Saturday, 10 May 2014

Before Yossarian

It’ll soon be August 2014. You're about to hear a lot about the First World War - a war that still raises some tricky questions for those in power. Two great books from 1916 show us why

I met B. when I was 12. He had retired, but at 70 still did a little tutoring, and came to the school two or three days a week to help the weaker candidates for public-school entry. In the autumn of 1969 he started to teach myself and another boy Latin and French.

British troops at Ancre, October 1916 (Lt. Ernest Brooks/Imperial War Museum)
For several periods a week the two of us left our class to join our tutor, who struggled to interest us in French pronouns. It was a moist, clammy winter. This was during the three years when, as an experiment, the clocks were not put forward. In December, one went to school in near-darkness and watched the dawn through cracks in the dirty-grey clouds. I was a dreadful pupil (I would leave school at 17), but B. lost his temper with me just once and I am grateful for his forbearance. Still, he was a strict man and said little that was not business.  He was short and pugnacious with a round form and a partridge face with a sharp nose and eyes that bored straight into you. He always seemed grave; but looking back across the years I am sure there was a ghost of a smile that never quite went away.

One French lesson towards the end of that winter he was talking, for some reason, of the Seine.  “I travelled all the way up the river by boat once,” he recalled. “When I was 15.” I asked if he had been on holiday, assuming he was with his parents.

“No,” he said. “I was going to the Western Front.”

“Oh, were you in that, sir?” I asked. 

Quite suddenly, his eyes glistened and rivulets of tears appeared on his cheeks.. “Punishment for my sins,” he said. “Punishment for all my sins.”  He repeated this phrase over and over again. We sat, embarrassed, for several minutes. At length he recovered himself and placed his glasses on his nose.

“Irregular pronouns,” he said. He was quite restored, and never mentioned the matter again.

The school was and is well-known, and he taught there for many years, so I hoped I might find some reference to B. on the internet – at least a brief obituary, which would tell me when he died. But I can’t find much. There are just two references that I am almost sure are to him.  One, from before the First World War, is in the journal of a small preparatory school in Pangbourne. It is, as school magazines always have been, mildly bonkers, and full of trivia, news of Old Boys and the visits of the great and the good. The Hon Charles Rothschild visits the school with his father, who turns out to be an enthusiastic butterfly-hunter and captures a Purple Hairstreak on the school grounds. Lord Baden-Powell also visits, and there is a flurry of excitement in the spring: “The Daily Mail Aeroplane occasioned some little excitement on May 17th. It was clearly visible a long way off... and looked, as everybody remarked, like a large dragon-fly.” It is also recorded that Earl Roberts kindly offered to present a copy of his book, Forty-One Years in India, to the boy who had done best all round at the school. Our man was the recipient. If it was him, he was twelve years old; the same age as the century. He would journey up the Seine just three years later, one of many who lied about their age to flock to the colours.  

I can find no further reference, save for an online cricket archive that lists a man of his name and initials as having played for Dorset between 1927 and 1934. There is almost nothing else; he must have died before the internet arrived and does not exist. 

At about the same time I was taught by B., I read a magazine interview with the writer Compton Mackenzie, best-remembered today for his 1947 book Whisky Galore, and for being satirised by D.H. Lawrence in the short story The Man Who Loved Islands. By this time, Mackenzie was in his late 80s and confined to what he called “my last island” – a four-poster in at his home in Edinburgh, where he would die a year or two later. In the interview, he said: “I have sat upon the knee of a veteran of Waterloo.”  I suppose it is just possible that he had. In my own old age people will find it extraordinary that I was taught by a survivor of the Great War. It will be remote, and may not influence our thinking, and our self-image, any more than Wellington’s campaigns do today.

That is a pity, because it should do.  Especially in Britain in this centenary year, as we will be asked to remember it in the way that those in authority over us think we should.  As I write this, I have open a web page from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The headlines on the DCMS page include: “Prime Minister urges public to plant poppies for First World War commemorations”,  and “Pickles [Eric Pickles, a UK Government minister] backs campaign to restore Victoria Cross hero graves”.  No coincidence perhaps that the DCMS’s policy statement includes the following: “We believe that people can come together in strong, united communities if we encourage and support them to have shared aspirations, values and experiences”. So the war centenary should be jolly useful.

West in 1912 (George Charles Beresford/National Portrait Gallery)
Most British people would want to  commemorate 1914-1918, and I am no exception; in fact it would be disgraceful if we didn't. But I am not sure if politicians are the right people to do it.  What I have been doing, in this anniversary year, is reading about the War. There’s plenty of choice, of course, but I’ve started with two. One is by Rebecca West. Like many people, I knew of West but only through her famous book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.  Born in London in 1892, she had little formal education, her family being in genteel poverty. She trained as an actress, but seems to have acted little, becoming a sufragette and then the lover of H.G. Wells. She turned to writing and had a distinguished career in serious journalism. She also wrote a number of novels, but it seems unlikely that most are widely read now. The Return of the Soldier, however, has never quite been forgotten and was filmed, with a stellar cast, in 1982. Her first book, it was published in 1918.

The plot may be summarised as follows. Two women are in a country house just outside London on a bright day in the early spring of 1916. They are well-to-do; Kitty is the attractive wife of Baldry, the master of the house, and Jenny, less pretty, is his cousin.  The latter has started to worry that they have heard nothing of Baldry, a serving soldier, for several weeks. Kitty assures her that the War Office would have informed her if there were anything amiss. They are interrupted by the arrival of Margaret, a dowdy woman of limited means from a bleak suburb nearby. She informs them that Baldry is, in fact, in hospital in Boulogne, that he has lost his memory after an explosion, and that he has regressed some 15 years to the time when, as a young man, he loved her.  That is why the War Office has not been in touch; it is Margaret to whom Baldry has written, and it is her that he wishes to see.

2011 cover design by Gary Redford for Virago
Baldry is brought home, and is indifferent to his wife; a little less so to his cousin, who he does remember, albeit as a young woman – but he spends his time with Margaret, and is unconcerned that she is now a middle-aged, married, suburban dowd. It becomes clear that he still loves her. Kitty, the spurned wife, calls in a series of doctors to try to bring back his memory and restore him to normal. If she succeeds, he will of course return to the front. Cousin Jenny understands this, and feels growing sympathy for Margaret: “While her spell endured, they could not send him back into the hell of war,” she says (she is the book’s narrator). “This wonderful, kind woman held his body as safely as she held his soul.” It slowly becomes clear that, by trying to restore him to “normal” and send him back to war, Kitty is being monstrously selfish. The lover is right; the wife is wrong; restoration to “normal” means death. This was a brave message for 1918.

Not everyone has read the book this way. Some have seen it as a clinical description of combat trauma. Others will see a feminist message here – that the dependence of women on men distorts the behaviour of both, and is even a driver for war. There is plenty of evidence in the book for this interpretation and besides, West was indeed a strong proponent of women’s rights. But perhaps we shouldn’t apply modern labels to people who pre-date them. In any case, the book does not have the feel of one with an agenda; it is driven by its characters, and they are well-drawn.

Moreover there is an understated lyricism in West’s writing that makes the book poignant and vivid. The sequences in which Baldry remembers his early courtship of Margaret 15 years earlier are set on Monkey Island at Bray, in a curve of the Thames, where Margaret’s father is landlord of the Monkey Island Inn. The place was real enough, and still is. Today it is an hotel and conference centre just a mile or so from the M4 motorway that runs from London to Bristol and thence into Wales. West and Wells frequented it immediately before the war, but one suspects it was already rather posher than it is in the book, in which it is a quiet country pub catering to the odd passing boatman. The young Baldry describes how it was reached:

...a private road... followed a line of noble poplars down to the ferry. Between two of them... there stood a white hawthorn. In front were the dark-green, glassy waters of an unvisited backwater, and beyond them a bright lawn set with many walnut-trees and a few great chestnuts, well lighted with their candles... Well, one sounded the bell that hung on a post, and presently Margaret in a white dress would come out of the porch and would walk to the stone steps down to the river. Invariably, as she passed the walnut-tree that overhung the path, she would pick a leaf, crush it, and sniff the sweet scent...

To anyone who knows the countryside in the south of England, this is evocative.  In April, May and June the sky turns a deeper blue and the trees and hedgerows come alive; the white and pink chestnut candles are a delight, as are the white patches of hawthorn.  

There are other key elements in The Return of the Soldier, and they link it to the second of these two books. But first, to that other book.

Frederic Manning is an oddly elusive figure. Born in Australia in 1882, he migrated to England as a teenager. A friend, at various times, of Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and T. E. Lawrence, he was regarded by many contemporaries as a fine writer; but he was affected throughout his life by the weak chest that eventually killed him. Also, he drank. When he died in 1935 at the age of 52, he was really only known for one book, and little else that he left behind is widely read today.

That one masterwork was published in 1929 under the title The Middle Parts of Fortune; soon afterwards, an expurgated version was brought out as Her Privates We. Today it can be found as either. Both titles are taken from the same dialogue in Hamlet:

Guildenstern: On Fortune’s cap we are not the very button.
Hamlet: Nor the soles of her shoe?
Rosencrantz: Neither, my lord.
Hamlet: Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?
Guildenstern: Faith, her privates we.
Hamlet: In the secret parts of fortune? O, most true; she is a strumpet.

British troops bathe at Vaux, July 1916 (Lt John Warwick Brooke/Imperial War Museum)
The book concerns Bourne, a private soldier; although not in the first person, it is written from his point of view, and we mostly see no other.  It is set later in 1916, after the Somme offensive. The book opens with Bourne groping his way, dugout by duckboard, away from the trenches as his unit is withdrawn; it finishes with their return. In between, the unit is marched from one place to another behind the lines, supposedly resting. The book is packed with petty incident in the life of a soldier. It is punctuated with darker events: a deserter is returned, perhaps to be shot; a popular officer dies on a work detail; a pointless parade leads to the death of several men when it is shelled. In between the men pick the lice off their bellies, avoid guard duty, and try to have “a bon time” at estaminets where the beer is poor. There is detail here that never made the history books. Planes communicate with troops on the ground using klaxons. Bourne’s boot is split at the heel by a cart he is towing, and he is lucky to be issued with boots that are of a higher grade, being for officers. In the estaminets, the best booze is labelled “For Officers Only”.  When the weather turns cold the men are issues with fleece-lined leather jerkins and, as a result, the lice multiply. As Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia:  “In war all soldieries are lousy, at the least when it is warm enough. The men that fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae - every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.”

Bourne, the lead character, is a little different from the others; he is better educated, there is a hint that he is not 100% English, and he is under pressure to try for a commission, having turned down one on enlisting. This matches Manning’s own life – up to a point.  Already 32 in 1914 and in poorish health, he made several attempts to enlist before finally being accepted as a footsoldier in the King’s Shropshire Regiment. In Her Privates We, Bourne maintains to a superior that he turned down a commission on enlisting as he felt he did not know enough of men to command them. In real life, Manning, an aesthete, may indeed not have done. However, he did not turn down a commission. John Francis Swain, who included a concise and informative biography of Manning in a 2001 doctoral thesis, reports that he was accepted for officer training but was caught drunk and was returned to his regiment. He joined it on the Somme in August 1916. He had missed the bloody start to the battle but he did fight. At the end of 1916 he was again sent for officer training and this time was commissioned, into the Royal Irish Regiment. However, he did not settle to life as an officer, and took again to drink. Early in 1918, he was allowed to resign his commission on health grounds. Her Privates We is based, then, on just three or four months in France. Moreover some of its early passages are wordy and philosophical. But at its best, it is a vivid portrayal of a soldier’s life.

These are two very different books, and see the war from distinct viewpoints. However, they have important threads in common. First, they say nothing explicit about the war in general; they are about individuals, and we see the war through their eyes, not from on high. Both avoid the puddingstone hell of the didactic novel.

The second thread that binds them together is class. In Her Privates We, the soldiers are reminded constantly that they are inferior. Towards the end of the book, Bourne and his fellows come across a Forces canteen with “hams, cheeses, bottled fruits, olives, sardines, everything to make the place a paradisal vision for hungry men.” Entering, he is refused service by a man who “turned away superciliously, saying that they only served officers.” Another attendant is friendlier and tells him he can get cocoa and biscuits at a shed in the yard. Bourne is incensed, knowing that the goods in the shop have been paid for by public subscription and were intended for them all. 

But the class distinctions have more subtle dangers. Bourne is pressed to apply for a commission, because it is obvious that he is not from the same background as the others.  Reluctantly, he does. Meanwhile, in the trenches, thinking he has seen a sniper, he reports to an officer. The meeting is a tense one, for they are of different rank but the same class, and the officer therefore treats him coldly. Anyone brought up in the multi-layered jungle of the British class system will recognise this. The tension between them ends with Bourne being sent on the patrol that ends the book.

Class is if anything a more explicit theme of The Return of the Soldier. Margaret, the woman to whose affections Baldry has regressed, is a woman of a lower station. Jenny and Kitty meet Margaret for the first time, when she first calls at the Baldry house: She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes. The sticky straw hat had only lately been renovated by something out of a little bottle bought at the chemist’s. ...Kitty shivered, then muttered: “Let’s get this over,” then ran down the stairs.

Margaret starts to explain that Baldry is wounded, in Boulogne, and that it seems they do not know. Her words are not taken at face value: This was such a fraud as one sees recorded in the papers ...“Heartless fraud on soldier’s wife.” Presently she would say that she had gone to some expense to come here with her news and that she was poor, and at the first generous look on our faces there would come some tale of trouble that would disgust the imagination... I cast down my eyes and shivered at the horror.

These class tensions have not been excised from British life. Anyone who thinks they have, should look at the treatment being meted out to benefits claimants over the last few years – especially those claiming sickness benefit. This wretched hatred and suspicion of the poor is as alive as it was in 1916.

There is a third strand that binds these two books. Both make a point that is made much more explicitly, and in my view less well, by a more famous book, Heller’s Catch-22. That is the whole question of the logic of war. Almost nowhere in Her Privates We does anyone express support for the war; they just accept it as a fact. They are angry with a deserter, because he left them to fight without him; his betrayal of the Crown concerns them little. More important are the commonplace stupidities of authority. A major training exercise, planned to perfection, is brought to a halt by the fury of a peasant woman because the troops are trampling her clover, and she will have no feed for the winter.  On another occasion the unit is sent up the line as a work detail, but because someone has recorded their fighting strength as their pay strength, everyone must go, including the cooks, and there is nothing to eat in the morning. War and authority are quite random:

“There’s a man dead outside, sergeant,” he said, dully.
“Are you sure he’s dead?”
“Yes, sergeant; most of the head’s gone.”

But West goes farther than Manning.  An expensive specialist has arrived to “cure” Baldry – that is to say, restore his memory. Margaret, the dowd that he loves, protests to the doctor:

“What’s the use of talking? You can’t cure him,” – she caught her lower lip with her teeth and fought back from the brink of tears, – “make him happy, I mean. All you can do is to make him ordinary.”

“I grant you that’s all I do,” he said. ..”It’s my profession to bring people... to the normal. There seems to be a general feeling it’s the place where they ought to be. Sometimes I don’t see the urgency myself.”

In Catch-22, the American airman, Yossarian, finds that there is a twisted logic: if you request relief from combat duty on the grounds of insanity, you must be wrong, because to do so is sane. West is subtler but the message is the same; by being “cured”, Baldry will be made to go back to the front, which is mad. Being restored to sanity makes Baldry do something insane.

If you have seen an old man’s tears on a winter’s day, then this year’s commemorations do strike a false note. Perhaps that’s no-one’s fault. It does not mean the dead of the First World War should not be remembered. But one does wonder whose business remembrance should be, and whether it should be handed down from above. In any case, both these books should give the politicians pause. In Her Privates We, stupidity and class conflict get Bourne killed. In The Return of the Soldier, conformity to society and authority is inherently insane.  There are two deeply subversive messages here. If I were a British government minister, I’d stay a million miles away from the First World War, lest people start thinking too hard about it and, in so doing, question the very nature and legitimacy of the authority of one human over another. 

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Mike Robbins's novel The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail) is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK). Enquiries (including requests for review copies) should be sent to