‘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 »

A Sheffield Wednesday

We had a good afternoon yesterday at Sheffield Hallam, talking about fiction of the Great War as part of the Off the Shelf festival.
I kicked off by talking about wartime fiction generally, and then explaining why I rated Patrick MacGill’s books, and The Red Horizon especially. (It’s because nobody else, except Frederic Manning, gives such an idea of the soldiers as a community, with a culture of their own).
Chris Hopkins then talked about Berta Ruck and The Lad with Wings, an aviation novel with some propagandist intent, but with an interestingly nuanced attitude to the War.
Finally, Erica Brown discussed two books by the remarkable Elizabeth von Armin. Christine, published pseudonymously during wartime, presented a resoundingly negative picture of Germans; Christopher and Columbus, which came after the War, was more ambiguous.
Between us, I think we got across the message that wartime fiction is varied and sometimes strange, and goes far beyond mere propaganda.
We had a good turnout for the session, and interesting questions afterwards. I gather that the responses on the feedback forms were very positive – except that some thought we should have been supplied with biscuits as well as coffee in the break. Fair point.
One thing strikes me. When I started researching fiction of the Great War, texts were hard to come by if you didn’t live have access to a copyright library. Now most of the texts we talked about are available free of charge for your Kindle through Project Gutenberg, and others can be bought in reasonably-priced print-on-demand formats, or through sites like www.bookfinder.com. I suspect a lot of other researchers are already digging into this fascinating material.
I used to spend a lot of time searching in second-hand bookshops for things that can now be found instantly on the internet. Now the bookshops are disappearing. Internet shopping is easier – and yet…
Will we soon lose forever the pleasure of browsing through a chaos of dusty volumes in the hope of finding a jewel?

A Sassoon afternoon

I spent a pleasant afternoon yesterday at the Annual general meeting of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.
We met in the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury. This used to be Charles Dickens’s local, apparently, and it’s where Ted Hughes took Sylvia Plath on their first date. And they serve very good fish and chips.
After the business part of the meeting, I was the speaker. Meg Crane and Deb Fisher had heard my paper at the Oxford War poetry conference, and were kind enough to ask me to repeat it at their AGM. I was only too happy to do so.
The Oxford paper was about the representation (often unflattering) of the figure of the War Poet in novels of the 1920s. I tweaked this here and there to bring in references to Sassoon, and added a section about a possibility that I find fascinating.
In September 1917, Warwick Deeping published a novella, Valour, in the New Magazine. A key event in this is the publication, by a dissatisfied officer, of a letter of protest in his local newspaper. Could this have been inspired by Sassoon’s statement of protest, publicised in July? I think it’s just possible. Later Deeping turned his novella into a full-length novel, which I blogged about some while ago.
I didn’t know of the earlier printing of the novella until I came across the stupendous collection The Lost Stories of Warwick Deeping, compiled by Frederick Studenberg, an American whose enthusiasm for Deeping knows no bounds. The magazine version of Valour is in the third huge volume of stories – and volumes five and six have now been published.
I enjoyed giving my paper to the Sassoon Fellowship; questions afterwards were plentiful and intelligent.
The Fellowship is doing well at the moment,with a membership greater than that of most literary societies. Maybe some readers don’t know, though, that you can get joint membership of both this and the Wilfred Owen Society (which includes a subscription to both of their rather good journals) at a very reasonable rate.

We’re in the Yorkshire Post

Don’t miss today’s Yorkshire Post! There’s a long article linked to the forthcoming Sheffield Off the Shelf festival. A week or two back a reporter came to Sheffield and interviewed Chris Hopkins, Erica Brown about the fiction of the War, and the result (rather intelligently written) is in today’s paper.
The three of us will be speaking at the festival next Wednesday.

Update: The article is now available online, at: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/yorkshire-living/arts/books/no-literary-man-s-land-1-6894833

A Depressing Story

In Herbert Jenkins’s jolly book, The Night Club (1917), a group of men agree to gather together regularly to tell each other stories (as so often in fiction of the time – did it ever happen in real life?)

The first meeting, however, ended in a fiasco. A fellow named Roger Blint had been called upon to tell a yarn, which proved him to be utterly devoid of narrative skill. It was something about a man who was jilted by a girl and, in consequence, went to the war, returning a few months later with his breast a rainbow of ribbons and his pockets jingling with medals, crosses and stars. We were all much depressed.

Jenkins, of course, was a publisher as well as an author, and I’m willing to bet that this paragraph was his way of signalling to prospective authors that he never  wanted to be sent yet another version of this clunkingly obvious story of manliness triumphant. I bet it didn’t stop the manuscripts coming in, though. It was the story that everyone wanted to tell, because it was the story that people wanted to tell themselves – that the war would bring everything to a happy ending.
Jenkins’s inclusion of this very naff story in his book reminds me of ‘Frank Richards’ in the Magnet comic giving a message to all the eager lads sending him implausible war stories by having that prize oaf Billy Bunter (The Fat Owl of the Remove, in case you’d forgotten) write his own version. here’s how it begins:

Through Mud and Blood
The shades of night were falling fast, and the silence lay silently on the sleeping camp, while the German guns thundered and roared with a terrific din. Captain Fearless stood in his dugout in Flanders, watching for the vile foe. ‛Aha!’ he muttered, his eyes flashing, his lip curling scornfully, his nostrils dilating, his hands clenching and his breath coming thick and fast. ‛Aha! They come!’

Teaching Sassoon

sassoon guide

In the fight for Bazentin Ridge:

Was Sassoon/Sherston’s capture of the trench a reckless and lucky achievement (Sherston); a splendid act of bravery (Regimental records); or a ‘futile gesture’ (Graves)? Do you have a fourth opinion?
Was Sherston justified in disobeying orders?
Once he had captured the trench, should he have consolidated it?

Those are good questions, and fairly typical of what a new teacher’s guide to Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer thinks that A-level students should be asking themselves when they read the book.
It is produced by Zigzag Education, and is one of a series on English literature set books (though Zigzag produces material for other subjects as well.
The guide to Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is fairly recent, I think, and the company has kindly sent me a copy for review. Read More »

‘Pre-war’ again

It’s a long long time since I noted some interesting (to me) uses of the term ‘pre-war’.

Here’s another, from the extremely entertaining 1927 novel  Crazy Pavements  by Beverley Nichols.

Nobody had spoken during this brief transit, except Maurice who had said:

‘Does my face look terribly pre-war tonight?’ and had been answered by an affirmative from both Julia and Lord William.

Maurice is an extremely camp representative of the Bright Young Things, and I doubt whether his utterance reflects common usage.

Arthur Calder-Marshall’s ‘Before the War’


Arthur Calder-Marshall


The Short Story and the First World War by Ann-Marie Einhaus is worth reading for many reasons, but I’m especially grateful to it for pointing me towards some stories I didn’t know, and especially ‘Before the War’ by Arthur Calder-Marshall. I’ve just got hold of English Story (1st series), where it was published in 1942. Did it ever appear elsewhere?
This story is set in 1939. Harry, the narrator, has a day’s leave from camp, and takes his girl, Esther, to buy an engagement ring, and to try and persuade her that they should get married soon, rather than sensibly waiting until they could afford it. He also takes her to Pargeter Hall, the hospital where his father has been bed-ridden since he was grievously wounded over twenty years ago. (‘Mum says it would have been better if they killed him outright.’)
A Princess is making an official visit that day, giving a routine performance of official interest in the work of the hospital:

Personally, I thought she was fed up and took no pains not to show it, the way she walked bobbing her head every fourth step like a robot and a little smile playing he thin lips every so often like the flicker of a snake’s tongue.

Read More »

21 years on

From Lettice Cooper’s novel, National Provincial (1938), set in 1935, when  Mussolini was about to invade Abyssinia:

This time the threat of war seemed both more and less surprising. Less because confidence and easy security had been shattered, more because in the last twenty years the mind had come to think of war as a barbarous method of argument. In 1914 to the mass of the English people, war had been unexpected but not unnatural. To the same solid mass in 1935 it was unnatural, but they half expected it, knowing now that the worst could happen.

Parson’s Nine, by Noel Streatfeild

parsons nine

This is just a note to recommend Parson’s Nine, by Noel Streatfeild, a 1932 novel about a vicarage family whose lives are changed forever by the War.
Noel Streatfield is best known as a writer of children’s books, of course, but she started by writing novels for adults, and this was her second. It has recently been reprinted by Greyladies Books, an excellent outfit that specialises in publishing books for grown-ups by children’s authors. Some of these are very promising. I’ve got their bright new edition of Leadon Hill (1927) by Richmal Crompton on the top of my to-read pile.
Noel Streatfeild’s first novel had been The Whicharts (recently republished by Margin Notes Books, and you can read a sample here.
The Whicharts is a novel about a family of three adopted orphan girls who are given stage training. This will sound familiar to everyone who read Ballet Shoes when young (and to those dads like myself who did their duty and read it several times to young daughters who could never get enough of the book). But this is Ballet Shoes unexpurgated. The three girls are the illegitimate offspring of an amorous Army officer (by three different mothers), and the woman in charge of them is another of his ex-mistresses, whom he supports financially. The stage school is decidedly seedier than in Ballet Shoes, and the older girl’s acting career leads her into pretty louche behaviour. Before writing this book, Streatfield had recently given up her own stage career, and part of her design is obviously to show the darker side of the theatrical business. The book will fascinate anyone who knows Ballet Shoes (but it might be as well to keep it away from your nine-year-old daughter).
But back to Parson’s Nine. Like most of Streatfeild’s books, this is about a family – in this case the nine children of a vicar. Read More »


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