I am not one for biographies myself – I only read this one due to the fact that he was featured in one of my favourite old time Science Fiction series – the Riverworld books by Philip Jose Farmer. A series where every single person who ever lived is resurrected on one world all at once – just a fantastic premise in itself.
Farmer uses Burton as the main character of the first book (and others later on.) He writes him with such passion and paints him in such an interesting way that you can’t help but find out more about him.
So I delved into this biography. Farmer had only painted a small part of his life!
Sir Richard Francis Burton, in reality, was – complicated.
He was a man of extremes. In many ways, he was extremely admirable. On other extremely reprehensible! Unforgivably so.
He achieved more in his lifetime than many of us could on six, seven, eight lifetimes! But is beliefs were bigoted and selfish, to say the least.
He was an avid supporter of slavery! He believed women’s places were in the home or the bed! He was vehemently anti-semitic and wrote several books that still cause controversy today!
You could argue he was a product of his time but he was an intelligent man and there were plenty of contemporaries who were seeing past the constraints of their society and challenging the established views.
He was a womaniser – had affairs, frequented brothels. He was a brawler – fought at the drop of a hat earning him the nickname Ruffian Dick. He disregarded authority of all kinds and went his own way, expelled from University and often AWOL from his army career.
On the flip side.
He was one of the foremost fencers of the time inventing some new moves.
He was a masterful linguist – he was fluent in 24 languages – and in many of the different dialects of them. So much so he could pass himself off as a local in many places. He learnt much of it from prostitutes!
He was a master of disguise – not just in the fact he could dress up, makeup and talk like the locals. But that he understood them, he took the time to know their customs and etiquette, the foibles without which he would have been betrayed as an outsider. He immersed himself in their culture.
He made seven pilgrimages in his life. Studying and being accepted into various religions – understanding their teachings while not believing any of them.
He was the epitome of an explorer, making dangerous journey in strange lands, suffering illness and injury, going back for more and pressing on.
He explored and brought to light the many sexual practices from around the world. He brought much middle eastern and eastern culture to our consciousness. He brought us translations of the Thousand and One Nights, the Karma Sutra and the Perfumed Garden.
So as I said, complicated.
It brings up a problem we often have with heroes. We want them to be perfect. We want all those good qualities without the bad. But life is not like that – people are not like that.
We kind of know that – we try and accommodate it. Modern day fictional heroes have their flaws, they are dark and brooding and have emotional baggage. But nothing we can’t handle – nothing really reprehensible.
So it got me thinking. I have a real problem with Sir Richard Francis Burton. I admire what he achieved. I dislike what he was as a person. I certainly would not like not have known him personally.
And I see a reflection of modern men in this dilemma. I have written here about how men (and everyone in fact) are demonised in modern media. On the other side, we are brought up with a set of ideals about what a man should be what we should strive to be.
We end up with conflicting views – an ideal – heroic man to strive for, and the wretch the world tells us we are.
The conflict I feel when thinking about Richard Francis Burton is the conflict we feel about modern men – he is a kind of reflection of us.
We should, I think – start to accept our flaws more, try to improve and eliminate them, yes, but give ourselves a break. They are a part of us, a part of our nature. Nobody is perfect – natures abhors perfection as much as a vacuum. Perfection does not exist so let’s stop trying to achieve it.
We have handed over our passport Battered down the hatches In a siege of our own designing Some feeling smug justification Others wondering if they should have done more All responsible All of us Remember this Huddled behind our walls When the hunger strikes
Silver twines intricate wires thin and delicate stretching from misty past to infinite future Each one a story a thread of life Twisting they come together Winding, entwining Further down the road The twines form a rope Stronger Older Wiser Thicker Stiffer
Would all the earth succumb to the concrete blanket of mankind? Was that the best legacy they could leave? Was their vision that limited?
One day there would come a time when it would be more profitable to tear these trees down than to leave them. Then there would be no power on earth that would save them. Even concerned consumers couldn’t stand in the way of profits anymore.
A dagger can be subtle Not just a sharp stabbing tool Can slowly cut away supports Until they fray with time And then it only takes A single little pluck And all comes crashing down The betrayers hand unknown
A deep green canopy Back-dropped by a swathe of gold Corn Swaying in the wind An overwhelming urge To dive into that green sea The climb and swing And scream With primal joy But there is a mountain of time Between me and that green Eden Made of commitments and constraints Burdens and dependencies So it dwindles In my rear window A deep green canopy In mist
It’s not fair.
He started it, I didn't.
He called me names.
I had to do it to stop him.
How come I get told off?
It’s not fair.It’s a shameful waste.
What they do to our world today.
The forests they cut down, the whales they kill.
The fields they destroy, the new roads they build.
The way they leave their scars on the world.
It’s a shameful waste.It’s a bloody liberty.
I will not stand for it!
I earned my money fairly.
I will spend it pleasantly.
I will not stand being ripped off!
It’s a bloody liberty.It’s a downright disgrace.
The way these youngsters behave.
They will not heed my words.
They will not do as they are told.
I will leave my mark on the world.
It’s a downright disgrace.He needs no name on his grave.
He was a model man.
He stood for what we all stand for.
He spoke the words we all speak.
He was me and you and all those to come.
He needs no name on his grave.
This is the half-light The magic time Deep blue light Fresh born stars Tales weaving In expectant air Firelight dimming Shadows creep Tales weaving Dreams conceived Past is close The dead draw near To hear Tales weaving With living breath
The flesh-eating Piranha fish Is not as rare as you think Much more common than one would wish The flesh-eating piranha fish Beware, you may be their next dish If into the water you sink The flesh-eating piranha fish Is not as rare as you think
The jellyfish sighed, in a jellyfish way. It wobbled awake.
Another day after another rough night.
The little jellies were disturbed, heavy currents last night. They had needed lots of comfort. He had wrapped himself around them and rocked them to sleep against the waves. Mrs Jellyfish had bumped up against him, squishing his comfort and rumbled fitfully. Bad dreams, turbulent waters.
He stretched out, taking in as much of the early morning sunbeams as he could, building up energy for the coming onslaught…
The jellyfish swore. Riding the busy jet stream he had just missed crashing into a hard-shell and getting himself shredded. He had survived the morning scramble, the sleepy then crazed, energised little ones. The rush, the noise. Now he was squeezing and twisting himself in and out of the flow. Avoiding the less considerate travellers. Collapsing himself sliding like and eel. Rolling up like a ball to barrel through the wake of those speeding by way too fast. One day his shifting and gyrating would not be enough. He would get hit.
The jellyfish quivered. He shook himself more awake and aware. Had to concentrate more or mistakes would be made. The others didn’t help. The one who needed to be high up to avoid the sand. The one by his side who couldn’t help bumping him with every list and move. The on behind who kept expanding and contracting. He was only here because he could adapt, shift his shape to accommodate.
Another day. And tomorrow yet another. And the day after.
The suddenly the alarm. Shark! Here! that was new. It was almost exciting, but he had all the other jellies to think of, to return to, to bear up and settle down. He could not enjoy this. Not without guilt.
They scattered. All of a sudden he was alone. Alone in the deep. No shark, no one.
Sunbeams drifted down through the undulating waves. Debris floated gently on the eddies and sway. It was silent for once. Peaceful
He basked in the peace and dreamed. This he could enjoy.
There was a sudden surge of cold. A surprise current swept in and took him. He curled up and rode it but he was at its mercy. No control.
He pulsed with, fear. And excitement.
This was out of his comfort zone, out of the everyday routine and out of his volition. Therefore he was not responsible.
He let go – he could enjoy this.
The water got colder, He suddenly noticed looming, dark shapes above him. Icebergs. He has heard of them, never seen one. They looked imposing. Hard. Unyielding.
He watched them for a while as they crashed through everything in their path.
And then he made his decision.
He froze. It was a simple act of will. He became as rigid as the icebergs. Shaped himself how he wanted and never shifted his outline again.
He returned to his home. Now, everyone had to shift their stances, adjust their positions and accommodate his new shape. They had to as it was crowded with sharp points and hard corners. He was not comfortable to be near.
Now the world was shaped around him instead of the world shaping him.
He was pleased. So please he did not notice how far everyone drifted from him.
With his faithful tartan cap, its bobble flicking black dust into the air. Holding in that tousled and already greying hair. With half hundred weight of coal to deliver down the street. With his smiling green lorry, tiny windows at his feet. Walking up the narrow path, a smile upon his face. Care worn lines deep with dust, crisscrossed like living lace. Bringing warmth to many homes and our own.
Now the coal has gone but the lines remain beneath silver hair. Hands hard and black with oil and years of toil and loyal care. Has no wealth and all wealth one could want within his soft brick walls. Always ready to respond to our lost and stranded calls. Tall as a tree and as strong against every withering storm. A mere spanner in his hands his wonders to perform. Humble, with every reason to be mighty proud. With pride these words should be read to all aloud.
In an unremarkable flat Next to a noisy tapas bar Is where, perhaps, Hawkins might die Folded in his chair It will not be remembered Unlike his remarkable mind Such are the vagaries of life and death Both ridiculous and sublime
What’s behind the story What is the reason for that news Who gets the benefit, the prize The envelope with the bread The law successfully passed The company tracked greased Somebody’s life made easier At the cost of somebody else
Imagine Me I kill without discrimination for race, for age, for sex or sexuality I take saints and sinners I take your loved ones in return I deal you pain without explanation when asked the answer is that you cannot hope to understand me As a man you would lock me up revile me or label me insane But I am divine So that’s OK then
As a race We should step up To eliminate the gap Between the haves and the have-nots Between the singers with their bling and the slaves on the line Between the bankers with their blank cheques and the children in poverty For most of history most men women and children Lived in misery, died hungry. We are a disgrace As a race