An old gun

The consolations of monuments

There's an old Russian cannon I sit by in the park, usually before dawn, idling my emotional motor in these pandemic times.

It has a thick trunk of pock-marked cast-iron that staunchly points over the track of running and cycling Aussies, a thickened angry finger stabbed towards the East from whence it came, made somehow light and elegant by the curlicued iron carronade in which it is set.

As the sun rises, I imagine its one eye taking in the mists rising from the grounds, and memory rising with it of Crimean mists, part fog, part gritty smoke spat from the mouths of other cannon whose silence had fallen over the battlefield.

The grand gun was reward from the British government to the people of the colony of New South Wales for the funds they had raised for the Crimean War of 1853-55.

Along with the flickering mercy light of Florence Nightingale and Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, the war fertilised the reportage of a 26 year-old Leo Tolstoy, already blooded by years in the Caucasus, fighting Muslims who rigidly resisted Imperial Russian excursion, and who arrived in time for the final fall of the Russian forces in the cannonading of the the city of Sevastopol's Malakov redoubt in September 1855.

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Count Lev Tolstoy, 1854.

In his Sevastapol Sketches Tolstoy wrote, “On the earth, torn up by a recent explosion, were lying, here and there, broken beams, crushed bodies of Russians and French, heavy cast-iron cannon overturned into the ditch by a terrible force, half buried in the ground and forever dumb, bomb-shells, balls, splinters of beams, ditches, bomb-proofs, and more corpses, in blue or in gray overcoats, which seemed to have been shaken by supreme convulsions . . .”

I like to think that Tolstoy's smoked and muddied greatcoat might have brushed against this cannon.

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Gun no. 31585, a Smooth Bore Muzzle-Loading (SBML) 36-pounder iron gun with its elegant carronade, made in 1852 by the Imperial Alexandrovski foundry at Olonets. The cannon is stamped with the double eagle of the Russian Tsar and the initials `MA' – "Morskaya Artilleria", or "naval artillery." His brother gun no. 31593 sits just across.

Cannon number 31585 sits dumb, just as Lev wrote, the blood of horses and men long washed off its iron length, the body raised from the splintered wreckage and wasted lives of mere men who sank forgotten into the mud and stone, unmarked like puffs of dust blown across a field by a brief wind.

Regenerated as a monument – to what? To war? Conquest? Empire? Surely not to life – the beautiful people of Sydney jog and walk and cavort past indifferently and without curiosity with their Tibetan Mastiffs, Bluetick Coonhounds, and Cockadoodles, those breathing and highly-bred insignia of careless wealth.

I feel its reptilian cool in the pre-dawn, and the heat it takes on as the sun forges a new day, and it seems to me to be, in some way, alive in a very different way with time, memory, and a full pattern of human folly written along its speckled ferrous hulk.

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Franz Roubaud's panoramic 1904 painting The Siege of Sevastopol. The prone gun in the foreground is just such the kind...

When I was a 12 year-old stage actor in Marcel Pagnol's "Fanny," a fellow cast member, an ancient and semi-famous Scotsman bred from English repertory theatre, grasped me by the hand and said, "you've now shaken hands – with a man who shook hands – with a man who shook hands – with a man who shook hands – with a man who charged with the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaklava."

I've never forgotten that clasp with time past, so distant and impressionistically fragmented, way beyond our arrested human grasp of Time, and yet passed from hand-to-my small boy-hand in just a few quick generations so that history felt human, immediate, and as blood warm as the cannon's girth in the Australian morning sun.

I read recently about Jo van Gogh-Bonger, the woman who curated and studied her brother-in-law Vincent van Gogh into existence, and without which his collected work may just have been just a collection of dispersed, destroyed, or painted-over-for-other-work canvasses – just another cannon in the field of dead souls.

She educated herself about his work through the letters that had survived his suicide, and realised that Vincent experienced the world in an entirely different way from other people, a synaesthesia which made no distinction between the rocks and the sky, or people and a wheat field.

So as I sit by that old gun, I feel the firm clasp of that old actor, his will to have me understand, and it seems that all the intervening years have melted away in the foundry of Time, and that the gallant six hundred are there across the dawn fog of the park, the clinking bridles and snorts of their mounts, poised to charge and die.

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#tolstoy #sevastapol #vangogh #monuments