Philip Gibbs’s The Middle of the Road (1923) is strongly recommended to anyone interested in the state of Europe after the Great War – despite the fact that it’s not a very good novel.
It begins where Back to Life ended. The earlier novel was a reporter’s-eye-view of the War’s untidy end, just about fictionalised, and reflecting the period’s uncertainties and cruelties. (Gibbs takes the reader to places that other novels don’t touch – in Back to Life, for example, the violent shaving of the heads of Frenchwomen who had fraternised with Germans; I’ve not come across any other fiction of the period that deals with this painful subject.)
The Middle of the Road‘s central character is Bertram Pollard, an ex-soldier, awkwardly back home and feeling the distance between himself and his upper-class wife. She and her friends take a tough-minded attitude towards Sinn Fein in Ireland and Bolsheviks in the Trades Unions – shoot them. Bertram, meanwhile, is scrupulously aware of the other side of the question. And this is the problem with the book, especially the first half.
In this book, life is entirely about political problems – Bertram’s family, for example consists of a sister who married a German before the War, and is therefore allied to the Hun, another sister who is in love with a Sinn Feiner on the run from the police, and a brother who has joined the Black and Tans. Wherever Bertram goes, he is confronted by the Big Issues of the day, and by people spouting, spouting, spouting about them. Reading the novel is a bit like listening to the Today programme for 1921- spokesmen for different viewpoints each have their forceful say, but nobody ever convinces anyone else, or changes his mind. They just talk, while Bertram is stuck in the middle, passive, usually silent, and miserable.
The talk that poor old Bertram is subjected to is often interesting. Gibbs presents post-war England as divided and potentially violent. On the one side are the upper classes who feel their position threatened (old estates are having to be sold; the workers are getting uppity). On the other hand are the workers and the unemployed ex-soldiers, with genuine grievances but tempted towards the destructiveness of revolution. Gibbs conveys well the imagined fears of both sides, who cannot see each other as human, only as stereotypes. Interestingly, this first half of the book becomes a debate about who has the right to call themselves ex-soldiers. The upper classes want to maintain their officer status in peacetime while the unemployed other ranks feel that their war service gives them the moral right to better treatment. Gibbs’s spokesman Bertram is asked to choose, when offered a job helping to organise a defensive militia in case of a general strike (the implication is that this force would use methods much like those of the Black and Tans in Ireland.) When he refuses, his wife brands him a class traitor.
If a good novelist is one who describes human relationships with subtlety, Gibbs is not a good novelist. But he is an excellent reporter, and half way through the book his hero becomes a reporter too. Then we follow him through Europe and see some extraordinary scenes. There is a particularly vivid description of the crowds of keening women gathered outside Mountjoy prison on the morning that a Sinn Fein militant is to be hanged.
Bertram progresses through the horrors of post-war Europe. First France, where reconstruction is slow, and where there is hatred of the British because Lloyd George will not endorse the demand for full reparations from Germany. Then to economically crippled Germany, where inflation is unstoppable and political resentment is fuelled by the belief that the German army was never defeated in the field. (Gibbs in 1923 gives a very clear picture of the social factors that will encourage Nazism.)
Finally he goes to post-revolution Russia, chaotic, violent and starving. Gibbs himself went there in 1921, at the Invitation of the Imperial famine Relief Fund, at a time when the Daily Mail was claiming there was no famine in Russia – it was just Red propaganda to obtain economic aid. Bertram’s journey in the novel sticks fairly closely to Gibbs’s own journey, described in his autobiography The Pageant of the Years (1946) and the horrors are not stinted. Starvation, typhus, degradation, cruelty.
The pattern of the book is a descent into hell – from the disquiet of post-war London, through the grimness of France and Germany, to stark horror in Russia. As reporting, it’s magnificent. And as a way of getting his views across, this type of newsreel novel was very successful -it was a way of reaching many who would not have read a book of pure reporting. I saw an ad for The Middle of the Road that proclaimed it had sold its “58th thousand!”.
As a novelist, though, Gibbs can show us the grim side of life, but cannot present its richness. Almost everyone in the book is miserable, and almost all are cocooned in their own opinions. Nobody learns from anyone else, or makes discoveries that transform their lives. Even Bertram, for all his travels, remains essentially unchanged by what he sees, just becoming more confirmed in his despair at the mess people are making of the post-war world.
Don’t let that put you off the book, though. It’s full of the things that don’t get into other novels of the period. It’s readable, too, and nicely filled my return journey to Yorkshire last weekend.