operational service medal for Ops TELIC (Iraq), HERRICK (Afghanistan) and precursors such as Operation GRANBY.

It is estimated that approximately 250 Honourable Artillery Company soldiers were involved in the (most recent) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a good handful of them deploying on more than one occasion. Two deaths – those of Tpr Jack Sadler and Lt Ed Drummond-Baxter – are recorded on the regimental Roll of Honour.

At least one reservist from another regiment was killed during my own tour of Afghanistan; and I overlapped with regular officers from other units who had started their careers alongside or immediately after me on the HAC recruits course, as well as fellow reservists who have subsequently embarked on full-time military careers.

The Guest Speaker for the dinner was Brigadier James Roddis (DSO, MBE – Commander Specialised Infantry Group), who, beneath a portrait of the HAC’s erstwhile CO Ted Heath, spoke of the unmatchable experience of war, and the bonds formed between those who’ve been on operational duty.

Though some attendees* raised an eyebrow re the strength and nature of those bonds [see – ahem – my forthcoming piece in this publication], Brig. Roddis went on, importantly, to ruminate on future wars, and to predict another brigade-level British expeditionary deployment rather sooner than one might imagine.

The deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were both brigade-level. And, in the case of Afghanistan, at least, reservists made up approximately 10% of each deployment.

* Alas, this call-sign was unable to attend the dinner, confined to barracks on account of newborn. But – on a lighter note – he looks forward to the next dining opportunity, as hosted by the Corps of Drums, at which Bruce Dickinson will be the Guest of Honour. (That is Bruce Dickinson, NB, of Iron Maiden – and not, as one young officer had understood it, David Dickinson.)

For The Oldie


Volunteers had no recognised existence in England until May, 1859.

The Nelson Evening Mail, September 8 1908

Everyone in Joe Orton’s social circle was called Kenneth.

The word ‘truth’ has no exact equivalent in Welsh.

The 8-hour workday doesn’t make sense.

Sloths take five seconds to have sex, but a month to digest a meal.

Agave nectar loves you all.

There are a million elementary-school teachers in America.

Airport security officials do not like fun facts.

The London Evening Standard has a pro-royal policy.

Gerry Adams says that he would quit Sinn Fein if he found there was bullying in the party.

An orchidometer is a medical instrument used to measure the size of testicles.

God rewards those who rise and fight over those who sit behind a desk.

Johnny Vaughan’s dad was a failed tap-dancer, and his granddad was a snooker champion.

Man is an island, entire of itself.

Two birds, one stone

Dear Amorist,

I recently made a joke about my pregnant wife – and found myself receiving several pointers.

‘Have lots of sex before the baby’s born,’ said one.

‘Watch loads of movies,’ said another.

Couldn’t we just watch porn, and kill two birds with one stone?

Yours, &c.

ASH Smyth, by email


Few of those who know and admire the camellia, that waxlike and pure flower, are aware that the parent plant, the origin of the million plants scattered throughout Europe, is still alive and is in Italy.

The Nelson Evening Mail, January 22 1907

The Taliban now control more territory in Afghanistan than they did in 2001.

A castanet is a musical instrument that can be used for fishing.

The Yellow Pages was first printed in 1963.

Sri Lankan violinist and composer Lakshman Joseph de Saram is 36% Viking.

During the Terror of 1793-4, young French aristocrats danced jigs upon the scaffold to signify their contempt for revolutionary justice.

Theresa May gargles jobbies.

The first Playboy interview was a conversation about race between Alex Haley and Miles Davis.

The Icelandic word ‘nostaklígja’ denotes the gall-like taste you get in your mouth before you throw up.

­There are no woodpeckers in Ireland.

D-Day did not actually happen on D-Day.

Trends towards simpler language have been observed in US presidential speeches.

The Khmer king was crowned with a bowler hat decorated with ostrich feathers.

The ‘Musician’s Church’ has closed its doors to those who wish to hire it for concerts and rehearsal sessions.


The province of Quebec has a wooden railway 20 miles in length. The rails are of maple. This railway is used for hauling timber.

The Nelson Evening Mail, November 1 1906

The German word for ‘train’ is ‘Schienengefuhrtes Sonderzug mit feststehender Lokomotive’.

Bathtime is a good time for kicking.

Margaret Atwood’s real name is OW Toad.

The first President of Zimbabwe was a Methodist minister called Canaan Banana.

Marais Erasmus is currently the best-paid cricket umpire.

Lurchers sleep a lot.

Henry VIII’s sixth wife collaborated with Thomas Tallis to rally her husband for war.

Exercise makes you look better naked. So does tequila.

Helpful Books have misspelled their name in their e-mail address.

Cadets at the Virginia Military Institute are issued Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg.

Yakult was discovered by a mystical order of Scandinavian monks.

The magnitude of human suffering down the centuries is somewhat quantifiable.

Juliet Stevenson will skin your rabbits for an extra tenner.

‘Understanded of the people’?

The Prayer Book Society helps trainee priests with the ‘Shakespearey’ language.

For The Oldie


Our Eastern allies have just spent £2,000,000 in equipping a Government steel works.

The Nelson Evening Mail, September 8 1908

Ben Stokes is the sixth Englishman to have his name on the honours boards at Lord’s for both batting and bowling.

The smell of hot food is not very common on building sites.

Annalise was stunning in Neighbours. But what she looks like now is insane.

Irish people ended up in Kilburn because the Holyhead train came into Euston and the Fishguard train came into Paddington.

The bite of a tarantula can be cured by musick.

The National Health Service will be £350m better off per week after Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

In South Africa there is a town called Nilstrom, because the Afrikans voortrekkers thought that they had found the Nile.

Sebastian Faulks takes his own alcohol to Iceland.

The first American performance of Peter Grimes was conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

A man in Reading is celebrating after his penis is confirmed as being the longest in the world.

The Chinese invented gunpowder while searching for the elixir of life.

Big hair don’t care.

The paraphrast draws only from the Book of Daniel.

Failure to launch?

To Daunt’s in Marylebone, last night, where former pretty-boy and nightclub bouncer (and Amorist ‘Fiascos’ columnist) Anthony McGowan launched his latest literary venture, The Art of Failing.

Subtitled Notes from the Underdog, the book chronicles a year in the life of West Hampstead’s shambolic would-be flâneur, by way of library mishaps, bad packed lunches, and hypochondria – taken from and/or inspired by McGowan’s social media output: a stream of semi-sane, self-lacerating anecdotes that over the past few years have established him as a sort of Stewart Lee of Facebook.

As befits a man no longer in the prime of life, there is a lot on matters sexual. His concern that his chlamydia levels might be low, his first kiss with a woman, or the vermin that may or may not swarm all over his soiled loins. Do animals get VD? His fear of women’s pubic hair. His desire to have used fifties shoved down his bra. And – quote – ‘the wrong transsexual’ at the paint shop.

Then there’s his preposterous claim that sometimes people find him quite attractive.

Like as the hart desireth the water-brook, so Our Tone is pretty much guaranteed to make a mess of things. So obviously those attending – bestsellers such as Sebastian Faulks and Tom Holland among them – hoped the gig would be a total train-wreck. But no: he couldn’t even get that right.

McGowan’s agent, Charlie Campbell, tried valiantly to steer proceedings in the right direction, calling The Art of Failing “the worst idea for a book I’ve ever heard” (McGowan’s previous agent having told him the book would ruin his career).

But our anti-hero rallied, and in a clattering, one-handed speech (a ‘cricket injury’…), he gave the people what they wanted: a brief, amusing reading, and a glass of free wine.

He threw in one Top Tip for amorists: “The key to writing about people that you know is just to say that they’re terrifically sexually attractive, and then get on with it.” And then he paused, astutely, to bestow a paean of uxoriousness upon his wife – who, he said, is “less of a monster” than he’s made her seem among these pages. “I’ve always written first of all to make her laugh.”

No doubt the book will be a huge success.

For The Amorist


The HAC/Royal Artillery Communicator Course (2/11 – condensed) experienced something of a ‘cold start’ when several of the intake missed the first drill night following a break-down in, er, communications. But the troops rallied manfully, and by the first weekend of December, at Crowborough Camp and under the leadership of CSgt Booth and LCpl Magee – CSgts Ivey, Perera and Wallace instructing – our education in all matters Comms/BOWMAN had begun in earnest.

‘A radio’s a radio,’ says CSgt Ivey; but he’s just being modest. Actually, we learned, they come in a bewildering array of configurations and serial numbers (albeit only one colour: a rather unimaginative autumnal green), and they’re pretty hi-tech, too: batteries allowing, some of them will even send a text-message. Plus there’s the ‘Canadian’ setting.

Still, our instructors were vocally confident that in the age of the touchscreen and the smartphone any fool with a functioning forefinger should be good to operate a BOWMAN: a claim we felt it was our sworn duty to assay.

Much of it turned out to be straightforward enough (the correct procedure for turning off the radio, for instance, being to ‘turn the radio’s function switch to OFF’); but some aspects were not so intuitive. ‘Free net’ is not like the WiFi you hook up to in Caffè Nero; ‘buddy fill’, sadly, doesn’t mean ‘getting your mate to do it’; and, try as you might, a ‘Free Channel Search’ will never tune in to Classic FM. Some bordered even on the Kafkaesque: like the instruction to scroll down the menu to NONE SELECTED… and then hit SELECT.

So, in between PowerPoint naps and ironing out misunderstandings over ‘laying cable in an open field’ or the fragile etiquette of the Master/Slave relationship, we concentrated on the finer points of communications theory (step one: say ‘Hello’) and Voice Procedure – or what Tpr Swanston calls ‘delicious language’.

Here, certainly, there were some curve-balls. You must never use first names on the net (even if you do have colleagues called Mike, Oscar or Romeo), and since every radio will have its own ‘unique identifier’ the Army will not smile on the use of other ‘unique identifiers’ you might or might not have assigned to your fellow soldiers in the course of casual conversation. The correct Base Time is not ‘about a quarter past five.’ ‘iSpell’ is neither an educational app nor a Zulu imperative. And the correct response to ‘Authenticate Six-Four’ is not ‘It’s me, you t**t!’

Above all, we were told, remember your RSVP – the acronym for communicating, politely but firmly, with a Frenchman. Trooper Brown, for one, was having particular difficulties with the V.

We marched to and from the cookhouse, chanting ‘1mW good: 16W bad!’ and revising from our handy pocket-sized training pamphlets (verbatim: ‘EMAP. Switches on the EMAP.’), and then under cover of darkness undertook a low-key navigation-and-radio exercise, during which, it is rumoured, one of the more experienced signallers among us endeavoured to anticipate the end-Ex by mistaking her the E-PURGE button for the OFF.

The second of these weekends involved a continuation of the same – in particular on the relevance of SAD, which, by now, we felt we were beginning to understand – plus a wee jolly into neighbouring Pippingford Park. This, we were led to believe, would not be ‘too warry’; but with the infill entering its fourth hour… Still, we were learning. For example, that even a completely defunct radio is a neat way of getting the weight up in your Bergen. Or that the main reason the radio ‘may still emit a signal even without you knowing’ is because, often as not, there’s some berk leaning on the pressel.

Drill night lectures developed these themes, with additional instruction on the use of BATCO and the minutiae of Electronic Warfare. The Yeoman of Signals gave us a brief on how not to drop the comms kit out of a helicopter over Baghdad (operationally, we figured we’d be alright, in East Sussex), and broadly speaking made the argument that the best defence against interception is not to use the radio at all – a prescription met with more enthusiasm than perhaps was entirely proper.

And then came the Part 1 test. ‘You can put A or B,’ the Yeoman stated for the record. ‘I recommend A.’

At the end of February the course deployed to Blandford, home of the Royal School of Signals, for our RA Comms Course Part 2/FTX, where we were promised (sic) ‘a full week of this stuff so we could take it to a more interesting level.’ The first lesson was entitled ‘Why are batteries so important?’

A body can only handle so many 8-hour lecture-room days, so the increasingly surreal round of batteries, frequencies, power-settings, batteries, frequencies, having our integrity questioned by the local PTI, batteries, frequencies, and sitting in wheel-less Land Rovers marked ‘no loitering on account of the radiation’ was punctuated with more hands-on sessions on the putting up of 10m masts (antennae optional), the dropping of same on directing staff (Tpr ‘Timber!!’ Liversidge), and the patching of calls through to girlfriends via TASCOM (‘No, honestly, darling, I would’ve called, only there’s no signal out here. What’s that? Ironic? Yes, it is a little…’). There was an abnormally high level of foot-traffic through the Royal Signals Museum, home to the regimental cappuccino dispenser.

But notwithstanding these thrills and diversions, the intellectual trauma steadily began to kick in. Tpr Jones started keeping a diary of her bowel-movements (she had been licking the radios), and Tpr Spetch began spouting some nonsense about calling his firstborn ‘Ross’ in honour of LCpl Magee.

Even our instructors began to show symptoms of strain. CSgt Perera seemed to be doing ‘bad cop, confusing cop’ all by his lonesome (‘Your hands will either be up, or down’; ‘Just because I’m asking the questions doesn’t mean that I know the answers!’). And then CSgt Ivey started lecturing in verse: ‘How bíg, how high, is that wáve on the ócean? / How lóud are you héaring my vóice?’

We had been warned there was previously a PSYOP component built into all pre-Patrols training: now we began to fear that this serial had been moved up. The troops grew nervous and disoriented – though not half so much as the team of civilian contractors who arrived at the Chickerell guard hut one evening, to be met by the intimidating panorama of CSgt Perera riffling through the Spectator, LCpl Anderson listening to Radio 3, and Dmr Barker sketching the HAC’s coat of arms onto a new design for wrought-iron security (a whole new definition of ‘camp gates’).

On the final Friday we deployed into the field, where we underwent a gruelling half-day of lessons on Contact reports, 9-liner MEDEVAC requests (‘Broken down into 9 lines. Exactly the same as a 10-liner’) and a last-minute ‘interest lecture’ on generators before camming up our FFRs and kipping out under the stars. The following morning Sgt Houghton administered a quick VAGR examination and debrief (not necessarily in that order) – and everyone agreed it was a lovely. old. job.

The pass-rate for the course was a meritorious 100%, and the chief geeks prize-winners Tprs Meyer-Higgins (Best Student), Jones (Bright Spark), and Wiktorowski-Schweitz (all-round good egg). Our successors have, we understand, long-since embarked upon their studies, and will now be well on their way to lugging their own heavy, E-PURGEd radios through the night. We wish them all the best with that.

For the Honourable Artillery Company Journal (Autumn 2012)