Researching Allan M. Laing at Bradford

Yesterday I spent a very productive afternoon in the Special Collections Room of the J.B. Priestley Library at the University of Bradford.
One of my interests is the career of Allan M. Laing, the conscientious objector who wrote Carols of a Convict while banged up in Wormwood Scrubs, and later became a prolific writer of light verse and parodies.
The Special Collections Room is packed with material related to Priestley and other Yorkshire novelists (including a complete set of Willie Riley), but also has a treasure trove of items connected with Peace movements of various kinds. Among these are the papers of David J. Mitchell, who in the 1960s was intending to write a book about the absolutist conscientious objectors of the Great War. He gave up on the project, mainly because someone else had projected a similar book, but not before he had done a good amount of research, which included an extensive interview with Allan M. Laing.
He met Laing and his wife in September 1963 while they were holidaying at Netley House, the Holiday Fellowship Guest House at Gomshall in Surrey (for the eighth year running). The Holiday Fellowship had links with the Co-operative movement and the Ramblers’ Association, causes aligned with Laing’s political and social attitudes.

netley house
At that time Laing was 76, and Mitchell’s notes describe him as ‘short, bouncy, vivid strawberry nose, v. lively, great rambler.’ (I think that word is ‘vivid'; Mitchell’s handwriting is not always clear. The strawberry nose wasn’t due to drinking – Laing was a lifelong teetotaller and non-smoker.)
Laing talks about his father, ‘an upholsterer with a literary bent’ who once won a poetry prize from a local newspaper. Allan Laing was born in Dundee in 1887, but the family soon moved to Liverpool, where he lived for the rest of his life. After leaving board school, Laing became an office boy at 6/- a week, and by 1914 was working as an insurance clerk (‘doing well, had passed all exams’) Read More »

‘Poetic expression alone…’

‘The poetic mood, whether in writer or reader, demands a high, a heightened state of tension and sensibility; by the emotions of the War, that high, that heightened state was created, not only in the soldier, but in every citizen, anxious, exalted, fearful both for the fate of his country and his fellow-men. The soldier and the ordinary man, in fact, were both temporarily living on the plane where poetic expression alone corresponds to the state of tension aroused.’

V. Sackville-West
‘War Poems’ Spectator 8 November, 1930.

Nicely put. But is it true?

Kamila Shamsie’s ‘A God in Every Stone’

With very few exceptions, the best novels of the Great War are the ones that not only give an idea of the battlefield, but also locate the conflict within a historical frame, and give a sense of the War as a turning point in the lives of individuals and societies.

Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone does the job very well. It has just been issued in paperback by Atavist Books, and the publishers have kindly sent me a copy for review. I’m glad they did.
Read More »

‘Whether of pure European descent’

I did some researching at the National Archive in Kew yesterday, finding out a little more about the military career of P. G. Wodehouse’s brother, Armine, an officer in the Scots Guards. One of the documents I saw was his ‘Application for Appointment to the Special Reserve of Officers’. (Click the picture if you’d like to see a larger version.)


I’d never seen one of these documents before; maybe I was naive to be surprised by the fifth question on the application form, just after name, date of birth and marital status:

pure european Read More »

W. H. R. Rivers and Arnold Bennett

The Times Litt. Sup. has been discussing the psychologist W. H. R. Rivers recently (based on Ben Shephard’s interesting-looking book, Headhunters) so I sent them this letter, which appears in the current issue:

Sir, – Ashok Bery (Letters, August 1) notes how the writings of W. H. R. Rivers influenced the imagination of W. H. Auden. More immediate was Rivers’s influence on Arnold Bennett.
Having been introduced to Rivers by Siegfried Sassoon, Bennett visited him at Cambridge and later invited him on a three-week cruise on his yacht. In an affectionate memoir published after Rivers’s death, Bennett describes him as “thrilling on the self-protective nature of shell-shock and kindred disorders”. The influence of Rivers’s ideas can be seen clearly in Riceyman Steps, where Joe, the disturbed and violent ex-soldier, tries to protect himself from the aggressive man he has become by selling his papers, the official proofs of his identity. Rivers may also have affected Bennett’s portrayal in the same novel of the miser Henry Earlforward, who tries to protect himself from the world’s instability (“We haven’t been straight since 1914”) by means of self-destructive self-restriction and control.
Dr George Simmers

Read More »

Shell shock, newspapers, poetry

The other day I blogged my disagreement with Roy Greenslade’s  sweeping claim in the Guardian :

Only later did the public learn of the high casualty toll and the horrific nature of trench warfare, such as the use of poison gas and the effects of shell shock.

About shell shock I cited an article from the Times of April 1915, only two months after Charles Myers had first publicised the unexpected psychological effects of the War in the Lancet; since then I’ve wondered whether other papers also dealt with the subject early in the War.
A bit of light research shows that Roy Greenslade’s own newspaper was also on the case, though suggesting that German soldiers are more likely to suffer from ‘nervous breakdown and hysteria’ than Brits. An article on ‘Shock and the Soldier’ was published by the Manchester Guardian on Apr 26, 1915. Here is an extract: Read More »

Roy Greenslade versus Great War journalism

In the Guardian today, Roy Greenslade marks the centenary by considering the 1914-18 press’s reporting of the First World War, which he considers deplorable:

The catalogue of journalistic misdeeds is a matter of record: the willingness to publish propaganda as fact, the apparently tame acceptance of censorship and the failure to hold power to account.

The journalists, however,  were, he says, not wholly to blame for this, because they ‘were prevented from informing the public by three powerful forces – the government, the military and their own proprietors.’
Of course there is much truth in Greenslade’s article, especially when he discusses the inhibiting effect of DORA, the Defence of the Realm Act.

One of its regulations stated: “No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population.” Its aim was to prevent publication of anything that could be interpreted as undermining the morale of the British people.

True, but as he acknowledges, this did not stop Lord Northcliffe spinning the news against Kitchener. Nor, one might add,  did it stop the press barons playing a crucial role in the fall of Asquith.
In fact, censorship was very strict on military matters, or on matters that might possibly affect the military (even weather forecasts were banned because they might help the enemy). Political comment was very free, however. I have written before about the extreme personal vituperation against ministers and other politicians in Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull (much nastier than anything you’s find in today’s papers, more like the pitbull viciousness of the comments below the line on even the nicest newspaper websites). Read More »

Singing secretly


I’ll be giving a talk in a couple of weeks about myths of the War – the strange rumours that people whispered to each other at the time, and the equally strange things that some people believe about the War today.
That’s why I’ve been looking again at a book I’m very fond of, Echoes of the Great War, a compilation from the diaries of Rev. Andrew Clark, the Rector of Great Leighs, in Essex. In 1914 he set himself the task of recording what his parishioners (and others) said and did during wartime, and the results are fascinating and sometimes surprising. For example, in December 1916, he reports a rumour told him by his daughter Mildred, back from the University of St. Andrews for the vacation:

A report current in Scotland gives out that, in the battle of Loos, the Warwickshire regiment, both officers and men, got so out of hand and so undisciplined that Scots Guards turned their machine guns on them.

Read More »

Another view of soldiers’ songs

I’m still looking for material about soldier’s songs, and recently came across this article in the excellent Spectator archive. It’s a November 1917 review of F.T. Nettleingham’s collection, Tommy’s Tunes, and reminds us that the subject was not always seen through the socialist-populist filter of ‘Oh What a lovely War’. The Spectator site’s text is obviously created using the kind of scanning device that generates quite a few errors, so I’ve made my own corrected version, and thought that I would share it here:

War is a very disappointing subject for the conscientious artist. If he is a student of the graphic arts, he draws carefully studied pictures of battles as they ought to be, full of atmosphere and composition, with all his lights and shades nicely echoed and balanced, and the purblind public reject his efforts in favour of the crude realism of the picture palace. If his genius moves him to verse, he writes stirring odes and pulsating lyrics alive with fire and human emotion cunningly cast in the finest metrical form, and obstinate troops blankly refuse to sing them. When the private soldier is moved to raise his voice in song, he prefers first the common tunes that have formed the stock-in-trade of the amateur vocalist for generations : “Annie Laurie,” “Ye Banks and Braes,” “Kathleen Mavourneen,” ” Killarney,” ” Swanee River,” “John Peel,” and their like. Next in popularity come the music-hall songs of the moment, which enjoy a terrific but fleeting vogue for a few months and then disappear as quickly and mysteriously as they arise. Last in order of frequency, but very nearly first in their quality of endurance, are the professional ditties ; some of them traditional from a time “beyond which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary,” but continually being revised and brought up to date by topical allusions and impromptu additions ; others technical parodies of well-known hymns and “favourite ballads”; others, again, completely original, of which a very large portion are interminable chanties built up by successive accretions in the manner of ” The House that Jack Built”, ” Who Killed Cock Robin?” or—to take a more musicianly instance—”The Merryman and his Maid” in The Yeomen of the Guard. It is from this third class, the professional ditties invented by the men in all ranks and divisions of the fighting-line, that Mr. Nettleingham has made the present collection.In any literary sense, of course, they are not subjects for criticism. Read More »

The Folio Fussell

folio fussell

There are not many works of literary criticism in the Folio Society’s backlist. Most of the books that are given the sumptuous Folio treatment are classics of fiction, biography and travel writing – the sort of thing that a bookish person of means might want to decorate his or her shelves iwith in preference to a cheap paperback.
Paul Fussell’s 1975 book, The Great War and Modern Memory is no ordinary work of literary criticism; since its publication its ideas have set the agenda for literary critics writing about the War, even those who dissent from its findings ; some historians too have been strongly influenced by its interpretation of the conflict. Moreover, it has been a best-seller. By the time that the second (‘Twenty-fifth anniversary edition’) was published in 2000, fifty-three thousand copies of the book had been sold.
It is a cultural landmark, and it is a marker of that status that the Folio Society has chosen it for reissue in the centenary year. They have kindly sent me a copy for review.
The book has the usual Folio Society quality: a striking cover, protected by a cardboard slipcase; clear print; good quality paper. There are forty illustrations of various kinds, compared with the fifteen in the 2000 paperback edition on my bookshelves. The new additions include photographs of the War, and of one or two war poets, posters, and paintings by war artists such as Orpen and Nash. Oddly, though, the editors of the new edition have not included some of the original photographic choices.

fussell contrast

(Click for a larger image)

I miss especially the pair facing each other on pages 43 and 44 of the paperback; one of these shows King George sagely inspecting some very neat and shipshape model trenches, and the other presents the chaotic shambles of an actual trench on the Somme. That is exactly the sort of ironic contrast that Fussell at his sardonic best specialised in. Read More »


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