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.

Read More »

‘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?

An August Bank Holiday Lark

This Northern Broadsides play takes its title from Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV, and the publicity flyers gave a good idea to expect. A close community in the pre-war golden summer, whose dreams and lives would be shattered by war. In other words – a presentation of the standard ‘futility’ interpretation of the Great War, what Elizabeth Vandiver calls ‘the old paradigm’. This was indeed roughly what we got at the Lawrence Batley theatre in Huddersfield yesterday, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to.

Northern Broadsides is one of my favourite theatre companies. Barrie Rutter founded it twenty-odd years ago with the aim of presenting Shakespeare and Greek tragedy in productions using muscular Northern voices – reclaiming the plays from southern smoothness. I remember how impressed I was by the first of their shows that I saw,   the Alcestis of Euripedes, as translated by Ted Hughes. Read More »

Christopher Clark’s ‘The Sleepwalkers’


No wonder Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers has been a best-seller. It re-tells the origins of the Great War as a story for our time.
Back in the Cold War sixties A.J.P. Taylor’s book on the War struck a chord with readers. He presented a picture of an arms race slipping out of control, leading to unintended catastrophe. You didn’t have to be a unilateralist like Taylor to see a warning for a world recently terrified by the Cuban missiles crisis.
Other accounts of the War’s origins have also usually concentrated on the Great Powers and their interactions, since these are what allowed a Balkan crisis to escalate into global conflict.
Clark scores by beginning with a detailed analysis of the Balkan beginnings, in which he finds a story that we can all recognise today. An impressionable teenage loner is a misfit in the country where he was born. He is groomed by extremists from another country, a rogue state, until he is recruited to perform an act of terrorism (intending suicide, but that goes wrong). The rogue state officially deplores terrorism, but its political class is deeply implicated in conspiracies and refuses to cooperate with the (declining and defensive) larger power where the terrorist act occurred. Read More »

Henry Williamson and Charles Carrington interviewed

Last week’s TV programme I Was There , featuring snippets from interviews made fifty years ago for the BBC Great War series, was gripping viewing (despite the bombastic music and the editorialising inter-titles). Even better is the internet resource which presents fourteen of the interviews in their entirety.

In the past I have written here and elsewhere less than flatteringly about Henry Williamson; I can see the point of J. B. Priestley’s description of one of his books as ‘a great oozing slab of self-pity, bearing the wet trade-mark of Henry Williamson’.
henry williamson

In his interview, though, he’s at his best, explaining very vividly what it was like to be a soldier during the first months of the war, and gradually realising the scope of the damage inflicted on men at Mons and elsewhere. Read More »

Soldiers reading

In Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) Q.D.Leavis is very keen to prove that the contemporary novel is used mainly as a drug, as a substitute for living. Part of her evidence is that:

men, coming from the trenches who had been deprived of reading matter for some short while would, however weary, seize on any kind of book or periodical or even a piece of newspaper to satisfy the [...] craving.

This seems very credible, that after a stressful time men would grasp the opportunity for a quite private time, and for the contact with a world distant from the trenches. However, she also quotes from a speech by a former Minister of Education, telling this anecdote:

Discomfort and exhaustion seem only to increase the need for the printed word. A friend, in describing the advance of one of his columns in East Africa during the war, has remarked how his men, sitting drenched and almost without food round the camp fire, would pass from a hand to hand a scrap of a magazine cover, in order that each man might rest his eyes for a moment on the printed word.

Really? Were they that desperate for the sight of print? Or were they passing something that had meaning for them, but meant nothing to the officer who passed on the story. Once when I was a teacher, I recall some giggling moving along the back row of desks. Eventually I discovered that the students were passing along a photo from a magazine that they thought bore a resemblance to myself. (It didn’t, I insist. the person depicted looked quite ridiculous.) Maybe the soldiers were keeping up their spirits in grim circumstances with some such joke.
Fiction and the Reading Public is a book written with passion and a terrific read. Parts are prophetic; parts are irretrievably dated. The first sentence states:

In twentieth-century England not only every one can read, but it is safe to add that everyone does read.

Those were the days.

Eleanor Farjeon, the Strike and the War

I heard a good talk at Sheffield Hallam yesterday, by Catherine Clay of Nottingham Trent University, on Eleanor Farjeon and the poems she wrote (as ‘Chimaera’) for the feminist weekly Time and Tide in the twenties.
One thing I learned was that Farjeon also wrote verse for left-wing papers like the Herald, under the name of ‘Tom Fool’.
I’m interested in the way that literary representations of the General Strike of 1926 often refer to the Great War as an event that defines the meaning of the event. Generally such representations are unsympathetic to the miners, contrasting the national unity of the War years with the disunity caused by industrial unrest. In Philip Gibbs’s Young Anarchy (1926) the volunteer undergraduate strike-breakers who manned the buses and other essential services are explicitly compared with the brave young men who willingly enlisted for their country’s sake in 1914.
It is interesting to see Farjeon, in a poem written for the strikers’ newspaper The British Worker for May 8th using the memory of the War in quite a different way, reminding workers that government promises were broken after the War, and suggesting that they will not be honoured now:


Catherine Clay revealed that during the strike, Farjeon withdrew her labour from Time and Tide, so that no weekly poem appeared. Instead she wrote poems like this for the British Worker. Just a gesture, perhaps, but one that few left-wing writers were willing to make, I think.

Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Vanguard’


My review of Arnold Bennett’s The Vanguard (sometimes known as The Secret Vanguard)  is now online at the Reading 1900-1950 site.

Blind men begging

My curiosity was roused about John Ferguson’s The Man in the Dark (1926) when a review on A Penguin a Week indicated that it was a murder mystery centred on a blind ex-soldier.
The blindness is more important than the military background in this story, though this definitely belongs to the class of books that show ex-soldiers as a disturbing presence in post-war society. The blind man in this book is  a more complex and troublesome being than the morally upright blind hero of Ian Hay’s The Poor Gentleman (1929).
One small detail surprised and intrigued me. When the detectives are wondering how a blind man might try to make contact with a woman he wants to meet again, MacNab, the book’s logical mastermind, declares that he knows exactly what the man will do:

He will wait in some road or street he has heard her mention more than once, wait for her to come along. He’s sitting there now, a blind man with a Braille book on his knees, reading aloud to draw attention to himself.

His prediction turns out to be true, and that is exactly where they find him.
The implication here is that it was a relatively common sight in twenties London to see blind beggars (and the book reminds us that the majority of the blinded were ex-soldiers) sitting in the street with a Braille book on their knees, reading with their fingers and saying the words aloud to impress passers-by with their talent, and to collect a few coins.
I’d come across many mentions of blind beggars selling matches or shoelaces (and clearly remember one of these from my childhood in the fifties, standing outside our local railway station every day) but had not previously heard of blind men trying to impress the public with their reading skills. I wonder when they stopped being seen on the streets.

Frank Furedi’s sweeping statements

I’m currently nearly half way through Frank Furedi’s new book, First World War – Still no End in Sight, I’m partly impressed by it, and partly annoyed.
It’s a wide-ranging study of how the War disoriented Europe, and indeed the world, in ways that are still having repercussions. Parts are very good, such as the account of the crisis of democracy in the immediate post-war years.
What grates on me, though, is his fondness for the sweeping historical assertion. This is particularly evident in the introduction and first chapter, when he is packing in a lot of background material.
For example, he quotes with approval Francis Fukuyama’s statement that:

‘many European publics simply wanted war because they were fed up with the dullness and lack of community in civilian life.’

Really? I like to imagine Messrs Furedi and Fukuyama approaching a Frenchman who was leaving his weeping family so that he could take up arms to defend his country, which had just been brutally invaded, and telling him cheerfully: ‘Of course, you’re really only doing this because you’re bored.’ The demotic French of the poilu’s reply would, I think, be quite an education. Read More »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 175 other followers