November 8 is my brother’s birthday, and this year, it falls on Remembrance Sunday. Because my brother is currently deployed to Afghanistan, it is particularly poignant that those dates should coincide.
All week long, it seems like Afghanistan has been in the news for tragic reasons – and there have been particularly personal betrayals. I don’t know how distant the war seems to others, but it is never far from my thoughts – although I have never before written about it here. Even the recent horrific events in Fort Hood, Texas are uncomfortably close to home for me; my parents live very near there, and my brother has been stationed there several times.
My brother is a Lt. Colonel, in charge of a large battalion of soldiers. I know his responsibility weighs heavily on him, but he refers, only obliquely, to the terrible mental and emotional stresses of his daily life. I don’t know if his reticence is due to necessities of confidentiality, or the desire to protect his family, or just weariness; perhaps it is a bit of all those things.
Our lives have so little in common now, but we share the same liking for books and games that goes back to earliest childhood. I cannot think of my brother without remembering the marathon games of Monopoly that we played as a child. We would get up early on Sunday mornings to play – always hoping that my parents would oversleep and that we wouldn’t have to go to church. (It rarely happened, but we lived in optimistic expectation.) These days, we play Facebook Scrabble – in the odd moments, once or twice a week, when he can visit an Internet café. He always wins; he always did win.
He likes to read; everyone in our family does. When he was a little boy, he loved the Curious George books by H.A. Rey, and he had a good bit of that curious monkey in him. Like so many young boys, he would pore over the Guinness Book of World Records. I also particularly remember a series of nonfiction books called Tell Me Why that he would read and reread. As he got older, he started to prefer histories – particularly military history. These days, he tells me that he reads lots of thrillers and other “escapist trash.”
As children, we used to construct “ships” by enclosing the sides of the bunk beds with blankets. It was so wonderfully cozy to feel concealed in that space – to lie back on pillows, and read by the light of a lamp. It felt so safe. I doubt that any adult ever feels that safe again, but books can still provide those feelings of an enclosed, complete world far from present realities. As Emily Dickinson wrote: There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away . . .
After much pondering, I decided to send my brother a birthday package of books. What better escape than humor, I thought? When I googled “funniest ever books” the same titles kept recurring, and these are the three I ended up sending to Afghanistan: Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome; Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, and a P.G. Wodehouse Omnibus. They are all English classics, and although I’ve read them, I don’t think that my brother has done. Although women may read and even like these books, they describe a completely male world. They have some odd similarities, actually: particularly that of the hapless male protagonist who keeps stumbling into scrapes of his own making. There are lots of cups of tea, although it is true that some of them are spilled. Nothing really bad happens, though; foolishness reigns here, never violence or evil.
They make me think of the letter* that Winston Churchill wrote during World War II, when he was confined to bed with illness. He asked for Pride and Prejudice to be read to him, and later commented: What calm lives they had . . . No worries about the French Revolution, or the crushing struggles of the Napoleonic wars. Only manners controlling natural passions as far as they could . . .
I would remind Churchill of this: perhaps Jane Austen knew more about gardens than battlefields, but she also had two brothers in the Navy, and I doubt that the pitched battles between England and France were ever as far out of her mind as her novels might imply.
Happy Birthday, dearest little brother!
* A copy of this letter is in Jane Austen's bedroom at the Jane Austen House in Chawton, Hampshire.