Wikipedia Day

Today I went to Sheffield Hallam University for a day course in editing Wikipedia.

I rather enjoyed it. There was some instruction in using the Wikipedia mark-up language; this is not difficult, but is annoyingly different from HTML, and is not entirely intuitive, so takes a bit of getting used to.

Then, with Jbosh1940 I began to add some substance to the very puny existing Wikipedia entry for the Yorkshire novelist Lettice Cooper, author of National Provincial and other novels.

Together we doubled its length. The result is here, but I’m hoping to add more to it soon.

Wikipedia is generally my first port of call when i want to know basic details about a writer. It will generally provide at least birth and death dates, and a list of major works. Most entries are reliable, but some are less impressive. There are two Wikipedia entries I want to get at soon.

The first is that of novelist Evadne Price. This confidently states that  Price was born in Australia in 1888, whereas the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  and other sources say that she was born in England in 1896 or thereabouts. This confusion at least needs mentioning, even if the actual details of her birth must remain slightly mysterious (She was the kind of lady who did not always want to be too exact about this kind of thing, but I suspect that the early date comes from an Australian eager to claim Price as one of their own.)  Also, the page has virtually nothing to say about Price’s most significant work, the novels she wrote under the pseudonym Helen Zenna Smith .

The other is the entry on Philip Gibbs. This not only fails to list his bibliography; it doesn’t mention a single one of his highly influential postwar novels. In addition it contains value-laden sentences like:

In the latter work Gibbs exacted a form of revenge for the frustration he suffered in submitting to wartime censorship; published after the armistice The Realities of War painted a most unflattering portrait of Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief in France and Flanders, and his General Headquarters.

Dismissing his books about the War as ‘revenge for frustration’ is tosh, I’d say, and ascribing a personal motive to his unflattering representation of Haig is very unjust to a sane and considered writer.

So, since I’m now a Wikipedia editor, I suppose I’ll have to do something about it.

Jon Stallworthy (1935-2014)

jon stallworthy

I was very sad to learn today of the death of Jon Stallworthy, who did so much for First World War literary studies.

He was the external examiner for my doctorate, and I treasure the memory of the afternoon I spent being gently but meticulously questioned about my thesis by someone who knew so much about the subject.

Too ill to attend the conference banquet at Wadham College last September, he was the guest of honour in absentia, but sent a stimulating (indeed, challenging) speech that Tim Kendall read for him. It as about truth in poetry, and about the need to make a stand against war.

Jon Stallworthy was a fine critic of war poetry, as is shown by his Survivors’ Songs: From Maldon to the Somme.

More than that, he was, of course, a poet himself. This is a short poem of this that I like very much. It is from his 1995 collection, The Guest from the Future:

The Naming
For Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan

What’s in a name? For you, and now for me,
the echo from a sepia century

of soldiers’ boots in a ghetto lane,
pounded doors, the census-taker’s refrain:

‘What are you?’ Baker.’ ‘Tailor’ And the flash
of rabbinical wit – ‘I am earth and ash.’

Poppies, adverts, libraries

Next spring, Sainsbury’s will doubtless be celebrating Easter with a feelgood mini-movie about the crucifixion, so that they can sell more chocolate eggs. A good-looking young Roman soldier could cheer up the Virgin Mary by handing her a Kinder Surprise…
It’s been a funny old fortnight for Remembrance-watchers.
I didn’t get to see the poppies at the Tower, but five million did, and I’ve met people who were considerably moved by them. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian dismissed the spectacle as fake and trite, but perhaps he’s missing the point. He writes:

The first world war was not noble. War is not noble. A meaningful mass memorial to this horror would not be dignified or pretty. It would be gory, vile and terrible to see. The moat of the Tower should be filled with barbed wire and bones. That would mean something.

Yes, it would. It would mean one thing. It would be an artistic statement about war (and perhaps rather an obvious one) but it would not be much good as a memorial. The best memorials do not batter you over the head with meaning. They let you bring your own meanings to them, which is why the highly abstract Cenotaph, or the plain obelisk on the average English village green, are effective as focuses for the feelings of whole communities, bringing together people of a wide range of political views. Read More »

Jonathan Smith’s ‘Wilfred and Eileen’

When I was in Lamb’s Conduit Street the other week, I couldn’t pass the Persephone Bookshop without popping in. I came out with a copy of Wilfred and Eileen, first published in 1976, and reissued by Persphone last year. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while.
Jonathan Smith was a teacher at Tonbridge School (where my aunt used to work as a secretary for some years, by the way). One day, after a lesson on the 1914-18 war poets, a student came up to him and told him: ‘Something really extraordinary happened to my grandparents. Back in the First World War…’
Intrigued, he wanted to find out more, and was given access to ‘considerable autobiographical material’ left by his grandfather. This ‘battered manuscript’ had failed to be accepted by a publisher, and Jonathan Smith could see why, since it was largely ‘an unremarkable philosophical tract, tracing the development of Wilfred’s political beliefs’. Within the verbiage, though, Smith saw a remarkable story, which he decided to turn into a novel (though a novel that keeps close to primary sources, I think).
Wilfred studies medicine at Cambridge, and in 1913 goes to work in a London hospital. He meets Eileen and they fall in love, despite parental disapproval. He is still financially dependent on his parents, and will not earn enough to support his family for some years. Despite this, Wilfred and Eileen marry secretly and meet for furtive afternoons together in a hotel. Then in August 1914 Wilfred (who was in the Cambridge OTC) enlists, not as a medic, but as a soldier. The novel shows how this very pleasant couple cope with war’s challenges, which become extreme.
Spoiler Alert: I’m now going to make some comments on the book that will give away some of its surprises.You have been warned Read More »

Shell-Shock and magic: ‘The Enchanted Cottage’ (1924)

When I first heard of the 1924 film The Enchanted Cottage I was told it belonged to the vast legion of the many, many lost silent movies. Then I learned from the useful Silent Era website that a print did exist in the Library of Congress archive. And now a DVD is on sale from that ever-resourceful firm, Grapevine Video. My copy arrived this week.
The film is based on Pinero’s 1922 shell-shock play. The plot remains much the same, but there are differences.
Oliver Bashforth (he was John Bashforth in the original play) had been badly wounded and traumatised during the war. Bent and crippled, he is embittered and alienated. Here (played by Richard Barthelmess)  he stares into the mirror at the physical and psychological wreck that war has made of him.

ench cottage1 Read More »

F. W. Harvey’s lost novel: ‘A War Romance’

harvey war romance
F.W. Harvey’s poetry achieved considerable fame during the Great War, but he has never become a sizeable presence in more recent anthologies. (Which is why I posted one of his poems here yesterday; I was willing to bet that not very many people knew it.)
He has his enthusiastic supporters, though, in Glocestershire and elsewhere, and interest in him has increased since his archive of papers has been made available to scholars. (To see a video news report about the archive, click here.)
The most recent sign of this interest is the publication of Harvey’s novel, A War Romance. This never reached the bookshops in his lifetime, despite several attempts to interest publishers, and had been thought lost. A copy turned up among the papers, however, and now it is available to readers, nearly a century after its composition, thanks to the editor, James Grant Repshire, and to the History Press. They have kindly sent me a copy for review, and I have read it with considerable interest and enjoyment – even though I can see why the publishers of the twenties and thirties decided to reject it. Read More »

F. W. Harvey’s ‘Ballad of Army Pay’

I shall soon be posting a review of F.W.Harvey’s recently rediscovered novel, A War Romance.
In the meantime, though, I can’t resist posting this poem of Harvey’s, since he’s a poet who doesn’t get reprinted enough. (He isn’t even in my favourite anthology The Winter of the World, though he should be).
Harvey’s biographer says, the poem ‘owes no small debt to Kipling’- yes, but that’s the best Kipling, the one who could give the ordinary soldier a voice, and whochanneled his hopes, his deepest feelings, and his grouses.

Ballad of Army Pay

In general, if you want a man to do a dangerous job : —
Say, swim the Channel, climb St. Paul’s, or break into and rob
The Bank of England, why, you find his wages must be higher
Than if you merely wanted him to light the kitchen fire.
But in the British Army, it’s just the other way.
And the maximum of danger means the minimum of pay. Read More »

A. J. P. Taylor’s captions

A. J. P Taylor’s Penguin history book, The First World War: An Illustrated History, probably did as much as Oh What a Lovely War to imprint on those growing up in the the sixties and seventies the ironic view of the First World War as merely a futile waste, conducted by buffoons.
Even those who did not read the pithy and brilliant text could appreciate the expressive photographs and the cutting captions that accompanied them. It’s interesting to read a letter in today’s Guardian from one of his collaborators on the book.

I’m glad that Jonathan Jones liked AJP Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History (History and all its grisly facts are worth more than the illusion of memory, 1 November). I collected the pictures for that book’s first edition in 1963 and pay tribute to Taylor’s visual perspicacity. When I presented my collection to the board of directors, he was the only person who unerringly pointed out the telling, the powerful, occasionally even wacky picture. All the other top brass went for the cliched or buttoned-up, stodgy portrait. He became my instant hero – until we received his captions, which were dreadfully meretricious, facetious even. (The editor and I had to trick him into toning them down, pleading lack of space etc.)
Catherine Boswell Fried

Taylor dedicated the book to Joan Littlewood, and said of Oh What a Lovely War that it had done the job that historians had failed to do. (Sorry, i forget the exact quotation) In this book he was clearly aiming to get as close as he could to the cartoonish boldness of Theatre Workshop’s play. It’s interesting to see his publishing collaborators trying to hold him back, as though they had a purer idea of the historian’s job than he had.
I wonder – had he been allowed to give his facetiousness (and meretriciousness) full rein, would the book have been as influential as it has been? As it is, it’s still in print, and still a great read, even if its conclusions do need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Helen Zenna Smith, and the Manchester Guardian


I’ll be giving a talk at the Marginalised Mainstream conference in November, about the various literary disguises of Evadne Price, and especially the novels she wrote under the pseudonym ‘Helen Zenna Smith’.
Out of curiosity, I took a look at the Manchester Guardian archive, to see whether they had reviewed her novels, and found a review of Not So Quiet… in the issue of April 24th, 1930.
It’s a pretty just assessment of the book’s literary qualities: ‘filled with a savage hatred of war’; ‘one of those books which haunt the mind of the reader’; ‘coarse language and insistence on physical detail’; ‘the bitterness in it is perhaps too heavily stressed’.
What is most interesting, though, is that the reviewer (‘M. A. L.’ Any ideas who that might be?) does not seem to know that the book was a novel, and certainly does not realise that the author was far too young to have served in the War:

The author was attached to a convoy under a domineering and heartless commandant…

I’ve got a nearly edition of the book (though it’s a Newnes reprint, not the Marriott edition reviewed in the MG). there is no indication inside the book whether it was a novel or a memoir. But my copy lacks a dustjacket. Does anyone have any ideas whether the original jacket actually labelled the book a novel? Or did Marriott, who was more than a bit of a chancer, deliberately make the book’s genre vague in order to improve sales by suggesting authenticity?

Here’s the Manchester Guardian review in full. I’d like to read the second one reviewed – the one dismissed as inauthentic. Read More »

‘War, Art and Surgery’ at the Hunterian Museum


I had a bit of spare time in London last Friday, so took a look at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I’d never been there before.
The main museum space is packed with medical curiosities – deformed skulls and pickled gall bladders, that sort of thing. Invaluable for the education of surgeons in times past, I assume, and on Friday quite busy with interested tourists.
I had come for the ‘War, Art and Surgery’ exhibition. This is in a smallish room at the end of the main exhibit, and is twofold. There is recent work by the artist Julia Midgley, showing military surgeons in training and at work, together with sketches of recently wounded soldiers engaged in therapy, or being tended by medics.
There are also 72 of the pastels by Henry Tonks, produced at Sidcup between 1916 and 1918. these show the patients of Harold Gillies, all with terrible facial injuries. Some are in before and after pairs, showing the effect of surgery. If I had to choose just one artwork to sum up the best response of twentieth-century artists to the horrors of the century’s wars, I’d choose a Tonks pastel. The drawing of the wound is meticulous, but he is obviously alert to the individual man behind the devastated face. Beside the concentrated care of these drawings, most other war pictures look like windy rhetoric. Read More »


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