Tell England

Tell England by Ernest Raymond is a book I bought almost a year ago and had put off reading. The impression I’d got of it was that it was a war memorial in words,  a stodgy tribute to the heroic dead.  It was a huge best-seller throughout the twenties, and so clearly was a prism through which people wanted to view the war.

It turns out to be a quite astonishing homoerotic fiesta. The first half of the book is set in a public school. The boys there are immensely aware of how they look, and have crushes on the strong young master, Radley; he bats for Middlesex and the size of his biceps is frequently mentioned. At one point he takes two boys rowing on the river. One sits behind him admiring his back, the other admires his front. He is a father-figure to the boys, performing intimate duties like telling them the facts of life. One actually says he likes being caned by Radley…

The boys are shown as flawed, very human, with faults that mostly amount to arrogance and self-admiration. Public school tames them a bit, but not too much. Later the army will make use of their faults – the adventurous rebel is killed early, showing typical courage; the show-off dies in heroic action far beyond the call of duty (or indeed probability).

In the first half there is much fetichism of bottoms, descriptions of Prefects’ Whackings and so on. (Would early readers have consciously recognised the homoeroticism? Probably not – even the producer of Ackerley’s Prisoner’s of War (1925) didn’t realise that the play was about homosexuals.) In fact, the book manages to be homoerotic and anti-decadent at the same time – there is a murky and myterious character called Freedham who bullies a younger boy into smoking, drink, and, it is hinted, worse…

This first section is heady stuff sensually, but a religion-free zone. The school chaplain manages a decent innings in a crucial cricket-match, but is otherwise out of the picture.

On the ship heading for Gallipoli, however, the heroes meet with Padre Monty, an Anglo-Catholic chaplain with a mission. He converts the two heroes to accepting the sacraments of Mass and Confession, and soon military death itself becomes a kind of sacrament.

They reach the Penninsula when the attacks are failing. There is little hope of victory, but they achieve a kind of glory, purified by religion and war.  The hero-worship of school is transfigured into something bigger.

The book is terrifically readable. You can see why it gave consolation to the bereaved in the twenties. But some of its attitudes are seriously strange…

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  1. […] See also George Simmers’ account of Tell England on the Great War Fiction blog. […]

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