Are Poppies Racist?

[D]uring the last few years an exceptionally debased form of pacifism, growing out of the philosophy of materialism, has attempted to divide us into two camps: on the one side ignorant, bloodthirsty militarists, and on the other enlightened pacifists. It is the object of the self-styled enlightened people to persuade the young that the war was ‘futile’; that those who fought were silly dupes swept away by emotional appeal; that nobody knew what it was about; that nobody can say who was guilty of beginning it all; and so on.

That is by J.B. Morton, in his introduction to the 1934 reprint of The Barber of Putney (first published 1919).

His language is characteristically boisterous, but he has a point about the influence of this pervasive dualism. In the Age of Morpurgo, its influence is stronger than ever, and we can expect to see plenty of signs of it as we enter this year’s Remembrance season. This year poppies seem to be the main target of people who think in binary terms. Poppy Day is about war, but it isn’t explicitly pacifist, so it must be militarist, the binary logic goes. Read More »


Owen Rhoscomyl

owen rhosc

The current issue of the Journal Of Military History prints my review of John E. Ellis’s very readable biography of ‘Owen Rhoscomyl‘ – one of the most extraordinary men of the early twentieth century that you have (probably) never heard of. Read More »

What Housman said

‘The Great War cannot have made much change in the opinions of any man of imagination.’ A.E. Housman

Handheld Press

This is just as note to say that I’ve heard from Kate Macdonald that her new venture Handheld Press is about to begin publishing. The first titles are reprints of Ernest Bramah’s 1907 political thriller What Might Have Been  ( a fantasy of what life might be like under a Labour government) and John Buchan’s The Runagates Club, a collection of short stories that shows Buchan at his (sometimes unexpected) best. Read More »

Larkin and Greyfriars

larkin bunter

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am rarely so enthusiastic as when exploring old issues of the Magnet comic, in which ‘Frank Richards’ each week delivered new instalments of the exploits of Harry Wharton, Billy Bunter and co. at Greyfriars School.
Visiting Hull just in time to catch the deeply enjoyable Philip Larkin exhibition at the Brynmor Jones Library, I was delighted to learn that Larkin was possibly even keener on Greyfriars than I am. Read More »

‘Spy’ by Bernard Newman

The excellent news that came to me this week is that the grandchildren and step-grandchildren of Bernard Newman have taken control of his literary estate, and are engaged on the project of republishing his books.
I have therefore spent two very enjoyable train journeys reading his Spy of 1935.

This tells how he, Bernard Newman, enlisted in 1914 as a motor-cycle dispatch-rider. His skill at speaking German attracted the attention of the authorities, and he became involved in intelligence work. His experience as an actor came in handy, too, as did a flair for disguise. Soon he was on operations behind the German lines, eventually in a privileged position in Ludendorff’s head-quarters, secretly working to demoralise the great German commander and sabotage his plans.

It’s an amazing story. Here is the cover of the Gollancz first edition: Read More »

Housman and Kipling

I’ve recently been reading, with great pleasure, Housman Country by Peter Parker. It is a commentary on A Shropshire Lad, but not the usual kind of critical work. It looks at the book’s origins and influence, with plenty of interesting diversions, many of which are about the poems’ role in the twentieth-century definition of ‘Englishness’, by other poets, by composers, by soldiers, politicians and others. Highly recommended.

When I read the book, my head was fairly full of Kipling, and I started to think about the relation between the two poets. Read More »

‘The Many Lives of Arnold Bennett’ at Keele

The fourteenth annual Arnold Bennett Conference was held at Keele University last weekend, and was an extremely enjoyable affair.

samira ahmed
Samira Ahmed

It began on Friday evening, when Samira Ahmed, the BBC radio and television presenter, gave a public lecture. Her topic was ‘What can Bennett Teach Post-Brexit Britain?’
This was a lively talk, and her enjoyment of Bennett shone through, as she discussed the writer’s qualities, some of which are in short supply these days. Read More »

Galsworthy’s ‘Windows’ at the Finborough

windows finborough

Galsworthy’s 1922 play Windows has not had a professional production for eighty-five years, and I can see why. It’s an uncomfortable play, one designed to make the typical West End audience of its time feel uneasy. Which is what makes it interesting. Those in charge of the Finborough Theatre are once again to be congratulated for finding a forgotten part of the British theatrical heritage, and testing it out on their tiny stage.
The play begins in familiar theatrical territory, in a solid middle-class dining-room in Highgate. French windows look out to the garden, and an upper-middle class family is amusingly at cross-purposes. Johnny Marsh, the son, is an ex-soldier and poet, declaiming his disillusionment rather theatrically, but his sceptical sister is the only person listening to him. Mr March is harrumphing at the state of the world, as revealed by his newspaper and Mrs March is concerned with the practicalities of mutton cutlets for lunch. Read More »

General Kelly and Forester’s ‘The General’

Chief of Staff John Kelly has the reputation of being the most stable figure in President Trump’s chaotic White House. From what one can gather, he has brought a semblance of order and organisation to the place, and has engineered the removal of some of Mr Trump’s more erratic political associates.
Earlier this year, he gave an interview about his favourite book, which is C.S. Forester’s 1935 novel, The General, the story of Curzon, the bone-headed officer who rises up the chain of command by continuously doing the wrong thing and creating disasters as he does everything by the book. General Kelly is not the only thinking soldier to value this book as an guide showing how not to do it. It used to be required reading at Sandhurst. Maybe it still is. Read More »