The later chapters of Alan Monkhouse’s novel True Love contain several letters from training and the front; they seem fairly realistic, considering that the author was not himself a soldier.
I learned that during the War Monkhouse had received many letters from James Agate (a fellow-critic on the Manchester Guardian), and had turned these into a book, L of C (Lines of Communication). I wondered whether these letters might be a basis for Monkhouse’s fiction, so I took a look at the volume.
Agate was thirty-seven when he volunteered in May 1915, and used to an aesthetic and hedonistic lifestyle. In letters from camp he compares the experience of washing in a bucket with the opulence of the cloakroom at the Café Anglais:
I shall never be able whole-heartedly to declare the bucket first and the famous cloak-room nowhere.
He asks to be sent a copy of Maupassant’s Bel-Ami:
Bel-Ami will look good on my bookshelf – a strip of wood raised to protect the books from the grass – between ‘Field Service Regulations’ and ‘War Establishments of New Armies’. One will look up from the hot pavements of Paris, their flâneurs and discreditable adventurers, to the abutting woods; and then one will be quite sure that whatever the philosophers say, the fairest of meadows with daisies pied and violets blue and the most picturesque and insanitary of country villages will not be able to claim mind and soul forever.
Agate likes to strike a pose, but I think that he also rather enjoyed Army life. He gives neat little pen-portaits of ‘characters’, and expresses pleasure in the songs, noting that he has marched for hours to:
Wash me in the water that you
Washed your dirty daughter
And I shall be whiter
than the whitewash on the wall.
(The song is a favourite of mine, too. I first came across it many years ago, in Goodbye to All That, and when my own daughter was a baby, she always enjoyed a rendition of it at bathtime.)
There are other songs of less reputable character, and it is a thing to be pondered over by parsons and bishops and all high functionaries ignorant of human nature that the more ribald the song the shorter the march. Perhaps some day our intellectuals will discover that wars are not won by the Emersons and Matthew Arnolds. (Why I have always regarded these two eminent authors as the type of the Perfect Prig I don’t know.) Wars are won by men with (1) Good feet, (2) good digestions, (3) good teeth, (4) a sense of humour, and (5) strong appetites of all sorts. The man who enlists for his sweet country’s sake is a bit of a nuisance; he should have been born a leading article. The fellow who does it for a lark, or because everybody else is enlisting, or for a jumble of reasons, or for no reason at all, is the man we most want. [….] You can’t run an army like a secondary school, and it’s no use trying.
When Agate went abroad, it was not as a fighting man, but as an officer in the R.A.S.C. In the letters, he pretends that secrecy prevents him from revealing what he organised, and claims that it was the supply of Marrows, Vegetable. In fact he worked on the essential task of procuring hay for the horses, helped by his fluent knowledge of French. According to Wikipedia, his system of accounting for hay purchases in a foreign land in wartime was eventually recognised by the War Office and made into an official handbook.
Since most memoirs deal with the fighting, Agate’s account of behind-the-lines hay dealing has its interest. As an officer he is in charge of ‘cheerful old birds from the London Docks, averaging fifty years of age. They look down on soldiering and call me Boss, Guv’nor, or even Gaffer.’
They are all, he says, ‘equally willing, good-natured, devoid of guile and irreclaimable. In a word they are just human.’
Agate never gets very near the fighting, but theorises about courage, to be told by a fellow-officer who had ‘done his tweve months in the trenches and wears the ribbon of the Military Cross’ that his ideas are ‘all bally rot’:
‘We all of us get the wind up, only some show it more than others.[….] The bravest chap I ever met used to cry himself to sleep every night. Sheer nerves! I’ve even seen a lawyer fellow – and you know what skunks they are – go over the top and fetch a chap in. But he said it wasn’t to be taken as a precedent. In fact you never can tell and it’s no use jawin’. Let’s talk about something else.’
Did these letters help Monkhouse with the writing of True Love? Maybe, but the tone is very different. Monkhouse’s gloomy and tortured hero is very much like one of those who ‘should have been born a leading article’, while Agate is consistently lively, and even chirpy.
James Agate’s was a reputation to conjure with in his day, but like most writers of dramatic criticism, his writing has faded with memories of the theatre he described. The copy of L of C in the Bodleian Library still had its pages uncut when I picked it up – which suggests that he has not aroused much curiosity in Oxford over the past ninety-five years. He could be very good, though. A year or so back I read a collection of pieces from his Ego books, and thoroughly enjoyed them.
One thing I wonder about. You may have noticed that the tone of Agate’s writing is consistently camp; in the thirties he lived a gay lifestyle as obvious as it could be in those days when homosexuality was something you could be flung into prison for. Monkhouse in his Guardian review of Rose Allatini’s Despised and Rejected (I’m assuming it’s by Monkhouse; it’s signed A.M.) had written of its homosexual hero:
He is an abnormal young man, held up for pity as such, but also for admiration. Charity can go no further than look on him as an unhappy invalid. We have no intention of disclosing in what constitutes his abnormality. Those who read his story may regard his malady as ridiculous, others as something worse.
Did Monkhouse realise that his friend was gay? Or did he have different attitudes in print and in private? I wonder.