Monday, June 30, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“STRANGE MEETINGS: THE POETS OF THE GREAT WAR” by Harry Rickets (first published 2010) ; “THE GREAT WRONG WAR” by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (first published 2010)
Given that this is the year when everybody is remembering the First World War, I thought I would reproduce here reviews I wrote of two relevant books when they first appeared. First is what I wrote of Harry Ricketts' Strange Meetings in the Sunday Star-Times (12 December 2010). I reproduce the review exactly as it appeared in the newspaper, except that I have restored (in bold type) a couple of phrases that were blue-pencilled out, apparently just for reasons of space.
It was one of the most memorable scenes in the Blackadder series that was set in the First World War. Lord Flashheart was complaining about the horrors of life in the trenches and his speech went something like this: “The blood! The noise! The endless poetry!!” It got a big laugh for the simple reason that soldier-poets form a big part of our collective memory of the Great War.
Think of the Second World War and the only good British soldier-poet anyone can name is Keith Douglas (killed in action 1944). But think of the First World War and you’re spoiled for choice – Wilfred Owen (killed 1918), Siegfried Sassoon (survived), Isaac Rosenberg (killed 1918), Robert Graves (survived), Ivor Gurney (survived, but went insane), Charles Sorley (killed 1915), Edward Thomas (killed 1917), Edmund Blunden (survived), Rupert Brooke (died before seeing action). And so on and so on. Thanks to numerous biographies, autobiographies and (especially) anthologies, you are given the impression that every second Tommy was just itching to effuse a patriotic sonnet or scribble a poem of protest between the whiz-bangs.
As Harry Ricketts’ extensive ‘Notes on Sources’ make plain, this ground has already been ploughed thoroughly by critics and historians. The Great War poets have gone in and out of fashion and been assessed and re-assessed. Ricketts notes that, a mere thirty years ago, the best of them were still being regarded as small beer compared with the Modernists (T.S.Eliot and others) who came after them. But their stock has risen. In Academe, it’s now quite respectable to say that Rupert Brooke wasn’t a bad poet after all, even if he did write those gooey patriotic sonnets at the outbreak of war. (The one that uses the words “England” or “English” six times always makes me feel slightly sick).
But after all this ploughing, is there anything new to say about Britain’s Great War poets?
Thankfully there is, and the newness of Ricketts’ book is in its approach. Strange Meetings takes its title from one of Wilfred Owen’s best-know poems – the one where a soldier dreams he is in Hell talking with the enemy soldier he killed. Ricketts, however, reconstructs a series of Earthly encounters between soldier-poets.
Some of them are quite famous and well-documented, such as Wilfred Owen’s meeting with Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart psychiatric hospital. Some are encounters only on paper, such as Edward Thomas’s reading and reviewing Rupert Brooke’s poems. A couple are Ricketts’ version of what might have happened if people had met. I’m not sure whether to be charmed or slightly annoyed at his probable, but imaginary, account of how Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas would have talked to each other.
The value of Ricketts’ approach is its immediacy. It is like a series of vivid close-ups, giving us the general literary and war setting, but also giving the personal story. There are heartbreak stories, of course, as Vera Brittain tries to keep up her wartime ideals via letters to her fiancé Roland Leighton, who was killed in action. There’s the ironic side, with young Robert Graves revealed as bumptious, boastful and a dab hand at getting everybody’s back up, both during the war and after it. And there are some major themes underlying it all.
One is the fickleness of reputation. When the war was being fought, and for a few years after, some people thought that the greatest soldier-poet was a chap called Robert Nichols. He is now all but forgotten, and with good reason. His poetry is quite forgettable. As he considers reputation, Ricketts also speculates on how people would regard Wilfred Owen if he hadn’t been killed, and if (like Sassoon) he had survived to write increasingly old-fashioned and irrelevant verse.
One inaccurate view used to be that Great War poetry went from Rupert Brooke sentimentalizing patriotic duty at the start of the war to Owen and Sassoon objecting to war’s obscenity at the end. According to that version, the war startled poets into truthfulness and a new style of writing. But as Ricketts’ account shows, there were more continuities than breaks. Even the clear-eyed and protesting poets late in the war were writing in a pastoral poetic convention and were still in some ways under the shadow of Brooke. The soldier-poets all knew, or at least knew of, one another and did belong to the same literary culture.
I read this brisk and well-written book with pleasure, but I also found parts of it very depressing – and it wasn’t a reaction to the pity of war and the familiar story of slaughter. Rather, it was the realization that literary cliques, rivalries and fights over reputation were also parts of the soldier-poets’ story. Many of the best-known were middle- and upper-middle-class Oxbridge-educated chaps. (A number were homosexual. Homoerotic themes loom large, whether the poetry is glorifying war or objecting to it.) The literary squabbles were personal in a whole lot of ways. There is sometimes the sense of an over-heated in-group.
Increasingly I found myself sympathizing most with the ones who didn’t belong to the privileged Oxbridge crowd, and liking rank outsiders like the impoverished East End Jew Isaac Rosenberg, whose Dead Man’s Dump is my pick of the war poems. (Or Edward Thomas, who scraped a living to support his family with literary hack-work.)
It wasn’t only the golden boys who died in the war. We shouldn’t let even the anti-war poems let us think it was.
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And here, unaltered from its newspaper appearance, is the review I wrote of Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Great Wrong War (Sunday Star-Times, 12 September 2010). In this case, as you might note, my assessment was not quite as favourable:
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Question: Why is the First World War so beloved by pacifist and anti-war writers?
Answer: Because it seems to have had no real cause, other than the clash of rival greedy empires. Therefore it’s relatively easy to show how pointless and destructive it all was, and what a rotten legacy it left to the world.
It’s a lot harder to argue this was about the Second World War, of course. To most people, defeating Hitler still seems to have been a pretty good idea. Why else do you think the History Channel lives by endlessly recycling tales of 1939-45 heroism? But for those who want to preach the senselessness of war, 1914-18 is still the natural magnet. So from All Quiet on the Western Front to Paths of Glory to Peter Weir’s Gallipoli; from Archibald Baxter’s autobiography to Once on Chunuk Bair to the latest book on the horrors of Passchendaele, out pour books and films telling us that the First World War was a Bad Thing.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s account of New Zealand during the First World War certainly thinks that the war was a Bad Thing. In fact, from its signposting title on, it shouts, shrieks and bellows this view on nearly every page.
And fair enough too, I guess. One hundred years later, who can reasonably dispute Eldred-Grigg’s judgment that the British and French Empires were rapacious and often cruel entities? Or that they were responsible for the outbreak of the war as much as the German and Austrian Empires? As Eldred-Grigg correctly notes, the behaviour of New Zealand forces in Samoa and in Egypt would have been recorded as a major atrocity if performed by German forces in Belgium or occupied northern France. There is much in our past that can still cause us to cringe.
Eldred-Grigg’s overview of New Zealand’s role in the war is easily summarised. He argues that militarist, capitalist and landed interests, generally centring on Bill Massey’s Reform Party, pushed New Zealand into a war that was really against New Zealand’s best interests. Much of Joe Ward’s Liberal Party was queasy about this, while the new Labour Party (founded during the war) was strongly internationalist and anti-war. With its censorship and its orders-in-council, which were never tested by public opinion, New Zealand’s wartime coalition government was increasingly a “cabinet dictatorship”. Eldred-Grigg accepts the socialist argument that men were conscripted, but not wealth. War profiteers grew rich while soldiers died. Mr Fat got fatter by grabbing the “empire” of Germany’s Pacific colonies (including Samoa) for his own material gain. New Zealand’s lower-middle class and working class basically footed the bill and were considerably impoverished by the war.
Across nearly 500 pages the tale is told in the racy style of Diggers, Hatters and Whores, Eldred-Grigg’s earlier book on the 19th century gold-rushes. It mixes public history with plenty of personal anecdotes, and it frequently quotes with approval from what it calls the “radical paper” Truth. It is lavishly illustrated on glossy pages.
But there are some major problems with this book.
I’m surprised at some of Eldred-Grigg’s omissions. When he comes to the matter of how conscription was imposed on New Zealand, he never once makes the obvious comparison with Australia. There conscription never came, because it was twice rejected in public referenda. This was a major home front story on both sides of the Tasman and was a major subject of debate in New Zealand.
Odd as it now seems to us, New Zealanders in 1914 (even working-class ones) largely thought of themselves as British and had habits of loyalty to Britain. Eldred-Grigg does not consider the implications of this fact until – literally – the last 10 pages of his text.
Then there is the book’s hectoring tone, as if Eldred-Grigg doesn’t trust us to form our own opinions from the evidence presented. Parts of The Great Wrong War sound as hysterical as the war propaganda which he denounces. Tsarist Russia is anachronistically (and inaccurately) called “totalitarian”. The camps in which New Zealand interned enemy aliens are called “concentration camps”. OK, I’m as aware as the next historian that that term was used for the camps into which the British herded Afrikaners during the Boer War. But Eldred-Grigg must know about the connotations of words as well as their denotations, and he must have a tin ear indeed not to recognize that the term “concentration camp” now immediately conjures up images of Nazis. Or was this his intention?
By contrast, and in order to emphasize the duplicity of the Allies, Eldred-Grigg goes out of his way to present Germany in a positive light. Throughout The Great Wrong War, Germany is called “the federal state” rather than the Empire or Reich. This is after opening passages in which we are told what a civilised, cultivated land of advanced thought Germany was. Eldred-Grigg is simple being accurate when he plays up the Allies’ policy of starving Germany’s civilian population. But he is either ignoring the evidence, or choosing not to see it, when he neglects to mention Germany’s own highly militarised culture. Allied ‘killer planes” bomb German civilians. No mention of German air-raids on civilians. And so on and so on. This is really a case of over-compensation. Eldred-Grigg would have us believe that Germany bore virtually no responsibility for the war at all.
Most regrettably, although the text is filled with numerical notations referring us to endnotes, there are none at the back of the book. Instead, between the bibliography and the index, there is a brief note telling us that if we want to read the 30-odd pages of endnotes, we have to print them off Random House’s website.
Random House had no difficulty including 35 pages of endnotes with the same author’s equally populist Diggers, Hatters and Whores. They should have followed the same policy here.