Tag Archives: First World War

The best laid plans…

Two books, very different but with strong similarities.

Dark Water, the second novel by Elizabeth Lowry (and I will definitely be looking for her first) is a quasi-Gothic tale with two principal characters, a young newly qualified doctor – Hiram Carver and a national hero, William Borden.

Their first encounters are at sea, both literally and metaphorically. Hiram hates the sea, hates the ship he is on, hates the hierarchy and the endless repetition of orders from the top brass, through the ranks and down to the hand that has to “lay aft to the braces”; the repetition of swabbing, polishing, cleaning, scrubbing; the tedium, the mood of stasis and torpor.

Meanwhile, William Borden seems above all this, untouched, untarnished, bronzed and almost godlike; the reason for this comes later in the tale.

The story and the telling lie just south of Moby Dick and possibly The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but this is not to denigrate the novel which is a page-turner and turns the whole thing inside out to boot. So that once we leave the ocean, we think we may be following Hiram’s story.

The reason Hiram went to sea had to do with the society into which he had been born, demi-mondaine Bostoniana. As he found he could not impress his father, was jealous of his sister, Caro and found his mother distant, having trained as a doctor, he went to sea.

On his return, sick and sickened, he languishes for several months, until he finally gets to his feet again, only to find that his father has manoeuvered a job for him as Assistant Medical Officer in the local insane asylum.

So far, so good. Then a new patient is admitted and it is William Borden…

The second book, The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason, is set in Poland and Hungary during the First World War. A young, barely qualified doctor, Lucius enlists, only to find himself on the front line of a very mobile and disjointed theatre of war.

He ends up in a makeshift military hospital in a church in an out of the way village, Lemnowice. There, having never wielded a scalpel on a living creature in his life, he has to do amputations, stitch up shrapnel wounds, treat gonorrhea and then the shell-shocked patients begin to arrive.

His inexperience is masked by Margarete, a wimpled but beautiful woman, professing to be a nun. She has been there a long time and has seen at least three other doctors pack up and leave, for various reasons. She sees immediately that Lucius is inexperienced, but she guides him through the processes which she has watched the other doctors perform time and time again.

But shell shock is a new phenomenon, and treating it is guesswork as much as anything.

It is here that the similarity between the two novels becomes most apparent, for the well meaning treatment of the mentally unstable patients, the ones in the Boston asylum and the ones off the battlefield, by the two inexperienced and untrained doctors leads both of them, through hubris or hopefulness to make a wrong decision which leads inexorably on to some dreadful climax, and scenes of an inhumane and distressing nature.

But reader beware, for leaning back in judgement upon these two young men, you may slip into an unwarranted complacency. Psychoanalysis was in its infancy in the second novel, but existed not at all in the 1830s, and in both cases it was a step into ‘dark water’ which is what the deepest psychosis seems to be to Hiram Carver, while Lucius has not read The Interpretation of Dreams, though he has clearly heard of it and of Sigmund Freud.

Both books contain actions and language which we would not countenance now. But both novels are illuminating and exciting to read and come highly recommended.


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A life in paints

Two unexpected coincidences. I read a beautiful memoir by Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine and then visited Tate Britain to see the new exhibition of paintings by Paul Nash.

war-and-turpentineThe book is a memory of his grandfather, a man that always seemed to be painting copies of the great masters. Shortly before his death Urbain gives his grandson a set of notebooks, though it is many years before he actually reads them.

They are the notebooks that describe in accurate and appalling detail his war service in Belgium during World War 1. Slowly a picture emerges of a young man, fighting a hopeless, chaotic and bloody war against a stronger and more ruthless enemy. Such actions that Urbain witnessed were unparalleled in savagery, such that he could not mention them again. So he painted, again and again simple, peaceful landscapes, mostly devoid of people, or many and detailed copies of famous grand masters, Rembrandt, Velásquez and others.

Hertmans, once he gets around to looking at the notebooks, begins to uncover a life filled with loss, horror and sadness, but it is through discovering this that he finally begins to understand his grandfather.

He comes upon him one day, weeping over a copy of Diego VelásquezThe Toilet of Venus [more commonly called The Rokeby Venus now in the National Gallery]. What was it about this particular painting that could evoke a memory so painful that a grown man should weep? Towards the end of his journey through his grandfather’s life, looking again, finally – properly – at his paintings, he sees something that reveals the man.

This book is a tour de force, the slow and steady accumulation of knowledge, as the author physically traces the steps of his grandfather, taking stock of places named in the notebooks, going to the places and looking, trying to imagine what his grandfather saw, probably through the target lens of a rifle or his binoculars, brings him to a place where he begins to understand the warrior, but it is something quite other that draws him towards the appreciation of the man.

This discovery also reveals the nature of his grandparents marriage, how it came about and its consequences, both for his grandparents and for his family.

A telling, subtle and rewarding book. A look into the past, seen through the lens of the gun and of the painter, a painter who never in all his life painted a single picture of the war.

nashThe exhibition at Tate Britain similarly tells the story of a painter, starting from his 20’s and passing through all the stages of his painting and development through to the final year of his life.

Paul Nash developed different styles of painting, from exquisitely detailed pieces in monochrome, showing a sensitive artistry and graphic skill, wood engravings, calligraphy and book illustration, (poetry even) right through British Surrealism and Expressionism to abstraction and finally back to landscape.

In all this, Nash changed styles, media and colour. His early works, often including trees and birds showed a definite mind-set, were frequently monochromatic and often studies of the same view, accurately, stylised or abstracted. At the bottom of some fields near his family home, for example, there were three elm trees. These appear often, sometimes in daylight, more often in moonlight, occasionally in silhouette, vastly out of scale with the landscape in which they are placed. All the more poignant because they have virtually disappeared from the English landscape.

This period was interrupted by the First World War. Paul Nash joined the Artists’ Rifles. He was in active service on the front line trenches in France. Sadly, at a time when he was convalescing after an accident in which he broke a rib his battalion, stationed on Hill 60, received a devastating and fatal attack and nearly everyone was killed. Nash’s paintings of that time, some of them the best known of all his work, were made later on and were a memorial to his lost comrades.   Paintings of the view from the trench, blasted trees standing in a sea of mud, and views of the trench showing soldiers on duty, many of these pictures show no man’s land at night, lit by flares and starlight in eerie and horrible ghastliness. A single monochrome work, shows unusually, the aftermath of the bombardment with dead bodies, barbed wire and chaos.

From there he moved towards painting interiors, generally of places looking out from indoors. His style has altered once again, taking on a symbolic message, death lies in the garden; a huge tree stump with a naked billhook thrust into its heart was painted after the death of his father, and is simply called February. Trees in an orchard look as much like barbed wire defences as apple trees, stacks of chopped logs and a snake coiled around a fence represent both death and healing.

There are often other mirrorings, from his flat window in St Pancras, he mixes the supports in a pot plant (the plant itself is dead) with the back of an advertisement hoarding and the window frame, making the viewer step back to figure out what exactly is going on here.

His dabbles in abstraction, filling his canvases with objects, often mathematical or draughtsmen’s tools, strange perspectives.

His landscapes of Berkshire and Oxfordshire however, return more and more to the naturalistic, though there is often something uncannily like the world war landscapes in the placing of ponds and curving hills. But trees and birds abound.

His flirtation with Surrealism and Expressionism failed to move me, it seemed to be an experiment engaging the mind and not the heart, though they are some of his more favoured works.

The Second World War intervened and he joined the war effort as an official war artist, his age though, kept him in England. Here he was taken to places where Nazi planes had crashed, and he faithfully recorded these spectacular failures: a huge plane, nose-cone deep in Windsor Great Park, a downed bomber bellied in a corn field, and the most famous painting of all –  a graveyard of smashed bombers, looking for all the world like a furious ocean of waves, until you pick out the swastikas and black crosses on wings and tailfins. There is an accompanying video film of Paul Nash visiting this extraordinary place, where smashed planes were gathered in huge stacks.

Paintings of the Rye Marshes and Dymock were done when he was recovering from a nervous breakdown, the angular sea wall and the river bending towards the sea take on sinister and war-like appearance, mirroring once again his trench experiences in an earlier war.

After the war, Nash returned to Boar’s Hill, his house looked across to Brightwell Barrow. A view that he had first painted in 1912, calling it Wittenham Clumps, though this is a mis-nomer.

The final room in this exhibition shows about sixteen different paintings all of the same view, though you need to pay attention to see this, since he moves or eliminates various strategic trees, plants or visual clues.

Two of the most striking show the sight of the clump, a high hill with beech trees at its summit, in an eclipse. You see both the sun and the reddened moon floating above this familiar but not familiar landscape. Both painted in 1946, the year of his death.

The trees have grown since then and it is no longer possible to see exactly the view that Paul Nash painted, but you can visit the footpath near Castle Hill, Brightwell Barrow itself, though, is on private land.



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Theatre – the good, the bad and the plain indifferent

Spoiler Alert – if you don’t already know what happens in King Lear and are going to the play – stop reading here. This is a stellar cast: Simon Russell Beale as Lear; Kate Fleetwood, Anna Maxwell Martin and Olivia Vinall as Regan, Goneril and Cordelia; Stephen Boxer, Sam Troughton and Tom Brooke as Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar; Adrian Scarborough and Stanley Townsend as The Fool and Kent and all under the direction of Sam Mendes. What could go wrong?

Well, a lot actually. It is heresy to say this but SRB swung between ranting and raving, often incoherently and finally in a fit of madness kills The Fool. This is not in the text, but as The Fool never reappears it is plausible; but for me the worst thing about today’s SRB, (and for years now) he has developed an actor’s tic, whenever he wants to show agitation, anxiety and plain madness he rubs his buttock and twitches the fingers of his right hand. He started this ages ago in a miraculous portrayal of Oswald Alving in a production of Ghosts by Ibsen. It worked then and he has since used it again and again, and for myself I cannot bear to watch. So frankly, I didn’t like his Lear.

Which is not to say that I don’t like SRB. His programmes about music, especially medieval music are matchless and when he sings…his Ariel which was also ages ago was quite lovely.

I didn’t like Anna Maxwell Martin’s Goneril either, in fact I kept wishing she had nothing else to say ever in the play, while at the same time knowing that her main speeches were still ahead. Another actor that I greatly admire in many other productions both on the stage and on TV/film.

So that has got my bug bears out of the way.

Gloucester, Kent, Edgar and The Fool were outstanding, apart from the copious amounts of blood, I suppose now we have such convincing fake blood, it is bound to get everywhere. But I once saw a car accident in which a man’s eye was damaged and the eyeball hung down his cheek, a never to be forgotten moment, and there was actually very little blood and in the production in which Paul Scofield played Lear forty or fifty years ago now, that Gloucester’s eye surgery replicated the car accident almost exactly!

The set and the staging were wonderful, very cinematic which of course now they will be, since this production of King Lear is being streamed live into cinemas around the world.

So on to another National Theatre production currently in the repertoire The Silver Tassie by Sean O’Casey. A timely production this since it is set in World War 1.

Although less well known that the trilogy of Dublin portrait-plays by Sean O’Casey and hugely controversial at the time, this play makes it quite clear that war is an un-pretty, unpleasant and unnecessary evil. Since Irish involvement with the British Army was highly contentious, since the Home Rule debacle was well on its way to the Easter Rising and many Irishmen thought their compatriots fighting FOR the British were traitors to the cause, a play set in Dublin in which the hero goes from football brilliance to a wheelchair was bound to cause a problem.

Not only that, when presented to the Abbey Theatre for consideration in 1928, the play script was rejected by WB Yeats who’s firm conviction was that the First World War was not a suitable topic for literature; consequently the first production was put on in London. People from the Abbey Theatre, who saw the London production realised they had made a mistake.

The London production on today, has a dynamic all of its own. Really excellent acting, a dramatic and awe-inspiring set, pace and pathos. O’Casey’s language is so rhythmic, powerful and Shakespearean in its imagery, almost.

The hero, Harry Heegan, played by Ronan Rafferty, is in a wheelchair, and an old friend who has been blinded in the conflict, Teddy Foran, played by Aidan Kelly, meet up again in hospital.

There is a scene at the end, we are at a celebratory ball after The Silver Tassie (this is a silver football trophy, won in the past by Harry Heegan in his prime) has been presented to the club; pretty much everything has gone badly all evening: the man who won a VC for saving Harry’s life has captivated his girl friend, Jessie Taite and Harry has been chasing after them all evening; and then when Harry finally admits defeat he and Teddy meet and Teddy puts his hand on Harry’s shoulder, and Harry grasps his arm, the dialogue goes like this:

Harry: I can see, but I cannot dance.
Teddy: I can dance, but I cannot see.
Harry: Would that I had the strength to do the things I see.
Terry: Would that I could see the things I’ve strength to do.
Harry: The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.
Terry: Blessed be the name of the Lord.

The play is described as a tragi-comedy and indeed it is marvellous funny in places, a dark melancholic humour, the second act set in the middle of the war zone is largely chanted throughout, the black humour of soldiers caustic and yet comradely; with the occasional bizarre vignette as a stretcher party carries through two wounded soldiers and ridiculous orders come down from battalion HQ.

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