By David Flin
In Belfast during the Troubles, it was the Europa. In Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, it was the Commodore. In Dhaka during Bangladeshi Independence, it was the Inter-Continental. In Baghdad during the Second Gulf War, it was the Al-Hambra. In Tehran in the build-up to the Iranian Revolution, it was a small coffee shop that had no name.
In each case, a rather unpleasant war-zone or close equivalent. In each case, a place where the pilot fish of such situations gather. Mercenaries, news reporters, gun-runners, drug-dealers, black marketeers, intelligence agents, and colourful characters who would be at home in any hive of scum and villainy.
In each case, the territory seems by some unaccountable means to be agreed by all to be neutral territory, an area free from direct attack. More or less. It was by no means a given, but generally it was as safe as anywhere is in the middle of an extended war zone.
No-one in their right minds voluntarily goes into such a place. To give an example, on arriving at the Commodore Hotel, the staff ask a new arrival if they would prefer a room on the sniper side or the car bomb side.
Since it’s obvious no-one in their right minds voluntarily goes into such a place, it stands to reason that the people who do go to such places are most kindly described as “colourful”. Insane is usually a better word.
From a story-telling point of view, this is an underused way of showing a conflict. It’s probably only relevant for the time since the introduction of mass armies, but within that framework, it enables the writer to convey a lot of information about all sides of the conflict without resorting to the “As you know, Bob,” problem.
These places are generally recognised by those on the spot to be neutral territory. That doesn’t make them safe places. Such safety as there is comes courtesy of the goodwill of the warring factions, who are generally short on goodwill.
What does this have to do with Alternate History?
If one is writing an overview-type of AH, with the emphasis on the sweep of history, where the focus is on the movements of armies and of grand strategic developments, then the answer is very little.
If the AH story is a character-driven one, then it becomes a viable stage. As a mechanism for imparting information, as well as introducing colourful characters, it is invaluable.
The big trouble is that there aren’t that many good descriptions of such places and there aren’t that many people with direct experience of them. David Cornwell (also known as John le Carré) is one, and he writes of several such in his book The Pigeon Tunnel.
Don’t expect humanitarian motivations to flourish, and be prepared to be surprised when they show up. Sometimes you get a mixture of both. To take just one example:
Beirut in 1976 wasn’t a city. It might have been called a city by people who weren’t there. It might have been labelled as a city on maps. It was not a city. It was a collection of warring fiefdoms, bereft of rules and with any veneer of civilisation torn away. Car bombs were a daily occurrence, usually of the double tap variety. The double tap involved one car bomb being set off with another close by. Once the first car bomb went off, people would come to help those wounded in the blast. The second car bomb would then be exploded, catching those coming to help in a blast.
Despite this threat, you’d frequently find people risking their lives to help get badly wounded people clear before the second blast. A humanitarian gesture somewhat offset by the fairly standard practise of relieving the wounded of valuables such as rings.
Of all the colourful guests in the Commodore Hotel from 1976 onwards was neither colourful nor human. Coco was a Grey African parrot and had mastered the ability of whistling an eerily accurate copy of the sound of an incoming artillery shell. Imagine the hilarity this caused among the experienced hotel guests when the new arrivals ducked hurriedly for cover.
When whisky ran low in the hotel – a frequent occurrence due to the presence of so many journalists – the hotel staff applied a strict priority system over who got first call on whisky until new supplies arrived. Inevitably, top of the list was Coco, who was fond of whisky mixed in with his (or maybe her – the question never really arose) seed.
It was after my time, but in the 1980s, Coco was kidnapped. A reward of $100 was offered for its safe return, but to no avail. Coco’s fate remains unsolved to this day. To put that $100 into perspective, the acknowledged ransom for a kidnapped aid worker was $50.
One needed a rather special sense of humour to survive. The hotel lobby was a place where many transactions were conducted. That was a necessary compromise. Without it, the various militiamen wouldn’t have permitted it to remain as a neutral place. Despite the fact that the reception desk was sandbagged and had a heavy machine gun in place to deter petty theft, the militiamen outgunned the combined resources of the hotel and guests. When militiamen came in to make whatever deal they were involved in, you frequently got the very humorous joke of them tossing you a live grenade as a gratuity. Usually, the pin was left in place.
I’ve never seen such skilled catching as took place in that lobby. This was Commodore humour at its finest. During the 1990s, when the England cricket team was not very good, I often wondered how much the fielding would be improved by such a training regime.
Frankly, there are several books worth of material in the Commodore alone, to say nothing of similar venues in other places. Yet I don’t think I’ve seen an AH equivalent.
It could be a remarkably effective way of slowly revealing the background to an AH.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow and the Editor of Comedy through the (P)Ages