Remembering?

It’s November 11th, but are we remembering?

I took a walk round the centre of Huddersfield today, counting. Of the hundreds of people I passed, only five were wearing poppies. All were elderly.

There were no medalled veterans waving poppy trays and jingling collecting tins at you, as there used to be. Eventually I came across a stall selling poppies quietly in the Kingsgate Centre. It was not getting much business.

On the other hand, I was in that excellent store, Wilco’s at 11 a.m., when a voice came over the tannoy announcing that the tills would close for two minutes for Remembrance. (It didn’t say remembering what.) Most of us stood still, but come people were still wandering about the aisles. One lady was striding busily with her shopping basket until she came across a few of us standing still, towards the end of the two minutes. She rather shame-facedly slowed herself down.

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Handbook of British Literature and Culture of the First World War

It’s arrived.

This Handbook has been a long time in the preparation. The editors, Ralf Schneider and Jane Potter, originally hoped to publish it during the centenary period, but problems had to be overcome, and contributors had to be coordinated, so it has only recently arrived on Amazon – and my contributor’s copy arrived today.

It is a hefty volume, and part of an authoritative series published by De Gruyter, very much aimed at the bookshelves of university libraries. (Prosperous university libraries, I should say – the book’s price is ridiculous, alas. But that’s academic publishing.)

The book starts with seven hefty essays surveying general topics – poetry, novel, film and so on, giving an overview of changing perceptions of the war over the past century. These are followed by thirty-two readings of significant texts, by a variety of authors, and this is where I come in. I contributed two pieces, on Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady (the best novel of wartime London) and Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (an epic of fervent idealism and sexual confusion). As soon as the book arrived, I read through these two essays again, and thoroughly enjoyed them.

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John Bull

Insofar as Horatio Bottomley’s magazine John Bull is remembered in the history books it is as a purveyor of rabid Jingoism and hatred of the ‘Germhuns’. For a while I’ve been developing the idea that there was more to it than that, and that it was a strong populist voice, critical of the status quo. Recently I took a look at the British Library’s microfilms of issues from 1917.

The Jingoism and prejudice are definitely there. Look at this short item from a January issue. It is on the same page as a demand that British internees in Holland should receive a better diet:

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Beer

After a long while away, I was back at the British Library at Boston Spa today. For too long I’ve been meaning to take a proper look at Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull magazine. Today I got deep into some 1917 issues on microfilm.

Loathed by the respectable in his time, and vilified by all decent commentators ever since, Bottomley was a populist who filled his magazine with rabid jingoism – but also with down-to earth criticisms of the government and the military authorities.

It’s late now, so I won’t write more about him at the moment, but will just offer this food for thought: an advertisement for beer, published at a time when Lloyd George and the temperance movement were trying to brand beer-drinking as unpatriotic.

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‘Kipling in the News’

I spent last Thursday and Friday at the Kipling in the News conference in London. It was rather a strange one, because it was what they call hybrid. Current restrictions and problems keep many from travelling, so only a few of us met at the City University near Islington. The rest joined in from afar – India, Italy, America, New Zealand…. It worked much better than I’d thought it would. (At least, it did for those of us in the room. It would be interesting to hear the experience of remote attendees.)

The general topic meant that several papers were on Kipling’s early journalism in India, a subject about which I knew little. But how well he could write, even as a teenager. And how well the journalistic discipline of clear factual writing helped him later when he tackled more ambitious tasks.

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Arnold Bennett’s Journal

My 1933 copy of Bennett’s journal is a book I often dip into. Full of forthright opinions and lively insights.

Now I’m wondering whether I’ve missed out on a fuller edition of some sort.

I’ve been reading Agate (1986) by James Harding, an enjoyable life of James Agate, the flamboyant drama critic.

James Agate

Harding quotes an early twenties entry from Bennett’s journal:

J.E. Agate came early for tea in order to get counsel. He is a man of forty or so, rather coarse-looking and therefore rather coarse in some things. Fattish. Has a reputation for sexual perversity… [and so on].

Now those sentences are definitely not in my edition of the Jornal. Unsurprisingly. In 1933 Agate was still alive. To accuse a man of ‘sexual perversity’ was to court a very serious libel action. And whether or not Agate had sued, he could well have found himself in the dock, and then in prison, like Oscar Wilde.

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Kipling again

I’m excited to be attending the Kipling in the News conference in London early in September. This was first announced ages ago, and originally set to happen in September 2020, and then postponed a year, because of the miserable circumstances in which we live. I shall be there at the City University in person, but scholars abroad will be contributing via a zoom link. So it will be a hybrid affair, and maybe a bit odd, but I’m sure it will be made to work.

My own paper (after two years with just a couple of measly Zoom outings) will be on ‘The Fun of Fake News: “The Village that voted the Earth was Flat” and “Dayspring Mishandled”’. I’ve been planning it for too long. These are two of my favourite stories. and I’ve too much to say. Getting it down to the right length is proving a problem…

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking at a Kipling paper I wrote for a conference a few years ago: the 2018 Bibliotherapy conference at the Senate House, which was a most enjoyable and illuminating affair. I’ve now added the text of that paper to the pieces of longer writing listed on this blog. I think a lot of the material has been covered elsewhere in the blog over the years, but I’m quite pleased with the reading of “Fairy-Kist”, and the link to Housman.

Anyway, you can read it here: Kipling’s ‘Fairy-Kist’ – Bibliotherapy Gone Mad.

End of a War

Wars in Afghanistan don’t usually end well.

This painting by Lady Butler is called Remnants of an Army. It shows William Brydon, assistant surgeon in the Bengal Army, arriving at the gates of Jalalabad in January 1842. He is bringing news of the sorry fate of 16,000 soldiers and camp followers from the 1842 retreat from Kabul in the First Anglo-Afghan War.

This is more or less what generally happens to foreign armies that mess with Afghanistan. Why on earth did Blair let us get involved there in the first place? As a rvenge for 9/11? Then why didn’t they try to deal with Saudi Arabia, where the terrorists actually came from?

This week has been a dismal end to an unfortunate and costly enterprise.

Objectors and Tribunals

I’ve been dipping into Philip Snowden’s Autobiography (found yesterday in a charity shop). Snowden was the M.P. most consistently arguing for the rights of conscientious objectors. He is very interesting on the tribunals, claiming that the Military Service Act was generous in intention, giving definite rights to those unwilling to fight.

I cannot speak too highly of the efforts that Mr Walter Long [President of the Local Government Board] made to secure a fair hearing and a just treatment by the tribunals set up for the purpose of hearing claims for exemption. Indeed, not only Mr Long […] but Mr Asquith and Sir Herbert Samuel all did their best to secure the rights conferred by the Conscription Act upon the genuine conscientious objector.

These liberal intentions were thwarted by those given the power to enforce the Act. Local tribunals were ‘partly chosen from lists sent up by the political associations in the constituency, and the members consisted to a large extent of aged men who had made themselves notorious in the recruiting campaign’. When a Stipendiary Magistrate or a County Court Judge was made chairman of the tribunal, ‘their judicial experience was a real check upon their prejudiced colleagues’ – but many tribunals remained unchecked, and prejudice had free rein.

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Their Country’s Honour

York is not a city I know well, and I had never noticed before, just by the Minster, this handsome monument to those who died in the Boer War.


I was struck by the Gothic styling of the top half, whch contrasts rather with the plainness of the slabs of names at eye level. It is as though the eyes are led from the plain facts of death, up through some heroic figures of stalwart sevecemen, and up further to realms of the ideal.

I was even more struck by the wording on the tablet in front.

My photograph may not make this easily legible, so here is the inscription:

Remember those loyal and gallant soldiers and sailors of this county of York who fell fighting for their country’s honour in South Africa 1899 to 1902 and whose names are inscribed on this Cross erected by their fellow Yorkshiremen A.D. 1905.

Does any Great War memorial use the formulation that that the men had died ‘for their country’s honour’? None that I can think of. Isn’t the common form that they died for their country, simply? Or sometimes for Civilisation. For something more crucial even than honour?

I was in York to go to the theatre, to see Ralph Feinnes remarkable performance of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I have writen about it elsewhere.