Of Soldiering and Rugby: Literature Reminds Us That We Are More Alike Than Not
May 30, 2013 | by Faber Social
At first glance my two events at this year’s Hay festival might appear to be particularly disparate – a verse drama and a non-fiction sports book; Afghanistan and Wales; the lives of young squaddies in Pink Mist, the lives of wealthy rugby players in Calon. And to be honest, in becoming Artist in Residence for the Welsh Rugby Union, difference is what I was after. Having worked in quick succession on two projects about the Afghan war I was looking forward to entering the ‘lighter’ world of a sport and a team in which I’d found enjoyment since the age of seven.
In researching and writing Calon, however, I discovered many of its concerns were surprisingly similar to those of Pink Mist. Rugby players and soldiers alike are young men shaped by masculine monocultures of unbroken boyhoods, adult professions offering seductive extensions of childhood games. At 21 or 22 the player and soldier will have life experiences most of us can’t imagine. And yet, at the same time, their experience of life will be limited, their days chaperoned, their weeks scheduled. It’s only when they leave the barracks or the playing field for good that they must face the full scope of personal choice in all it’s terrifying dimensions.
It was in this leaving that the similarities between the two professions became most apparent. In both soldiering and rugby, exactly because of their physical natures, the young men who do them often occupy surprisingly fragile lives, never knowing if the apex of their careers have, in fact, already been lived. Injury or wounding leaves them suddenly bereft, plunged into a life of apparent aftermath. One day you are ‘with’, the next you are ‘without’. Fears of assimilation into ‘normal life’ loom large, as do questions about how you will replace all you’ve lost? The excitement, the sense of purpose and, perhaps most tellingly, that bond you shared with those for whom, much more than country or family, you’d fought or played for in the first place.
Since their publications another shared territory of Calon and Pink Mist has become evident; their aspirations to bridge distance. In both books I’ve tried to use literary techniques to enable a reader to see through the eyes of those whose bodies fuel war and rugby; to see the ‘soldier’ and the ‘player’ as a person. What I hadn’t expected, however, was that this bridging of distance would extend beyond reader and subject to the make up of the readerships themselves. Calon, I’ve discovered, has found favour with rugby fans who’d never usually pick up a work of literary non-fiction, including, thanks to some enterprising teachers, teenage boys and reluctant readers in schools. Pink Mist meanwhile, a 13,000 word verse drama has been featured in ‘Soldier’ magazine and attracted its first praise not from a literary critic, but from a recently discharged rifleman.
For me, this engagement with new audiences has become the most significant shared quality of Calon and Pink Mist. Our society is more fragmented than we are and the empathetic quantum-leaps of literature is one of the best ways of illustrating this; that despite what we are told or how we are treated, we are more alike than not. At a time when access to the arts is being restricted rather than grown, when we are closing libraries rather than opening them, Calon and Pink Mist have reminded me of just how urgent and necessary is the reaching out to new audiences. In the second branch of the Welsh myth series, The Mabinogion, the giant Bendegidfran says ‘he who is a leader; let him be a bridge.’ In a divided society access to libraries, books, plays are essential bridges, so let’s hope our own leaders listen to his advice and help to build our bridges before we’ve burnt them.