Tag Archives: first world war

A Hundred Years On

exeter 1914

Earlier in the week I watched the extinguishing at the eleventh hour the candle in Westminter Abbey. My own candle in the window of my flat was put out with it, and one trembles and the resonance of the hour and the contemplation of those hundred years. When I started to become interested in the Great War it was still within easy memory, and those whose memories it was were still young (by today’s standards). And now with the last tommy some five years dead and with the passing of the centenary it is indeed becoming history.

Yet I feel there was some drama missed last night. The event was diluted by having actors read out passages instead of service personnel or public servants with real connection to the body of the state, and a prince or princess of the blood should have doused the last candle if royalty is to have any meaning. But most importantly the famous words that inspired the service, and the dimming of the lights across Britain, his words should have been read out by the current Foreign Secretary. Then there would have been resonance.

I post the above picture because I cannot look at it without a tear coming to my eye. They are the undergraduates of Exeter College Oxford, taken in the June of 1914, that glorious summer. And when I look at that picture this mantra runs through my mind: they have no idea what’s coming…they have no idea what’s coming…


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Down to Work


Now that evil term at evil college is over I have been working: writing like the clappers to  try to finish Dragon’s Wood, and preparing the text and web site for my novel (horror) The Dene. I have knocked out some 38,000 words which I have used to get back into the feeling of the book, get to know the characters again, and although significant disclosures are made  I am nowhere near the resolution. Often I have thought my story unfit for the memory of the soldiers who fought in the great war, and I have pause at this. I could have set it anywhere where a group of people are isolated, but I was spurred on by my interest in the war and my discovery of the tunnelling war (long before I had read Birdsong). And so I married the war with the horror plot. However as I have gone on I have begun to wonder if the plot, embedded as it is within its mis-en-scene, is a comment on the atrocities, and in doing so have begone to fashion the responses and motivations of the characters – but alas I have run out of time for soon I am off to France.

This week I have been preparing The Dene, a novel I wrote twenty years ago before I moved to London, and which was kindly received by publishers: “not bad at all, you can write, but not for our list. Send it to so-and-so.” So I did until I ran out of so-and-sos, then I moved to London and it got lost in life. But why not put it up? So on the grounds that you never know what you write I am putting it up on the Amazon store. It reads like an English Dean R Koontz, with Stephen King themeing.  And my friend Nicola has done me a front cover.

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Well, I’m off, he said.

There, am all packed for my spontaneously booked weekend in Provence. During the odiferous ofsted period (see below) I threw my hands up in the air and cried Why am I doing this! What is this for? and I promptly went onto the web and  booked for Marseille; I half fancied Athens but I might do that later, and my Roman history is not strong enough to sustain a visit to the Eternal City: I would end up wandering round wondering when they were going to finish the demolition job.

I am taking Captain Toomey with me: my work during term time on Dragon’s Wood, has been desultory but it has never left my thoughts. Of late when re-reading I find the new chapters plodding, very plodding, in parts, so I am going to take action on an idea that came to me in Provence last summer. It is unexpected and dramatic and by god the book needs it.

So hopefully, this time tomorrow night I shall be in a bar in Marseille, perhaps just off the old port, writing this up on my iPad with perhaps a glass of wine, or pastis, by my side.

But I am also taking Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. I am surprised I have not read it before though I was aware of it on the margins of my radar. You know the context, you know what is going to happen, and suddenly a phrase, a sentence, will leap out from the period prose and have tears running down your cheek … because you know what will happen.

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Stendhal Syndrome

During a long aridity of writing Schemes of Work and Lesson Plans (whatever-the-hell-they-are) on forms designed by descendants of Procrustes intended to stump and stifle your mind; during a creative desert when all sparks are dampened by the necessity of pedagogic duties I crossed an oasis of culture over the past three days. And I must stop writing like that.

Firstly on Thursday I took in a lecture by John Garth at the National Army Museum: his topic being The battle of the Somme and the Passage of the Marshes, a chapter from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Obviously this chapter recalls the Somme battlefield and Tolkien himself said so, but Garth’s thesis was that after a long dry patch his writing was triggered by a journey to Brum where, as he wrote,  he saw “ghosts rise from the pavement”. These ghosts were all those, his close friends, his comrades, his acquaintances, his generation, that perished in that battle, and that the reminiscences appear throughout Frodo’s journey to Mordor. It is a good theory but I am not convinced: any writer would, I think, couch their reminiscences in those terms, and when one is forced to write one draws deep on anything inside to produce the goods. It is likely the link is coincidental. But I did get the opportunity to tell him how much I enjoyed his book, Tolkien and the Great War. Tolkien is the selling point, but it says so much about what young middle class men went through in the Great War, and is worth reading, especially in the advent of the centenary, whether you like Tolkien or not. And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old……

Friday saw friend Nicola and me listen to an open discussion at the British Library on ideology in children’s literature. The conclusion was there there was ideology in kid’s books, both implicitly and explicitly, engendered by the time. So what’s new – but we were both expecting something a little more academic. In fact the only academic on the platform barely opened his trap, and at one point it was almost a circus for a bumptious (but knowledgeable) publisher.

Then came music. I went with friend Steve to hear Mozart’s mass in C minor at the RFH. I know the Lachrmosa but I am not familiar with it in context and I found it a powerful piece: but very obviously Mozart. Sometimes I think that Mozart spent rather too much of his time writing in the style of Mozart rather than being himself. That he died so young before he grew out of this is one of the greatest tragedies of music, along with the early deaths of Schubert and Gershwin.

But not quiet Stendhal syndrome: a dizzyness and unbalancing caused by the exposure to the awe of great art. It happens a lot in Venice and Florence; and it is named after the novelist who was thus overcome in Florence.

So the desert approaches again, and the relief of art and thought passes over the horizon, and I am forced to think that over the last dozen years or so I have given too much time to the art and creativity of others, rather than to my own…….

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