There are several conferences coming up. Here are two that I might have got to if I still lived near London:

Next week at the British Library there is the second half of a conference (the first half was in Antwerp) on Languages and the First World War. The conference blog has some intriguing items, and is well worth a look.

Teaching War and Remembrance is at the Senate House, London on July 15th.

One that I shall definitely be attending is the Culture Wars conference at Sheffield Hallam this Saturday (June 14th), as I am delivering a paper on Dorothy L. Sayers, Q. D. Leavis and Ludwig Wittgenstein (with only the tiniest mention of the First World War) .

In September I shall be at Oxford for the British Poetry of the First World War conference.

In November there is another Marginalised Mainstream conference in London. I have enjoyed these conferences before – always very varied, and you meet interesting people. The theme this year is disguise, and I’m thinking of offering a paper on the writer Evadne Price, who disguised herself as Helen Zenna Smith and wrote the powerful war novel, Not So Quiet… I’ve got a week or so to make up my mind.

Any more conference news? Please leave a comment.

Arnold Zweig: Outside Verdun


Freight Books is a newish publishing firm, based in Glasgow. They have kindly sent me a copy of Outside Verdun, a new translation of a novel written in the early thirties by Arnold Zweig (no relation to Stefan). In Germany at that time, Hitler’s rise to power was helped by the myth of the German Army, undefeated in the field and betrayed by politicians at home. Zweig’s novel, Erziehung vor Verdun is a concerted attack on that myth, and on the self-conceit of the German Army. By 1935, when the book was first published (in German, but not in Germany) Zweig was an exile. In 1936 the novel was translated in to English by Eric Sutton, as Education before Verdun. The new translation by Fiona Rintoul is pacey, clear and readable.
Here in Britain we tend to think of All Quiet on the Western Front as the pioneering German Great War novel, but it had been preceded in 1927 by Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa, about a miscarriage of military justice brought about by incompetence and venality. This book is loosely linked to  Sergeant Grischa, as part of a Zweig’s magnum opus, a six-volume sequence exploring the effects and meanings of the War, but it definitely stands on its own as an engrossing novel. Read More »

Wipe your tears away with sandpaper

I’ve been reading Outside Verdun, the (very readable) new  translation of Arnold Zweig’s 1935 novel Erziehung vor Verdun.
I’ll be putting a full review online soon, but meanwhile, here’s a question.
Agreeing with the Crown Prince that the day’s activities had been pointless, an adjutant says:

We could just as well have stayed at home, Imperial Highness. Retreat or not – what difference does it make? ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary,’ as the Tommies sing – and our field greys sing: ‘For this campaign/ Is no express train/ Wipe your tears away/ With sandpaper’

I’d like to know: Was that an actual soldier’s song of the war? What are the original German words? And were sardonic songs as common among German soldiers as among the British? Read More »

Warwick Deeping and the Fortunate War

War washes the slouching, selfish hypocrisies and all the slosh and humbug out of a man’s life.

If I had to choose one sentence to encapsulate the attitude to the War of the stories in the fiction magazines that one would do it. It is from ‘Benjamin Comes Back’ by Warwick Deeping (Story-teller magazine, February 1916).
The story is included in volume I of a new collection The Lost Stories of Warwick Deeping, edited by Frederick J. Studenberg and Dr. Debra Buchholz. The editors have sent copies for review to Sheffield Hallam University’s ‘Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950 Special Collection’. I’ve been given the first volume to look at, and will be writing a full review later. At the moment, it’s ‘Benjamin Comes Back’ that has got me thinking about how the War was portrayed in fiction of the time as a transforming, positive experience..
Benjamin is a soldier who has come home from Flanders,‘with a smashed shoulder, two frost-bitten toes, and a kind of ferocious curiosity as to what was happening at home.’ Read More »

‘Goodbye to All Cats’

I’ve written a chapter for a forthcoming collection of critical essays on P. G. Wodehouse. (I’ll be sure to relay full information here when there is firm news about publication date and details.)

My piece is on Wodehouse and the Great War – which might sound to some people like one of those thesis subjects imagined by parodists of academia, like ‘Jane Austen and the French Revolution’ , but looking at Wodehouse in relation to the War really does reveal some quite interesting things about his early work, and his attitude to his writing . I think so, anyway.

The publisher’s reader seems fairly happy with my chapter, too, but sent one little note. Did I know ‘Goodbye to All Cats?’

I didn’t, but the echo of Graves in the title had me interested. A bit of quick research revealed that this was a story in the 1936 collection Young Men in Spats, and had first been published in 1934, in Cosmopolitan and The Strand. Read More »

A. D. Gristwood

Today I’ve been reading A. D. Gristwood’s novella ‘The Coward’ (published in 1927 as the second half of the volume The Somme). It’s well-told and I wondered whether I could find out more about Gristwood.

A few minutes searching on has indicated this:

He was born Arthur Donald Gristwood in 1893 in Catford. His father was a commercial traveller in the paper trade.

In the 1911 census the family was living in Hornchurch, Essex, and young Arthur is described as a ‘Civil Servant’ – which could mean any number of things.

He enlisted and joined the 5th London regiment. I couldn’t find his attestation papers online, but here is his medal record (You’ll need to click it to see it properly): Read More »

What happened to class war?

Back in the seventies and eighties, fictions protesting the horrors and injustices of the great War (think Days of Hope or The Monocled Mutineer) had a simple left-wing agenda. Uncaring upper-class officers victimised the working-class rank and file. Bullying N.C.O.s were there too, but as the lackeys of the bourgeois hegemony.
How different from The Absolutist (2011) by John Boyne, which I’ve just read (Thanks for the non-recommendation, Anne-Marie.)
This is a grindingly miserable shot-at-dawn story whose narrator is a mournful homosexual.  He falls in love with fellow-private Will Bancroft, an idealistic vicar’s son. Their romance is doomed, mostly because, after a passionate fumble, Will finds himself disgusted by what they have done. When the murder of a German prisoner leads Will to lay down his arms in protest against the cruelty of the War, the narrator, in a fit of lover’s pique, volunteers for the firing squad that shoots him. Read More »

Newspapers of the War

gallipoli sketch
(Click to see a larger version of this front page)

The firm Historic Newspapers has produced a WW1 teaching aid which they are offering to schools free of charge. they have kindly sent me a copy, and I am rather impressed.

It is a booklet of twenty-six newspaper pages from the War, and tells the story as it would have been received by readers of the Daily Sketch and the Star. It begins with an issue celebrating the arrival of the BEF in France, and goes on to chronicle the death of  Nurse Cavell;  the retreat from the Dardanelles; Jutland (‘How our Navy stopped Raid on England’);  the death of Kitchener (‘Tears in the War Office for England’s Greatest Soldier’); London air raids (‘Law Court Stoics: Judge and Counsel Not Worried by Frightfulness’); the capture of Jerusalem; and finally the Armistice (‘Kaiser’s Flight to Holland: Haggard and Near the Breaking Point’). Read More »

AQA LTA1B – exam hints

It’s a couple of years since I marked this AS-level paper, but I occasionally get asked for advice about how to handle the tricky first question (commentary on an unseen passage, usually of non-fictional prose).  Since the exam is this week, I thought I’d post my standard advice about the question, in the hope that it might help someone:

The wider reading question on the exam paper is a difficult one, and to do well at it I think you need to know what the markers are looking for. Here are some pointers – some of which may seem obvious, but plenty of students miss out on high marks because they do not realise what is wanted.

The first thing to remember is that the examiner is expecting to read an essay, with an introduction, argument and conclusion. Too many students just put down rather random points about the passage, and stop when they have run out of ideas.

The best answers are from candidates who have thought about what makes the passage interesting. Almost always, the extract contains evidence of conflicting ideas and/or emotions (Maude Onions is glad that the war is over, but sad because of the reminders of destruction; Wilfred Owen is proud of his unit’s achievements, but aware of the cost of them;  Sylvia Pankhurst is against the war, but as a feminist is glad to see women taking active roles and doing responsible war work; and so on). If you can identify this conflict in the first paragraph, you have got the makings of a good introduction. Mixed feelings are present in most WW1 literature. Most people in Britain felt that the War was worth fighting; all were aware of its cost. Almost all interesting WW1 writing tries to reconcile these contradictory feelings. Read More »

Arnold Bennett and a knighthood

arnold bennett

There was an enjoyable programme about Arnold Bennett on Radio 4 yesterday (still available on iPlayer). Deborah Moggach and Giles Brandreth gave a lively account of his life and talked enthusiastically about his novels, agreeing that The Old Wives’ Tale was the best (which is fair enough, though I have an especial fondness for Riceyman Steps and The Pretty Lady – and for The Card, too).

I’d disagree with them on just a couple of points. First of all, they said that nobody reads Bennett any more. Not quite true, as can be seen from the Reading 1900-1950 discussions of his novels. And from the conferences organised by the Arnold Bennett Society.

Then they seemed to think it a mystery why Bennett refused the offer of a knighthood. I don’t think it’s a mystery at all. Read More »


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