These days I’m mostly hunting out recent stories about the Great War, and sometimes finding them in unexpected places.
I’m not really (as some regular readers might have guessed) a rock’n’roll dude, and Elvis Costello is a name I’ve registered, but I’ve never gathered that much about him, except that he’s a solid rocker, though sometimes veering a bit towards the pretentious.
Yesterday he was on the Radio 4 Front Row programme, promoting his new album, National Ransom. This consists of tracks that are each set in a particular place and time, and You Hung the Moon happens in “A Drawing Room In Pimlico, London – 1919”.
It describes a family attempting a séance, to contact the spirit of a soldier killed in the War.
The lyric goes:
Now tapping on tables
And sensing a chill
Poor families expecting loved one’s return
Only summon some charlatan spectre
Oh, when will they learn?
This is not exactly poetry; “poor families” is a dimly generalised and surely condescending phrase. The singer is not interested in them as individuals, just as types that he knows better than. The “Oh, when will they learn?” is even more crushingly condescending. It’s the sort of phrase that bad amateur poets put at the end of a poem, with the implication that the reader has not been bright enough to understand what they were saying.
“But,” Costello explained on the radio yesterday, “the twist is…”
I twitched. I immediately knew what the twist had to be. What else but the current favourite WW1 cliché, as featured in Private Peaceful and any other text with designs on our more superficial emotions?
“…the twist is that he wasn’t killed in battle, but shot by a firing squad for being a coward.”
What interests me is that Costello sounded proud to have thought up this twist, although it has been immensely popular among the kind of people who enjoy being indignant, for about fifty years (ever since the sixties, when King and Country made an impact).
Costello describes the execution with a heavy irony that ascribes the worst motives to those who condemn him and carry out the sentence. They slap, sneer, and crow over him.
So slap out his terrors
And sneer at his tears
We deal with deserters like this
From the breech to the barrel, the bead we will level
Break earth with a shovel, quick march on the double
Lower him shallow like tallow down in the abyss
What on earth can “ Lower him shallow like tallow” mean? Tallow is rendered beef or mutton fat. According to Wikipedia it is best kept in an airtight container, but I’ve never heard of it being buried. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard of a shallow abyss.
No, I don’t expect rock lyrics to make much sense, alas ( I was listening to a CD of words by Ira Gershwin today, so I know well how different things were in the past, but I know that the days when words were pointed, literate and witty are long gone). But the nonsenses that Costello makes are indicative. He patronises the people of the past, and assumes the worst of the members of the officer class who are conventionally given the role of villains. I think he thinks he is being a rebel and individualist for doing this. Does he not realise how conventional his attitudes are?
On the subject of executions, I have great respect for the families who badgered successive governments to get their cases reconsidered, and also for scholars like Julian Putkowski who have done solid research to unearth the stories of victims of military justice. I have little respect for the Labour politicians who declared universal pardons for WW1 deserters while not doing their very best for those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor for those like Costello who use the past as an easy source of pathos. I am constantly reminded of the words of Douglas Jerrold:
‘As for their infinite pity, nothing is easier, unfortunately, than to be bravely sympathetic about the sufferings of the past.’
The complete lyrics for the song can be found at: http://www.elviscostello.info/wiki/index.php/National_Ransom_lyrics