Doctor Scroggy’s War


For his new play at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, Howard Brenton has chosen to tell the story of one of the most remarkable men of the Great War. Harold Gillies (a New Zealander) was the pioneer of plastic surgery in Britain, developing remarkable techniques to help men with broken faces. Among the most successful of these techniques involved taking a long piece of skin from the leg, making it into a tube, and then leading it up to attach it to the breast. When the graft had taken at the breast, the pedicle (as it was called) was removed from the leg and taken upwards to the face, where it would grow as new skin to replace the damage of war. (Some foreign surgeons had experimented with the pedicle method before the war, but Gillies at Sidcup was the surgeon who realised that a tube was better than just a flap of skin, because it was less likely to dry out.)
You can download Gillies’s book Plastic Surgery of the Face here: Be warned – it contains some very disturbing images.
Howard Brenton has picked up hints from Reginald Pound’s biography of Gillies that the man was a paradoxical character, something of a dual personality. As a surgeon he was slow and utterly meticulous, often delaying an operation if he was uncertain of success; a favourite dictum of his, repeated in the play, is ‘Never do today what you can honourably put off until tomorrow.’ Yet there was another side to him – a rather wild practical joker, and a man who took champagne to his patients at night to cheer them up. the play runs with this idea, and presents Gillies as tending to men’s faces with careful surgery, but helping their souls with a regime of anarchic joy.


‘We don’t do glum here. Glum doesn’t work,’ Gillies tells a man with half his face blown away. This is the motto of the play, too. It treats wartime surgery not with  Crimson Field-style  striving after poignancy, but with raucous jokes. Read More »

Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship AGM

This year’s AGM will be on Saturday October 18th, at The Lamb, Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.
I shall be giving a talk with the title: ‘ “Too terribly beastly and nasty and corpsey”: How novelists of the nineteen-twenties represented war poets.’
This will be a longer version of the paper I gave at the Oxford conference, and I’ll be thinking especially about whether the some of the novelists had Sassoon specifically in mind when they created their various fictional war poets.

Civilians in Uniform

In London last week for Dr Scroggy’s War (of which more later) I popped into a couple of exhibitions.
There are some good things at the pleasant little Enduring War exhibition at the British Library, but what struck me most there was a cartoon in The Aussie, a magazine for Australian soldiers.
It shows a soldier standing before the M.O.

M.O.: In civilian life would you have come to me with a trivial complaint like this?
Soldier: No, I’d have sent for you.

Those two lines summarise a lot about the experience of enlistment for many men. In civilian life, the doctor was a superior sort of tradesman, eager for your custom, whom you patronised. In the Army he is a figure of power, with authority over your body, and capable of humiliating you.
I noticed this especially because I’ve been reading The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, a document edited by Paul Fussell from the writing of Mr Hale, an unwilling recruit, quite unsuited to the military life.


Read More »

Realism is Not Enough

The British Poetry of the First World War conference at Oxford gave me plenty to think about. One sentence from that has stuck in my mind as a theme I want to develop at some time in the future is from the presentation by Andrew Palmer.
‘Realism is not enough,’ he said.
He was talking about how we evaluate War poetry. Very often this is praised for its realistic and graphic detail. In a standard school exercise, a poem by Wilfred Owen is placed next to some patriotic tub-thumping. Students are expected to praise the Owen for its communication of the hard facts of war. When I was marking AS-level scripts many students produced essays pointing up this contrast, whatever the actual question set in the exam.
Of course, the stress on the pain and horror of the battlefield is an important element of Owen’s work. Dr Palmer’s point, though, is that this is not what makes Owen a great poet. A poem is more than its subject matter. Read More »

Fun with Ngrams

One of the pleasures of the British Poetry of the First World War conference (and the pleasures were many – I’ll be mentioning several over the next week or so) was Jay Winter’s talk on ‘Glory’.

He traced the decline of the word in English by use of  Google Ngrams. This is a neat bit of software, available on all computers at the press of a button, that searches the vast archive of Google Books to find all uses of a word or phrase in the books of a particular year. The results, in a graph, show something about the popularity of a word. So, plotting the words ‘glory’  and ‘glorious’ from 1900 to 2000, we find this decline in their popularity (click for a better view):


glory, glorious

You have to take these graphs with a certain amount of caution: they find references in books, not in newspapers or other documents, and they are based on the scanning of texts found in the mighty holdings of the Bodleian Library. These are very extensive, but not absolutely complete; there must be selection bias. Persons mentioned in academic texts are more likely to have their fame recorded than are the stars of the gossip columns.

With these provisos, however, ngrams are at the least very suggestive. Professor Winter made his point about the decline of ‘Glory’ in English by contrasting it with the staying power  of ‘gloire’ in French (which you can check out for yourself here).

I’ve mentioned Ngrams on this blog before, tracing the rise and fall in novelists’ reputations. Having just been to a poetry conference, I thought I’d try to find out about some poets. This chart tracks mentions of Wilfred Owen against mentions of Siegfried Sassoon: Read More »

The Fashion in War Poetry

I’m greatly looking forward to the British Poetry of the First World War conference at Oxford this weekend, and have been studying the programme with interest. So many panels, and hard choices to be made…

I found myself counting the poets named in the various paper titles, seeing which poets were most academically  popular in this centenary year. Of course, titles don’t tell you everything. Some papers have titles like ‘Gesture and experience in “patriotic” and “anti-war” poetry’ – with no clue about which poets are making the gestures or suffering the experience. (Mind you, that’s a very promising title: rhetorical gesture versus the recreation of experience – yes, that’s a good way into thinking about war poetry.)

There are also umbrella topics like ‘women’s poetry’ that will presumably bring in a good range of other individuals.

But the league-table of name-checks, for what it’s worth, goes like this:

Owen                                        8 mentions
Sassoon                                   6
Aldington                               4
Rosenberg                             4
Edward Thomas                  3
David Jones                          2
Sorley                                      2
J.B.Salmond                          1
Ivor Gurney                          1 *
May W Cannan                     1
Robert Service                     1
Ted Hughes                           1
T.E.Hulme                             1
Mary Borden                        1
Gordon Bottomley             1
Drummond Allison            1
Robert Graves                      1
F. W.  Harvey                        1
W. N. Hodgson                     1
D.H. Lawrence                     1

*Gurney only gets one title mention, but is well-served in the Friday evening concert. Read More »

A Galsworthy typo?

white monkey

In my paper for the British Poetry of the First World War conference at Oxford at the end of this week, I’m discussing how war poets were represented in novels of the twenties. A key exhibit is Wilfrid Desert,  the Byronic and disillusioned (‘Bitter as quinine’) poet of Galsworthy’s The White Monkey.

Galsworthy gives us just one example of his verse (perhaps unwisely, since it’s not a very good poem). It’s this one, where he imagines a deserter talking back to the officers at his court-martial:


“See ‘ere! I’m myde o’ nerves and blood
The syme as you, not meant to be
Froze stiff up to me ribs in mud.
You try it, like I ‘ave, an’ see!

“‘Aye, you snug beauty brass hats, when
You stick what I stuck out that d’y,
An’ keep yer ruddy ‘earts up–then
You’ll learn, maybe, the right to s’y:

“‘Take aht an’ shoot ‘im in the snow,
Shoot ‘im for cowardice! ‘E who serves
His King and Country’s got to know
There’s no such bloody thing as nerves.'”

What niggles me is line 8. Both my Penguin edition and the Project Gutenberg etext have ‘learn’ – but shouldn’t it be ‘earn’?
‘Learn’ really doesn’t make much sense.

I’m now debating with myself – when I quote the poem in my paper, do I say ‘earn’ or ‘learn’?

I think I’m going with ‘earn’.

Or maybe not.


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 »


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