The prevention of war books?

In her 1937 autobiography, Three Ways Home, Sheila Kaye-Smith considers the commercial failure of her wartime novel Little England:

The explanation [...] does not lie entirely in the book itself, but also in the time of its appearance. that must share the responsibility for the small impression that it made. It was a war book, and when it had been out only a short time the war ended; and the war was no sooner ended than desperate efforts were made to forget it. War books were swept off the library shelves, and the rumour went round that publishers were inserting clauses in their contracts to prevent them being written; certainly none of any importance appeared for several years. The general and natural desire was to get back to normal life – to dig a deep grave for the past, build a comfortable house for the present, and blow an idealistic bubble for the future.

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Les Amis du Roman Populaire

amiens conference

In Amiens last week I attended a meeting of L’ Association des Amis du Roman Populaire. This is a group of academics and others interested mostly in French popular fiction of the last century, and the two-day conference was about the popular literature of the Great War.


We met in the Logis du Roy in the centre of Amiens, very close to the Cathedral.  I gather that Amiens is the chosen centre for the Association’s activities because it was the home of Jules Verne, possibly the greatest of French popular novelists. There is a Verne museum in the town, which I’d hoped to visit, but the conference kept me too busy.

Mostly the conference papers covered French popular literature (novels, stories, feulletons, children’s magazines and so on), though there were also contributions about German and Austrian literature. Read More »

‘Sapper’ in Amiens

Tomorrow I shall be going to Amiens, to deliver a paper on “‘Sapper’ : from realism to melodrama” to a conference organised by Les Amis du Roman Populaire.

This is an association devoted to all kinds of popular fiction – but especially to the French fiction of the last century, and this conference is considering the plenitude of fictions inspired by the Great War.

I am lecturing in English, and I understand that translations have been prepared of my paper, so I shouldntn’t be faced with incomprehension. I’m slightly nervous, though, about how much I will understand of academic papers delivered in French.  I read French reasonably well (and am moderately proud of having read and enjoyed a wartime French thriller earlier this year) but my aural comprehension is less good. But we’ll see how it goes.

Amiens is the home of Les Amis du Roman Populaire mostly, I think, because Jules Verne lived there. His house is now the Jules Verne museum, which I hope to take a look at.

Anyway, i shall report back on the conference when I return after the weekend.

While I’m away I gather that Jessica Meyer will be talking about ‘Sapper’ in a BBC4 programme about popular fiction on Thursday.

I wonder if her take on ‘Sapper’ will be the same as mine. I’ve put the programme on to record, and will take a look when I get back.


Singing on the march

I’ve undertaken to write an article about the  soldiers’ songs of the Great War. I’m finding plenty of interesting references to songs, and to how they lifted morale on the march, or reinforced community spirit in concert parties, or in informal gatherings.

I’m tantalised, though, by the memory of an anecdote I read some years ago,  whose source I can’t remember. It’s about a platoon singing a raucously obscene song on the march (possibly “Do your balls hang low”). The second lieutenant in charge joins in with a resounding tenor, and is enjoying himself so much that he doesn’t notice that the men have gone silent, and he is singing solo, being stared at furiously by a puritanical colonel.

I think that this was from a war memoir, and I’m sure that it was presented as fact. Any ideas of the source would be gratefully received, as would other anecdotes about soldiers singing.

Poetry and prose

In his first-rate Ivor Gurney documentary on BBC4 yesterday, Tim Kendall rightly pointed out that Gurney is exceptional among Great War poets because of his specificity (naming fellow-soldiers), his communication of soldiers’ conviviality, and his depiction of the routine of military life.

It struck me that these are exactly the qualities I value in war prose, in Patrick MacGill’s The Red Horizon, in Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We, in Alfred Burrage’s War is War, and many others.

Take a break from the poets, Tim! Come and explore some prose!

Tim Kendall on Ivor Gurney

Here’s this weekend’s required TV viewing:

ivor gurney

Stephen Fry writes a letter

It’s an unwritten rule in twenty-first century England that every cultural project must at some stage involve Stephen Fry. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that he has now done his bit for the Great War centenary.
He has contributed a project called Letter to an Unknown Soldier, which is based on Charles Sargeant Jagger’s superb statue on Platform One of Paddington Station. This shows a burly soldier reading a letter from home, and is a memorial to the men of the Great Western Railway who died in the War (They were the ones responsible for carrying the millions of letters to and from the war zone.)

Jagger statue
The organiser of the project, Neil Bartlett, says:

We’re inviting people to take a leap of imagination across one hundred years, and to write the letter that the soldier is reading.

Members of the public will be invited to post their letters on the project’s website from June of this year, but Mr Bartlett has started things off by inviting some celebrities to write letters. The Guardian this morning prints an effort by the ubiquitous Mr Fry:

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The ‘Bomb Shop’ crowd

The Bomb Shop

In Sheila Kaye-Smith’s 1943 novel of three wars, Tambourine, Trumpet and Drum, there is a 1917 scene in which Myra, youngest of the novel’s four sisters, goes to Proudlock’s, a London café where ‘of an evening one usually met the young men who by day hung around the Bomb Shop – the bookseller’s of the Charing Cross Road’.
I’ve written about the Bomb Shop before. It was the nickname, proudly borne, of Henderson’s, which not only sold radical literature, but also published works such as Miles Malleson’s playscripts, D Company and Black ‘Ell, which were confiscated in a raid.
On the day Myra visits the café, her acquaintances are missing:

Nowhere could she see the wild bobbed heads of the women: blazing Christine, with her tales of Rory O’Connor and the Dublin revolution; ardent Fitzroy, still fighting the battle of the despised and rejected with her banned book; or the sleeker, yet equally abundant locks of Ernest the Jew, who, in order to find a less incongruous background for his conscience, was seeking admission to the Society of Friends; Kit, who to his own great fury had been exempted from military service on medical instead of conscientious grounds; or George, who despised them all because he had the honour of serving in the Bomb Shop itself.

Fitzroy, of course, is Rose Allatini, who used the pseudonym A. T. Fitzroy for Despised and Rejected, her novel about conscientious objectors and the sexually unorthodox, which aroused the bile of that horrible man James Douglas. But who are the others? I must try to find out.
Myra, like Sheila Kaye-Smith, is a novelist who began her career just before the war. She knows the Bomb Shop crowd well, but does not feel totally at home with them. Maybe the same was true of Kaye-Smith.
Would her wartime novel Little England read differently if one thought of her not just as a regional novelist closely observing hardships in rural Sussex, but as a woman in close contact with radical pacifists in London? I must take another look at it.

Prison Libraries

I by and large keep contemporary politics out of this blog, but I’m utterly fuming at the Justice Secretary’s decision to prevent prisoners being sent books as presents.
They must buy them from their meagre wages, he says, or rely on the prison library.

I’m sure that prison libraries have improved since 1917, but I couldn’t help being reminded of these verses by conscientious objector Allan M. Laing (which I’ve printed before) about the library at Wormwood Scrubs:

Fiction Hash from the Prison Catalogue

Of stories of wooing
And billing an cooing
Comes first on a dull dreary list
The straight-paying copy,
From Garvice’s powerful — wrist.

From a shelf looming darkly
That dear Mrs. Barclay
Sings sentiment sugary-sweet,
While in hosts of Miss Braddon’s,
By no means all bad ‘uns,
Thrills, murders and mysteries meet.

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‘I was playing golf the day that the Germans landed…’

I’m currently reading Sheila Kaye-Smith’s excellent 1943 novel, Tambourine, Trumpet, Drum (Thanks, Pat, for suggesting it.)
The novel is in three parts, corresponding to the three wars: Boer War, Great War, World War II.
At the start of August 1914, a young woman  teases her sister, who has been playing golf while the rest of the nation waits to learn how Germany has responded  to the British ultimatum, by reciting:

I was playing golf the day that the Germans landed:
All our men had run away, all our ships were stranded:
And the thought of England’s shame
Very nearly spoilt my game.

A bit of Googling suggests that this was by Harry Graham, who wrote the Ruthless Rhymes (though some articles attribute it less convincingly to the Earl of Sandwich). Online versions differ, which maybe suggests that the lines were transmitted more as oral folklore than by way of a printed text. One version has a last line that reads ‘Almost put me off my game’, which is better, I think, than Kaye-Smith’s.
Presumably the poem was written during the pre-War period of invasion anxiety, when Erskine Childers was writing The Riddle of the Sands
and P. G. Wodehouse was making fun of such scares in The Swoop.
Can anyone date the poem more exactly?


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