There’s a predictable pattern to many war books of the twenties. In the first chapters, characters are introduced in peacetime; then we see what happens to them in war. There are two classic varieties:
- The idyllic. Pre-war life is happy, decent and probably rural. War comes along and disturbs everything. It shows how fragile and precious the values were that were taken for granted before the war.
- The ironic. Pre-war life is disturbed. Bohemians, suffragettes, uppity women and/or the lower classes are threatening the tenor of British life. The war happens, and teaches the hero a profounder sense of values than he knew in peacetime.
H.M.Tomlinson’s All our Yesterdays (1930) is different. Its first section is not set in peacetime, but in London during the Boer War. With only a tenuous sense of story, it presents vignettes of the launching of a battleship; a mother’s concern that her son might become a soldier; the manipulation of news by cynical pressmen; chatter about the slowness of generals to adapt to new conditions; and Mafeking night celebrations that involve the ransacking of a tobacconist’s because the shopkeeper is suspected of being pro-Boer.
So instead of contrasting the wartime with the pre-war, Tomlinson is outlining themes already present in British society, because that was already attuned to war. And he’ll go on, I assume, to show their continuation in wartime. He does it well. I shall read on…
Tomlinson was a war correspondent like Philip Gibbs, and like Gibbs developed strong feelings about the wrongness and inhumanity of the war. Before he wrote his novel he was best known for atmospheric travel pieces, and the novel feels more like a collage of prose pictures than a surging narrative. I think it was a best-seller in its day, though, and it’s certainly well-written.