Archive for the 'First World War' Category

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

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On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

Helen Zenna Smith: Not So Quiet…

August 17, 2017

This novel was apparently written in a few weeks, based upon the diaries of a woman who had served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front; it appeared a little while after the much more well-known All Quiet on the Western Front by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque and was intended as a version of this novel from a female viewpoint. Certainly the similarities are noticeable. But it stands very much as a powerful, if little known work, in its own right. It shocked me when I first read it, and has lost none of that power.

Women were recruited as volunteers to work in various roles near or at the front; nursing and ambulance-driving were the most perilous because they meant being very close to the action. Many middle-class and upper-class women served, and they saw at first-hand the products of mechanised warfare; they cared for and tried to repair broken men; they were fully aware of the horrors.

We follow the transformation of a respectable English woman, shocked by what she has to deal with and also the unbridgeable gulf between what she sees and knows and what the do-gooding matrons back home with their committees imagine. Here she is as determined as Siegfried Sassoon to let everyone back home know the reality, and the hypocrisy, even though we are more than ten years after the end of the war. The bitterness comes across even more strongly than Sassoon’s, and the overt anti-war stance and criticism of politicians extends even to some of the young men due to go into action.

Initially we gain the impression that some self-censorship of the horrific details is going on, but this is merely to lull the reader into a false sense of security: alluded to obliquely at first, the full horrors hit us as she describes the unloading of the ambulances at the field hospital, in her mind addressing her mother back home, whom she wishes could see and experience what she is actually going through. There is no heroism or glory here: the narrator is terrified a lot of the time and admits to this…

Behind the scenes everything is about keeping up appearances, whilst sexuality rears its head and lesbianism lurks in the background; this last is a little muted and some critics have accused the writer of seeking to normalise the heterosexual: this may be true, and the context is complex, and also not what I’m interested in here. What does come across is the extraordinary pressure on both men and women when so close to the possibility of death: the narrator’s sister has to procure the money for an abortion, and the narrator herself chooses to sleep with an officer heading to the front lines the next day. Later on in the novel she learns that her fiancé has not only been blinded and lost a leg from the hip, but has also been emasculated.

There is a feeling – partly from the hectic pace of the novel and the nature of the narrative style – of great honesty in the narrator as she shares her experiences and feelings, including the death of her friend in an air-raid, and she raises the question of what is to become of her once the war is over. I mentioned similarities with Remarque’s novel earlier, and this is one of them: in All Quiet, Paul wonders what his generation will be like after the war; he is never to find out, of course, although the author does explore the lives of those who returned. There is also the return home: Paul returns on leave and hates it because he has nothing to say to those back home, who are incapable of understanding; so too the heroine of Not So Quiet, who is sent back home on sick leave, and clashes with parents, relatives and all those who are ‘doing their bit’ to support the ‘war effort’ without knowing what that actually entails.

Women like her are mentally and emotionally destroyed just as the men are, even though they may have missed out on the actual fighting in the trenches. Ultimately everything is taken from her, and although I rate All Quiet as probably the most powerful and effective novel that came out of the Great War, there are enough punches to the gut in this book to make it a worthy challenger for the title.

Siegfried Sassoon: A Working Party

August 13, 2017

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.

Voices would grunt `Keep to your right — make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.

A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.

Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town,
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.

That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.


He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out. 

Inevitably I pair Owen with Sassoon, in lots of different ways. Sassoon was Owen’s mentor at Craiglockhart, and in so many ways the pupil outshone the master. That’s not what I’m really interested in, though; what catches my eye and ear are the similarities and the differences, given the closeness of their experiences. And my writing about my chosen Owen poems over the last few days has called this particular one of Sassoon’s back to my memory, because it’s one of those where Sassoon seems to me to come closest to Owen’s way of writing.

It has the same feel in its structure as Disabled: a series of moments both connected and not, like slides, but there is a major difference, which for me adds to the poem’s power and effectiveness. Halfway through the poem we’re told of the man’s death, and then the poem shifts almost into slow motion, or action-replay mode as Sassoon shows us just how easily and swiftly a single life is ended on the western front. Notice the almost repetition of the opening line at the start of the fourth section. And there isn’t even any actual fighting going on…

The pace of the poem is slow, matching the painful trudging up to the front to repair the wire: lengthy lines and occasional incomplete rhymes develop the effect. Present participles ‘sliding… poising… groping‘ show us the difficulty of moving, as do long vowel sounds ‘lurched…pawed‘. He uses alliteration peered…puffing…point, swallowed…sense…sight…stooped…swore…sagging – why?

Two sections set the scene in considerable detail. I’m reminded of Owen’s The Sentry here, too. Then all is illuminated – look at the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘shining whiteness‘ – and then the flare dies out: ‘the slow silver moment died in dark‘. Onomatopoeia echoes the rifle-shots through short, sharp vowel-sounds: ‘split…crack…sing; how do shells come ‘calmly? and burst with ‘hollow bang? I’m really aware of Sassoon using the language to its fullest extent, in terms of poetic techniques, in the same way as Owen does, in this poem.

Somehow the man is killed: look at the stresses ‘now…never, and the now is at the start of the line and gets extra emphasis from its position. Depersonalised in death: a ‘jolting lump‘, and then humanised again briefly: ‘beyond all need of tenderness and care‘.

Then we are into the second half of the poem and Sassoon is magnificent here. Like Owen, the focus is on a single individual and that’s where the full power of the poem comes from, just as in The Sentry, Dulce et Decorum Est, or Disabled especially. It’s the ordinariness that Sassoon stresses in his detailed description in the fourth stanza – a ‘decent chap‘, looking forward to a drink and a sleep; again the alliteration makes this more appealing ‘draughty dug-out, frowsty…fumes.

The final stanza is slow-motion until the suddenness of the last two lines, with the effective combination of the rhyme ‘head/lead and the alliteration of ‘split… startled and ‘life..lead and the permanence of ‘all went out.

Although Sassoon does the bitter and sardonic very well in lots of different short poems where he rubs his readers’ faces in the horrors that they don’t know and can’t imagine, I find him much more moving and effective in longer poems where he takes the time to create a sense of time, place and atmosphere, and makes us care about the fate of an individual, just like his pupil Owen; in a war where casualties are counted in telephone numbers, we need this personal angle to draw us in and make us realise the full horror.

Wilfred Owen: The Send-off

August 12, 2017

The Send-off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

A very low-key poem, this one, and another of my favourites, but for personal reasons. I’ve tracked Owen’s life and death over the years: he was born in Shrewsbury, which is where my other half comes from; in fact the Owen family home was not that far from hers. So I’ve visited the Abbey many times, in which is the original war memorial from straight after the Great War. The huge tablet on the wall lists the fallen of the Manchester Regiment among others, and Owen’s name figures there. And then in the Abbey grounds is a more recent, rather brutalist monument commemorating the attempt to cross the Sambre Canal, where Owen was killed.

I’ve visited the Maison Forestière near Le Cateau Cambrésis in northern France, which is the house in the cellar of which Owen spent his last few nights alongside his men and from where he wrote his last letter home; it’s been turned into a a very moving memorial installation. And then there is his grave, one among dozens of others all killed that same day, in the nearby village of Ors.

And for a good number of years I lived in Ripon, which during the Great War boasted a huge army camp, larger than the city itself, where Owen spent his last weeks in England, recuperating, training and polishing his poems, living in a small rented cottage near the river. From its ‘upland camp’ he headed back to France and eventually, some weeks later, to his death.

So I always referred to this one as the Ripon poem when we studied it; a small detail perhaps, but then it’s often the small details which get through to us…

Structurally it looks like a poem of four five-line stanzas and the rhyme-scheme supports this, but Owen has divided it differently. It’s only something one would notice looking at it on a printed page, unless a reader made it very obvious. But he must have had a reason: what was it? That was another thing we could do in practical criticism classes: speculate, imagine what went on in a writer’s head; no way of knowing with any certainty, of course, but we were opening ourselves up to that crucial idea, informed personal response…

The pace of the poem is noticeable: does it echo the tired march of the men on their way to war? Alliteration makes itself felt from the start. And think about the conciseness of the phrase ‘grimly gay’, how much more powerful it is than talking about putting a brave face on things… Positioning of words can be important: look at the way ‘dead‘ ends that first stanza, at the end of a half-line, so we are brought up short as we notice it, and it gains extra power from the rhyme with ‘shed‘ – maybe we’ve anticipated the word? no less powerful if we did.

Owen creates the banality of the situation. We need to recall the excitement and the cheering crowds of 1914 to get the force of the contrast: here it’s evening, the porters are ‘dull‘, the tramp ‘casual‘ and already missing the free cigarettes. The railway signals, personified in silent conspiracy against the men, are particularly chilling: ‘unmoved‘, ‘nodded‘, ‘winked‘: it’s all so casually done, because done hundreds of times before; we are in 1918 now, remember. The men are anonymous, ‘they were not ours’.

And the final stanza has an air of prophecy about it, the few that will return, the poet not among them. I’ve always found the story of Owen’s parents receiving the telegram announcing their son’s death on the day everyone else was celebrating the Armistice unbelievably sad. It matches that chilling sequence in the film O What A Lovely War which reminds us that someone had to be the very last soldier to be killed and takes us through that scene… Those who returned ‘creep back‘ – why? so marked and scarred by their experiences they wish to hide, remain unknown, undisturbed? Their lives will never be the same again. And I’m reminded by how skilfully Sebastian Faulks captured some of this mental and emotional trauma in Birdsong.

So, that was a few of my personal reflections on several of Owen’s poems that particularly speak to me.

Wilfred Owen: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

August 11, 2017

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This is, to my mind, one of Owen’s more obscure, or at least less accessible poems today, especially for students, because hardly anyone goes to Sunday School any more or is familiar with the Old Testament bible stories that are (or used to be) part of our cultural background, if not more – the story of God’s testing of Abraham, ordering him to sacrifice his own son Isaac as a test of loyalty. Let’s leave aside as irrelevant to our purposes the kind of God that would put anyone through this kind of charade, and focus on what Owen does with the story, which would, of course, have been instantly familiar to all his readers.

You need to read the story in the King James Bible; that’s the version Owen would have known and the language and syntax of today’s Tesco translations won’t make half the connections you need. So go to Genesis chapter 22 and read the story first.

Notice how Owen has chosen to use archaic words to mimic the feel of the KJV: ‘clave‘, ‘spake‘, ‘builded‘, (and I can’t help reflecting on whether this deliberately echoes the words of Blake‘s Jerusalemand was Jerusalem builded here?‘ too, or whether it’s my notion. Either way, it doesn’t matter), ‘lo!’ and so on…

Then see how Owen follows the bible story only so far before it begins to warp, to unravel, to develop a mind of its own. There is no ‘fire and iron‘ in Genesis, but there was on the Western Front. Abram bound his son ready for sacrifice, but not with the ‘belts and straps‘ of a soldier’s uniform and kit; he built an altar, but no parapets and trenches: these details of war creep in, in an almost hallucinatory distortion of the original story.

In Genesis, when Abram has passed the test, the angel of the Lord does appear and save the boy; there is the ram caught in the thicket for a substitute sacrifice, which the dutiful Abram offers to God… but not this Abram, who flies against God’s command, kills his son anyway, and half the seed of Europe.

Subtle in its development, if not in its message, Owen calls the war and its effect on future generations into question, and suggests to the reader that it is morally wrong, not what God would have wanted. And yet, this did not stop him from serving his country or doing what he perceived to be his duty to his men, right up to the very end. It’s a simple poem from the perspective of language: no fancy assonance or half-rhyme, just a bitter twist on a story his readers would have been familiar with, and perhaps all the more shocking because Owen chose to meddle with a story from the Bible.

Wilfred Owen: Disabled

August 10, 2017

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark, 
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey, 
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park 
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn, 
Voices of play and pleasure after day, 
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him. 

About this time Town used to swing so gay 
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees, 
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,- 
In the old times, before he threw away his knees. 
Now he will never feel again how slim 
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands. 
All of them touch him like some queer disease. 

There was an artist silly for his face, 
For it was younger than his youth, last year. 
Now, he is old; his back will never brace; 
He’s lost his colour very far from here, 
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry, 
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race 
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh. 

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg, 
After the matches, carried shoulder-high. 
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg, 
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why. 
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts, 
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg, 
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts 
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg; 
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years. 
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt, 
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears 
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts 
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes; 
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears; 
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits. 
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers. 

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal. 
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits 
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul. 

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes, 
And do what things the rules consider wise, 
And take whatever pity they may dole. 
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes 
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole. 
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come 
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Whenever I had to teach a unit of First World War literature, either at GCSE or in the sixth form, I used to begin with this poem; it took me a few years to make it a fixed plan, as it were, but eventually I came to see just how perfect an introduction to the subject it was for them. You see, the hero of the poem is nineteen (perhaps younger), so younger than them, and at nineteen, everyone thinks they are immortal… And, at a certain moment in time, there was briefly a hit song connected with being a soldier in the Vietnam War, called ‘Nineteen’, which reinforced my point even further.

It is a brilliant poem: let’s look at some of the reasons why…

I like the way it’s structured: several sections, which you’d be hard put to call verses. Each one stands separate from the others, a separate moment of the day, train of thought, almost like a cameo, or a brief film-clip. Further continuity isn’t necessary for the poem’s effectiveness. In Blunden’s edition of the collected poems, they are separated from each other by a row of asterisks, accentuating the separation.

When you read – and you have to read aloud to receive the full effect of Owen’s mastery of the language and poetic technique – the alliterations and the pauses are striking. Notice the words which receive stress. Why is it a ‘wheeled‘ chair, not just a wheelchair? What does the chilling succinctness of ‘legless, sewn short at elbow‘ actually tell us of the extent of the boy’s injuries?

Time shifts into the second section; we are in his past, his memories, the impressionistic lamps ‘budded‘ in the ‘light blue trees‘. He remembers girls, as a teenage boy would. Owen’s hints at the world of sex and intimacy are subtle ‘slim| girls’ waists‘, ‘how warm their subtle hands‘; none of this excitement or pleasure for him ever again… will the boy die wondering?

Next, we are back with a narrator, perhaps. Certainly we’ve shifted from the memories of before the war. We’re told he was handsome; age and youth now contrasted, he has lost his colour: we are back to the ‘ghastly‘ grey of the first section briefly. He was a sporty type, which made him more attractive to girls, and in the key fourth section we learn about the turning point: drunk one day, he joins up, maybe to please a girl, maybe imagining the ceremonial uniform. Owen’s quite clear, he wasn’t thinking what signing up really meant. Again we have the chilling brevity, ‘Smiling they wrote his lie’: listen to how the stresses fall in that half-line, and how much detail is contained in those few words. We’re invited to reflect on what ‘fears| of Fear‘ might actually mean: is this something we can possibly understand?

The three lines of the fifth section are for me the saddest, and the bitterest in Owen’s poem; so short you can be past them without thinking full about the implications.’Some‘ cheered him. Who is that solemn man? a clergyman, obviously, which makes us reflect on preparation for death, perhaps. He thanks the boy – for what? That shocks me deeply. How does the boy respond to being thanked? And the priest enquires about his soul, because there’s not much body worth enquiring about…

Then there is the closing loneliness of the final section: he cannot do anything for himself, he is totally dependent on – or at the mercy of (whichever you like) others – all he can do is look, and think. And he is back with his thoughts about girls, women, the life he has lost.

Owen was committed to telling the truth of what he saw and knew about war. He doesn’t rub his readers’ noses in things quite as deliberately as Sassoon does, but his selection of details and his careful use of the wealth of our language means that no careful reader can escape his unspoken question: was it really worth it. I’d argue strongly that this is one of his very best poems.

 

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

On a certain lack of understanding

May 4, 2017

I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed by war, but I do find myself thinking about it a lot, and I suppose given my family’s history, it’s not that surprising: my father was born and spent his early years in a village pretty much on the Eastern front line in the Great War, and ended up in England as a result of the Second World War, during which my mother was a child. I’ve recently been on my annual walking holiday in the Ardennes, and each time I’ve learned a little more about the Battle of the Ardennes in winter 1944-45, the enormous casualties and the horrors civilians endured during this last gasp of the Nazi war machine.

The European project emerged from the ashes. It was idealistic: the twice-repeated horrors of the first half of the twentieth century should never happen again. Initially it was mainly an economic project, binding countries together with links and ties that eventually began to grow into a more political union. Britain was outside for a long time, a nation that had become great, building an empire on conquest and commerce and trade, and gradually losing it again. Britain had stood alone for two years, unconquered; some people felt we had ‘won’ the war. But we wanted the trade advantages of the ‘Common Market’ and strove to gain admittance; we wanted the chance to trade with a huge and growing market and make more money. I don’t think that, as a nation, we ever really understood the real thinking behind the project. We hadn’t been conquered and devastated twice in thirty years.

1973: we joined. The EEC became the European Community and then the European Union. We seem to have done well commercially and financially, but we never really wanted the rest of the project, which we seemed to see as interference in our affairs, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels wasting ‘our’ money; we never really understood what was behind it, and preferred to hang on to the US coat-tails instead. We could have been in there in partnership with the French and the Germans developing and shaping a great project. Who knows, if we had played our part, we might now have a better and more democratic Europe, more to our liking.

2016: we decided to leave. We will leave, and lose many, if not most of those trade advantages that attracted us in the first place. Talk about cutting off the nose to spite the face…

I am deeply saddened by the turn of events, and have come to feel that as a nation we don’t understand Europe, we probably don’t belong in Europe, and that it may well be better for Europe that we are outside again. I don’t believe our politicians have a clue about what they are doing. I wish more of my fellow-citizens did understand, and shared the wish to build something worthwhile. I don’t have any illusions about the EU being perfect – far from it – but that doesn’t make it any less a noble idea.

My travels: B for Bartoszyce

January 9, 2017

Once upon a time there was a region of Germany called East Prussia. What I’ve read about it makes it sound like a rural idyll, small towns, well-organised peasantry, prosperous, with a large city – Koenigsberg – as the provincial capital. One of my very favourite novels, Ernst Weichert’s A Simple Life, is set in rural East Prussia; it’s another of those magical books that capture the vanishing of an era, like Lampedusa’s The Leopard, or Josef Roth’s The Radetzky March. The population was mixed German and Polish, proportions varying according to sub-regions, and various bits were plebiscited post-WW1; most chose Germany. The whole area had been mixed nationalities for several hundred years, at least since the times of the Teutonic knights. And all this was to change, irrevocably, in 1945…

My uncle, and his parents, were taken by the Germans as forced farm labourers to East Prussia during the war. His parents – my grandparents – returned home; my uncle didn’t, and ended up living in what had been East Prussia until it was divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, and all the Germans forcibly expelled. After the way the Germans had treated the Poles in the war, this ethnic cleansing was inevitable, understandable, and probably justified. But it changed the area forever, as, indeed, so much of Eastern Europe was irrevocably transformed: the people went, the buildings remained; former East Prussia was now populated by Poles moved out of the territories Poland lost to the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Lithuania. The town of Bartenstein became Bartoszyce. It’s a medium-sized town now, with a typical gothic town square and brick gothic churches. Almost all trace of Germans has been eradicated. On my first visit there in 1970 I remember being very shocked that the old German area of the town cemetery had been bulldozed; all the broken gravestones were higgledy-piggledy, in vast heaps…

It felt like quite a sleepy little place, partly because the border with the Soviet Union was less than ten miles away. The main railway line that used to link Bartenstein with Koenigsberg had been dynamited; there was a single freight track remaining. So it was the edge of nowhere, really. The roads were appalling. A mound where a castle used to stand, a river, forests, a lake, farmland. And where our family lived. Further east one moves into the beautiful Masurian Lakes region. I’ve been back several times. It’s still a backwater, still right next door to Russia, more prosperous than it was, and visited by hordes of wealthy Russians doing their shopping; unemployment is at least 20%, so it’s not part of the better-off new Poland yet. And for some reason, one of the main streets is still Karl Marx Street, over a quarter of a century after the fall of communism…

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