On War Memorials

For much of my life I was indifferent to war memorials. They stood there in the middle of every town and village, often useful as landmarks, but surely all more or less the same?

It was only when I started seriously studying the Great War, and especially its cultural effects, that I began to realise how very various and interesting memorials are. Some are grandiose, others simple. Some list battlefields, others just names. This one has a heroic bronze statue of a knight killing a dragon; that one shows a dead body, shrouded. This one includes the name of a woman killed making munitions. Each memorial is different, and reflects the assumptions and choices of those who arranged its erection.

During the years from 1919, committees in every town and village earnestly discussed what form their memorial should take. Should it have a statue, or be an abstract monolith? (Cost was sometimes a factor with this one.) Should its wording reflect religious sentiments, or be inclusive of those with non-Christian faiths, or with none? Look closely at a memorial, and you can decode a good deal about the community surrounding it in the early twenties. Their fate over the years often tells us something, too, about changing perceptions of the war.

Go abroad and you may find memorials that quite upend your ideas of what the war was about. It was when I went to Latvia, and in Riga saw a monument to those who died in the Great War between 1917 to 1921 that I realised quite how provincial our ideas about the war can be.

I’ve been reading an excellent book about memorials to a different war: Prisoners of History: What monuments to the Second World War tell us about our history and ourselves, by Keith Lowe.

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The Yoke (1907) by Hubert Wales

Cover of the 1908 cheap edition

I’ve been thinking again recently about Kipling’s literary treatment of syphilis, so am looking around to see how other writers treated the theme during his lifetime. The most common approach is the moralistic: a sinner receives the wages of sin. There were alternatives, though, and I’ve just been reading The Yoke, a scandalous novel of 1907, by Hubert Wales. It was a book that disturbed several of its contemporaries; here is the review in the Dundee Courier and Argus:

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Dean Street Press

This is just a brief note to recommend the excellent Dean Street Press, and their reissues of classic crime novels of the inter-war period.

Quite regularly, they whet readers’ appetites by offering free Kindle downloads of some of their books. This week I took advantage of the offer of The Black Cabinet, by Patricia Wentworth (best known for her Miss Silver detective novels).

The Black Cabinet is not a Miss Silver whodunit, but a thriller based on the premise of a young woman who inherits a very large amount of money and property under strange circumstances. She then finds herself in a situation threatening moral horror and physical danger. the villains may be too vile for complete credibility, and one or two of the coincidences strain belief, but the book is something of a tour de force, as the heroine stumbles from one unpleasant situation to another.

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Colonel Repington, Arnold Bennett and Lady Constance

I’ve been looking again at a text I’ve neglected for a long while, The First World War, 1914-1918 (1920) by Colonel Repington. It was a book that scored a huge hit at the time of publication – ten editions in a year he claimed. It was something of a succes de scandale, because it was essentially a printed version of his gossipy diaries over the war years, when he was military correspondent for the Times (and later the Morning Post). The book gives an interesting picture of the interlinking of the military elite and the social one. Repington knew everyone and interviewed everyone, and in these diaries he is sometimes indiscreet. He is especially good on the friction between soldiers and politicians.

But what I noticed particularly today was a passage that put me very much in mind of Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady (1918), easily the best novel of civilian life written during the war.

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Kipling does not mince his words

Ever since the sentimental film My Boy Jack, a myth has grown that his son’s death at Loos made Rudyard Kipling less warlike, more pacific. The evidence mostly points the other way. Kipling was tremendously affected by John’s death, of course, but in ways that made him even more committed to the war effort, more hostile to Germans, and more convinced that the country had been let down by the politicians who had left the country insufficiently prepared for war.

In the splendid Cambridge edition of the poems there is a striking example of his intransigence. In 1932, Clifford Allen, stalwart of the Independent Labour Party and chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship was raised to the peerage by Ramsay Macdonald, as part of his programme to increase Labour representation in the House of Lords.

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A Kipling bargain

I can’t believe my luck. Some years ago, the Cambridge University Press published Thomas Pinney’s three-volume edition of Kipling’s collected poems. I blogged about the publication at the time, but the price of the set was £225 -beyond the budget of an ageing pensioner such as myself.

A few weeks ago, loitering on Bookfinder.com, as I often do, I came across an offer of the whole set for £25. I couldn’t believe it. Was this for one volume only, perhaps? No – the listing definitely said three volumes, and, I triple-checked, not of any old Kipling collection, but of Professor Pinney’s magisterial Cambridge job.

I had to wait a while. It came from America, by sea (the postage was very cheap, as well as the books). But today it arrived, Three volumes, complete, in excellent condition. And when I look at the Bookfinder site today, I find that the cheapest set on offer there is priced at £197…

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Charlotte Mew

Charlotte Mew when young.

This is just a note to say how much I am enjoying the new edition of Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by Julia Copus, and recently published by Faber.

The Mew poems that speak most to me are her dramatic monologues, often with a touch of dialect, and the poems about people whose minds are differently shaped from the normal, like ‘Ken’. two of her siblings were in mental institutions, and she had obviously thought deeply about the subject.

But she was, in her own way, a war poet, too. ‘The Cenotaph’ is often anthologised, but I also like this one from June, 1915:

Who thinks of June’s first rose today?
Only some child, perhaps, with shining eyes and
rough bright hair will reach it down.
In a green sunny lane, to us almost as far away
As are the fearless stars from these veiled lamps of town.
What’s little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim
From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread?
Or what’s the broken world to June and him
Of the small eager hand, the shining eyes, the rough bright head?

Carlyle’s Statue

Carlyle’s statue in Kelvingrove, Glasgow, after recent vandalism.

The news last week, suddenly, was all about the toppling of statues. When it comes to the bronze representation of a slave-owner like Colston in Bristol, my only feeling is a mild surprise that it hasn’t been quietly got rid of long ago (which would have avoided its noisy elimination this week).

List of targeted statues. Click it for a larger image.

But when I examined the list of statues that activists want to be demolished, one name caught my eye. It was that of the Victorian essayist, historian and trouble-maker, Thomas Carlyle, who has long been an enthusiasm of mine. His monument in Glasgow has already been daubed with paint, and some, apparently, would like it removed altogether.

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On the Use of Books

People like me sometimes express disquiet about the future of the book. The digital is taking over. Young people prefer their phones to a paperback. And so on.

This week, though, I learned something that suggests the book still has at the very least a certain cultural cachet.

I paid a visit to the workshop of a craftsman, a skilled carpenter who makes excellent furniture. He was in good spirits, because during lockdown his business has not slumped. In fact it has been doing surprisingly well. Businessmen and others are putting in lucrative orders for bookcases, which they need in order to give themselves an impressive and prestigious background during video chats when working at home.

As Anthony Powell’s ‘Books’ Bagshaw might have put it: Books do furnish a Zoom.

War Illustrated

Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old is technically astonishing, but some things about it worry me. One of these is its use of pictures from the magazine War Illustrated, published weekly between September 1914 and February 1919.

I bought some 1916 issues on Ebay recently, and they have made interesting reading.

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