Modern Troubadours

Thanks to Ann-Marie Einhaus for pointing me towards Lena Ashwell’s 1922 book  Modern Troubadours, an account of the musical and theatrical troupes organised by Miss Ashwell, which took entertainment to soldiers in France and elsewhere. (A digital versioncan be found at the Internet Archive.)

Ive just had a skim through so far, and I’m particularly struck by this description of the involvement of shell-shocked men into theatrical productions: Read More »

Michèle Audin’s ‘One Hundred Twenty One Days’


This novel (first published in French in 2014) centres on two mathematicians, both damaged in the first world war, and both nursed by the same young woman. Mortsauf has most of his face blown away, so is one of the gueules cassées;  he marries his nurse, becomes a successful academic and achieves a  position of influence under the German occupation. Gorenstein, who is Jewish,  suffers psychological damage in the war, and in an unexplained fit of violence murders most of his family. He is incarcerated, but continues to do mathematics.
These two disturbed men are the focus of a novel that explores a disturbed century. The most telling chapters are about the period that has been even more troubling to France’s conscience than the Great War, the period of the Occupation, with its betrayals and shameful complicities. Read More »

‘A splitarse bus’

V.M. Yeates spots a German aeroplane:

It was one of the new DFWs – a nice-looking, very splitarse bus.

‘Splitarsing’ is a frequent word in Winged Victory  It appears in Arnall’s  Portrait of an Airman, too. The context makes it clear that it means ‘making a fast manoeuvre’, and the Oxford English Dictionary gives us : Read More »


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 »