The recent saga of the 15 British sailors seized by Iran in the Persian Gulf reminded me of Simon and Bono.
Simon was decorated for his morale-boosting role in the Amethyst affair.
Bono was made up into a Knight of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
Simon isn’t as well-known as Bono. I put this down to speciest bigotry. Simon was ship’s cat on HMS Amethyst when it sailed up the Yangtse in 1949, guns trained on each bank of the river to discourage the People’s Liberation Army, then poised to take over the countery, from interfering with British commercial interests. Able Seaman George Hickenbottom eloquently described the events which followed.
“Amethyst did not get much further than 100 miles upriver before being shelled by Communist shore batteries, causing the ship to run aground on a mud-bank. Twenty-five of the crew were dead or dying, including the captain and the MO, many others were injured. Simon suffered leg, neck and tail injuries and facial burns and was rendered unconscious. He was not expected to last the night. However, Simon had other ideas!
“…Negotiations with the Communists for the ship’s release dragged on unprofitably, because the Chinese wanted an admission that the Amethyst had fired first. Life on board became hot, humid and boring…
“Simon was soon back on rat-catching duties. There was a particularly large, bold and vicious rat causing havoc with the supplies; the crew had named him ‘Mao Tse-tung’. One day he and Simon came face to face: Simon sprang first and killed Mao Tse-tung outright. He was promoted to Able Seacat Simon…
“The days dragged on with no relief in sight. Simon, through it all, continued cheerfully with his duties and his rounds, helping to keep up flagging spirits.”
On the night of July 30th 1949, after 101 days, the Amethyst made a dash down the Yangtse and made it to the open sea. The news sparked scenes of wild excitement in England. King George VI ordered that the mainbrace be spliced. Back on board, a special presentation was made: all hands stood at attention on deck while a citation was read out and Able Seacat Simon was formally awarded the Amethyst Campaign Ribbon.
(This fascinating scene was inexplicably omitted from the 1956 movie, “Yangtse Incident,” starring Richard Todd, William Hartnell, Bernard Miles and Akim Tamiroff.)
News of the heroic feline’s patriotic fortitude sent a fever of excitement through that section of British society prone to this sort of thing. An Early Day Motion in the Commons hailed Simon as “an example to all.” The Armed Forces Mascot Club radioed the Amethyst in Hong Kong that, subject to the captain’s recommendation, Simon should be awarded the Dickin Medal—the “Animals’ VC.” He was to be presented with the decoration upon his return to home shores.
Pathe News footage of Simon sniffing the air as the Amethyst passed through the Suez Canal drew spontaneous applause in cinemas. Hickenbottom recalled: “Letters, poems, gifts of food and cat toys arrived by every post. A special ‘cat officer’ had to be appointed.”
The Amethyst reached Plymouth on November 10th 1949. The medal ceremony was scheduled for December 11th. The Lord Mayor of London was set to travel in full regalia to make the presentation. Five (!) armed service bands stood by. But, alas! “Simon became listless, and a vet was urgently sent for,” recounts Hickenbottom. “He was given an injection and tablets, and then seemed to sleep. His carer sat with him all night; but by the morning of 28 November he had died. The vet felt that he would have recovered from the virus he had suffered had his heart not been weakened by his war wounds. Maybe the fact that he was in a strange place, rather than at sea on his ship with his friends, did not help.”
Obituaries to Simon were published in all national newspapers. Time magazine carried a photograph and a tribute. Simon was buried in the animal cemetery at Ilford, east of London. A specially-made casket, draped with the Union flag, was lowered into the ground. Father Henry Ross, rector of St Augustine’s, conducted the funeral rites. A wooden marker was placed on the hallowed spot, with the legend:
In honoured memory of Simon, DM
Died November 28, 1949.
Now here’s a thing: nowhere in the coverage of Simon’s life and death does the question seem to have been raised of what right HMS Amethyst had to be sailing 100 miles up a Chinese river bristling with guns port and starboard.
If, in 1949, a ship of the People’s Liberation Navy had sailed 100 miles up the Thames, Red Star fluttering, guns trained on Kingston, Henley, Teddington, Newberry, etc., and Wang, the ship’s cat, stalking indigenous rodents with murder in mind, would not the patriotic anger of the Daily Express have been roused to such a pitch of incandescence as to put the entire print-run of the paper at risk of self-immolation? Would not the plain people of England have been mobilised to mass along the banks of the river armed with any implements that came to hand to slice and dice the intruders to death?
Let us, in light of this consideration, ponder the view of the commander of HMS Cornwall that his 15 sailors had not been captured in Iranian territory but in “our waters.” By which he meant Iraqi waters.
Let us contemplate the achievement of the Daily Express in managing to present the decision of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to release the sailors as confirmation that he is a hate-fuelled fanatic whose country may have to be bombed back to the stone age before Britons can sleep easy in their beds: “Iran’s evil president has made Britain look weak and foolish.”
Let us weigh up whether the Express was not bested for imagination by Murdoch’s Sun, which raged that the shiny suits the sailors sported at their release were a glaring “insult,” designed by politically-motivated tailors in the back streets of Teheran to make Our Boys look naff.
The dependable Mail added additional intelligence that the suits had been fashioned to force outright humiliation on the unknowing sailors: in the demented mind of fanatical Iranians, we learned, shiny suits symbolise “western decadence.”
And there was me thinking I was the bees’ knees at Borderland all those years ago. (Actually, if I’d known at the time that my shiny suit from Paddy Bannon’s symbolised western or, indeed, any other class of decadence, I’d have been well chuffed. The main reason I frequented Borderland was that it had been advertised in Fr. Robert Nash S.J.’s “The Devil at Dances,” as a den of depravity. A bad case of over-billing, it turned out.)
Mind you, it’s hard to apportion blame for any aspect of coverage of Tinkerbelle and the Lost Boys: fundamental truth having been abandoned from the outset, no clear moral perspective on the experience was ever possible.
What’s happening in the Gulf is that the folks who fed us lies to facilitate their war on Iraq are now trying to shape public acceptance of an assault on Iran. Towards this end, a deluge of dishonesty has been let loose. Even relatively well-informed citizens have come to believe that Iran is in breach of agreements or obligations of some sort on the development of its nuclear programme.
In fact, Iran has violated no treaty or undertaking of any sort. What news-readers refer to as “defiance of the international community” is Iran’s withdrawal from a November 2004 agreement to suspend nuclear fuel enrichment. Iran entered into this agreement with Germany, Britain and France (the “E3”) in the hope of moving towards normal diplomatic and trading relations with the West, in particular with the US. The voluntary nature of the suspension was explicit in the text: “The E3/EU recognise that this suspension is a voluntary confidence-building measure and not a legal obligation.”
But more than a year of E3-Iran meetings failed to soften the US stance. Instead, Washington regularly disparaged the “softness” of the European powers. US threats to Iran were expressed in increasingly belligerent terms, and became positively bellicose after the democratic election of Ahmadinejad as president in June 2005.
In February last year, Iran offered to give up industrial-scale enrichment and to settle for small-scale production and the importation of nuclear fuel from Russia. The following month, the Bush Administration responded that it wouldn’t tolerate any enrichment at all by Iran. A further month on, Ahmadinejad declared that Iran had resumed enrichment.
This is the basis on which western news outlets routinely accuse Iran of breaching treaties, “defying the international community,” threatening its neighbours (anybody name a country Iran has invaded?) and so forth.
The Iranians’ decent treatment of the 15 captured sailors blunted the propaganda pitch of cheer-leaders for the war-plans of Blair and Bush. This is the reason for the incoherence and shiftiness with which the story of Tinkerbelle and the Lost Boys has been presented.
Let us now, for a moment, ruminate on the moral vacuity of a pop singer who so assiduously promotes liars and war-mongers as cool idealists (“Blair and Brown—the Lennon and McCartney of British politics!”) that they reward him with a bauble signifying association with the rape of continents.
Let us reflect on the fact that not one of a large and representative sample of Dublin writers, film-makers, business executives and freelance celebrities who assembled in the U2-owned Clarence Hotel to mark the pop-singer’s acceptance of this token of imperial approval managed to summon the half-ounce of self-respect it would have taken to stand up and shout, “Shame!”
Let us NOW look back and recognise the relative moral grandeur of Simon, patriot, heroic mouser, and true aristocrat.
EAMONN McCANN lives in Ireland and can be reached at: Eamonderry@aol.com