I  like discovering words that are new to me. This is from V.M.Yeates, Winged Victory (1934):

A flaming meteor fell out of a cloud close by them and plunged earthwards. It was an aeroplane going down in flames from some fight above the clouds. Where it fell the atmosphere was stained by a thanatognomonic black streak…

Thanatognomonic. what a word! It’s a medical term that means heralding the approach of death. I’m now looking for opportunities to use it in conversation.


‘Sapper’ paper online


A couple of years ago I was fortunate to be invited to the conference of Les Amis du Roman Populaire in Amiens. The topic was popular fiction of the First World War, and I gave a paper on ‘Sapper’: from Realism to Melodrama. This tried to explain how ‘Sapper’ ( Herman Cyril McNeile), who began as the author of realistic vignettes about the war, developed into the author of lurid and improbable thrillers. I traced a continuity between the wartime writing and the later work.

The paper was published (in French translation) in an issue of Le Rocambole, the society’s journal, and I had vaguely thought of enlarging and adapting it for an English-speaking  audience. I think  now that I shall be doing any more work on ‘Sapper’ in the near future, so I have put the English version of the paper online, among the pieces of longer writing on this site.

Because I was addressing a French audience who mostly knew nothing at all about  ‘Sapper’, I had to explain things that a comparable British audience would already know, so experts on the subject may find parts of the paper a bit elementary. I hope, though, that some at least will find it interesting.

Click here for the paper:  ‘Sapper’: from Realism to Melodrama.


The Yorkshire Silent Film Festival

ShoesMary McLaren in Shoes

I’ve been away on holiday, so haven’t seen as much of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival as I’d have liked to. It’s playing throughout July at cinemas from Scarborough to Sheffield, and the films are worth catching.
Yesterday I finally got to a session at the beautiful Hyde park cinema in Leeds (where I saw the Edith Cavell biopic Dawn a while ago). The evening featured a talk by Ellen Cheshire on women in silent cinema, followed by a showing of the recently restored version of Shoes (1916),  directed by Lois Weber. Read More »

Portrait of an Airman by Philip Arnall

arnall cover

If I were in the business of reprinting neglected novels, the one I’d start with is Portrait of an Airman, by Philip Arnall (pseudonym of Oliver Stewart). Many thanks to Steve Paradis for pointing me towards this book.
The novel traces a wartime career very like the author’s own, and it’s safe to assume that much in it is autobiographical. We meet the hero, Stephen Sloan, when he is a rather dissatisfied young officer in a Home Defence battalion. He resents his commanding officers (‘Fancy having to be ordered about by a little beast like that.’) and also dislikes the thought that he will eventually be sent to the infantry in France. More or less on a whim he applies to the Royal Flying Corps: ‘He envied the freedom of Flying Corps pilots who were given the charge of an aeroplane, and were then free in a way that he could never be.’ Read More »

Geoffrey Hill (1932 – 2016)

Geoffrey Hill has died, a remarkable poet and a profound critic. I heard him lecture  on war poetry at Oxford a few years ago, and wrote about it here. Read More »

The Somme on TV

I’m sure that the Somme vigils last night were very moving experiences, and it is absolutely right and proper to remember and honour the dead. I was very disappointed, though, with what I saw of the television coverage last night.
What follows may not be a complete account of the programme, since I am allergic to Huw Edwards when he is being pious, and switched off after a while. Read More »

‘What should we read on the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme?’

An article has appeared in the Guardian with the above title. It is not actually about what we should read, but about what they should read, since, after a nod to the better-known war poets, it is mostly about books to give children at the time of the centenary of the Somme. Most highly recommended is the work of Michael Morpurgo, since, according to the author,

he makes it possible for contemporary children to understand better what happened and to understand how it was that teenagers like themselves could handle such dreadful situations.

The author’s highest praise is for Private Peaceful, ‘a remarkable and important book that needs to be read now to remember the Battle of the Somme but also at all times as a reminder of the essential need to preserve peace.’ I have written before about this book’s historical inaccuracies and ludicrous simplifications. Read More »

Nurses and memoirs


Stuart Cloete in 1918

I’d been thinking a bit about nurses’ memoirs when I came across these paragraphs in Stuart Cloete’s 1972 autobiography,  A Victorian Son. When he was fighting on the Somme in 1916, a bullet went through his chest and out the other side. He was sent to a base hospital:

But I was in pain now. Dressing my wound consisted of plugging it with medicated tape which the sister pushed through me with a sort of knitting-needle as an orderly fed it to her out of a bottle of disinfectant. It was a very unpleasant procedure.
The nurses here were regulars. They were beribboned with service medals and wore grey uniforms with scarlet-lined capes. Any milk of kindness they may have had as young women had long since evaporated under the heat of tropic suns. Their handling of wounded men was rough; the male orderlies were more gentle.

Read More »

Air war fiction

I’ve been tweeted with a question about ‘#WWI aviation novels published 1918-1940?’

I can’t suggest very much, but here are some random thoughts:

During the war, flyers were presented as heroes, but most home-based writers had little idea of the technicalities of flying. Actual airmen wrote quite a bit of poetry, but little prose that I know of (except for George R. Samways, who provided stories for the Magnet comic, at least one of which is about airmen). Read More »

‘The Statue’ by Eden Philpotts and Arnold Bennett


The Statue (1908) by Eden Philpotts and Arnold Bennett links in a way to the ‘Future War’ fiction of the pre-1914 era, since the plot is overshadowed by the possibility of crisis and conflict between France and Germany. Both countries are vying to provide a huge loan to the Sultan of Morocco, with a rivalry so intense that it could lead to war: Read More »