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Thursday, 19 February 2015

Skin-dancing with the Snakes

This collection should come with a warning. Its word-charms get under your skin and wriggle it loose. Its rhyme-chimes sing you awake. The poet SusanRichardson strides into her third collection by CinnamonPress, abandoning rucksack-baggage, at ease with her own voice. In the opening poem, 'Let my words be bright with animals', she announces her song;

'Let my verbs be studded with Glow Worms.
Let Painted Ladies flit from each vowel I sound.'

Richardson's eco-poetry is as subversive as it is playful. A tiger-woman hunts 'not just for prey but for pungent signs/ that her kind has stopped declining.' I caught the spirit of AngelaCarter lurking in the undergrowth of her reworked fairytales; a daughter-turned-deer in 'The White Doe' is undaunted:

'Though the man I was meant to wed
turns hunter,
I will out-wood him.
For an un-life in the unlight
has taught me slinkness …'

At the same time, the bounce and burble of its sound-patterning, the glitter of its word-coining, reminded me of Gerald Manley Hopkins. So her starlings insist on their collective pronoun;

'… though she'll try to un-us
she'll cuss our dizzy-dazzle
us-gloss of flight
us loves to live thus
usly ...'

The lower-case title skindancing signals the collection's unifying theme. It is a twenty-first century Ovid's Metamorphoses that refuses species/ gender boundaries or lexical standardisation. Throw the dictionary away with your rainproof OS map. Richardson explores the 'Humanimal's cloven nature, our intimacy with and alienation from our animal origins. In 'born wrong-bodied', a mole-human celebrates ' mud's velvet hug' while in 'Chiaro', the pure animal Brown Dog 'sniffs your body-length/ then pisses stars and glitter';

'This is my joyspace! This! This! This!'

Others are more conflicted, like a seal-woman unwillingly changed:

'I had to earn the sea's esteem
spurn the urge to scream
beneath its upturned ceiling.'

('Homophoca Vox Pop')

Richardson's metaphors typically put you right inside the metamorphosis so you experience the sensuous possibility of another skin;

'What my spine believed were prickles of unease
were the birth-hurts of feathers.'

(The Pen is Mightier')

However Richardson also dances her way in and out of the skin of words as much as stories. She is teasing at the edge of language, its whoop-whooping and its gestures towards a physical reality. This poetry swoops from the ancient to the urban, from the lyrical to the colloquial, as easily its creatured humans shape-shift;

'… and i look
down and omigod
my belly's covered
in scales and
i'm like
wow Sri Lakshmi
what have you
done here? … i'm
totally cool
with it though ..'

(the full moon)

As in texting, sentence lose their capitals but the polyphony of voices gets ever more fluid. They slip the boundaries of 'man-made' grammars. Word-classes revolt and re-form; neologisms slither into animal language – the 'rrrrrraaaaaw' of the lion, the 'gubfobs shrull glupper' of seal-speak and best of all, the vowelled-sibilance of a merfolk transcript complete with an extended 'translation';

Flosha plisha flof sleeshi
ull sosh hallisha soosh.
Blip floff mosh ussa lasha.'

('Sleesh Flosha')

I haven't even mentioned the wonderful illustrations by Pat Gregory which 'con-verse' with the poems. They match the closely-textured nature poetry and catch the undertow of its mythologising. Richardson is a 'Wales-based' poet and Welsh stories and place-names lace the collection with a distinctive Celtic tang. Gregory captures this in her twining spirals of animal-human forms, in prints that echo the capitals of an illuminated manuscript and a cover as knotted as the 'what-animal?' riddles of the verse. The artwork heightens the pleasure of the word-singing. Gregory also captures the rich vein of humour in the poems, as in the wry illustration to Zoomorphic' where the Insomnia Llama clasps a sleepless woman, clothed in 'zzzzzz' pyjamas, in an unshakeable embrace. But above all, these poems will leave your skin tingling and your synapses firing. You will be itching to slip into a new pelt with a richer musk;

'When I tried it on I suddenly believed
I could speak shrimp and brine.
It made me feel oceanic.
Made me as high as a spring tide.'

Friday, 23 January 2015

'Puny' and the Angels

The cover of We Bleed the Same features a shaven-headed human figure staring out of a large porthole window at an alien planet. It thus promises an old-fashioned space adventure. But the title also alerts to us a story that wears its conscience on its sleeve. It recalled for me Shylock's urgent cry against racism in 'The Merchant of Venice': 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?' We return to this slogan when our protagonist, Danny Parque wakes up in a hospital bed on a Federation ship; the medics are 'blind to the affiliations of our patients.' Good news for Danny as he's the enemy until proven otherwise. Suffering multiple fractures and radiation sickness, he's already been through the wars and his mettle thoroughly tested. He started in chapter one as a Government Press Officer living a cushy life on the Imperial planet of LaMarque. But when the Governor proposed a return 'to the gulag' for the planet's uranium miners, Danny risked all and soon found himself outlawed. It's a theme that recurs throughout the novel. Later during his sentence aboard an Imperial Navy ship, his mentor 'the Yak', recalls his own moment of truth: 'Ijjalion happened … I held my soul in my hands … and I had to decide what colour it was. We were at the Gates of Hell and Cavendish pushed us through.' For months Danny tries to find out 'What happened at Ijjalion?' but no-one will tell him. When the answer comes mid-way through the novel we see why the Yak shuddered at the memory. It is a powerful scene worth waiting for which evokes crimes against humanity that are all too familiar in our own time and world.

It is in the early chapters when Danny adjusts to life as a 'puniserve' (or 'puny')and a 'noob' (newbie) aboard a battleship that the energy of the novel really picked up for me. Danny is a prisoner working off his time but this former bureaucrat makes friendships and learns to negotiate his way round the ship's pathways as well as the social dynamics. Wilkinson is brilliant at evoking the atmosphere of a group of men on a long-haul mission. The dialogue crackles with slang and sarcasm. Danny works as a 'beaner' or combat-messenger, so-called because while 'most of us are safely strapped into our chairs at combat stations … you get to rattle around like a bean in an empty can.' On board a whole cast of complex, vivid characters jostle for our attention and sympathies as they bicker and compete in the closed hierarchy of a battleship squadron. There is humour and plenty of sub-plots to thicken the intrigue. It reminded me of the gritty naturalism of the re-incarnated BattlestarGalactica TV series. You can hear the creaking of those metal bulwarks and smell the stale air of their sleeping quarters. And like that TV series, David Wilkinson also does peril and bloody battle scenes with great conviction.

So why didn't the opening chapters work so well for me? I did feel the protagonist's first moral crisis was rather rushed and  I likewise found the figure of his La Marque girlfriend Sandie rather flat and perfunctory – it didn't feel as if he was losing much by being torn away from her and his home-world. Perhaps I might have thought Wilkinson was less confident in his female characters till we got to his hero's stint on the Federation ship where he encounters a number of compelling women with fascinating back-stories. A major, an interrogator, a 'bunkie' – they each challenge and change Danny in different ways. I was impressed that this 2nd act of the novel opens a whole new world that is just as vividly realised and engaging as the Empire ship. And the moral compass Danny thought he had held onto now starts twitching in wholly different directions as his 'captors' persuade him to take sides with the Federation. The mission to Ijjalion will clinch it. But while Danny keeps searching out who to trust, the author is probing the humanity, messy and vulnerable as it is, of each of his characters.

The character arc of Danny is certainly satisfying as he develops from a rather shallow Governor's assistant to a critical, questioning man of action at the front-line of two competing empires. However I think the author could trust his readers more to reach these conclusions and judge the hero for ourselves. Quite frequently, other characters step in to pronounce on David's moral fibre in case we've missed the point: 'You had it all and made a stand. And then every-time you came to a crisis, you've chosen what you think is the morally right path …' The plotting is ambitious in scale as the action moves through four different planets or ships, each bringing further revelations and tests of loyalty for Danny. If the section on the world of Engalise seems to digress somewhat, it is clearly laying the groundwork of interplanetary histories and divergent cultures that will sustain multiple narratives of 'the Angelican saga' to come.  (Unsurprisingly, on the publisher's author page Wilkinson lists Isaac Asimov with his masterly 'Foundation Trilogy' as an early influence.) So a word to the editors at Inspired Quill Publishing – I'd have loved a glossary for some of this that I could refer back to. But the pace picks up as Danny and his new Federation comrades head 'home' to La Marque for a show-down. A very well-executed invasion scene, lots of twists and reversals, jet fire and sonic booms and a cavalry of horses all bring the rollicking adventure to a shocking and suitably thoughtful conclusion.

In the parlance of the novel, this writer is a 'noob' but certainly no 'puny'. The writing grows and matures much as its hero does. It finds its stride some way in and goes on to earn its place in the stellar fleet of spaceship sagas that thicken the skies of our sci-fi universe. The intricacy of its world building, the dark themes of political conspiracy and state repression, the heartfelt conflicts of its characters are all sure to bring readers back. I can only hope the sequel will excavate more of the history of these feuding galactic empires, as well as their hard-fought futures. All in all, it was a well-crafted and enjoyable debut from Wilkinson and when Danny dusts himself down, he surely has plenty more to deliver as the hero of an unfolding epic. If you like your science-fiction intelligent and intense, this is one saga to follow.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Rocks, Geeks & Space Poetry

Like so many others this week, I have been mesmerised by b/w photos of a rough-hewn, two-headed rock drifting through the cosmos. The textured solidity of that mass, etched in scant sun-light, shadowed by space dark, is hyper-real in these images; snapped and dispatched back to us by some intermittent thread of a signal. And in the corner of the shot, a coat-hanger wire or an improbably shiny box like the receptacle for a magician's trick. The aluminium bug we landed on an ice bullet; two-leggedly gripping its alien surface. Or maybe not so alien for we may have time-travelled back to our own nursery. This primal landscape is apparently as it was soon after that whirling moment of slapdash cohesion that yielded our own solar system. It holds the secrets like some long-forgotten corner of the Tardis.

Beyond questions like 'how did we do it?' or 'why did we do it?' (for we are suddenly 'we', that ingenious restless species again) is the matter of how did someone even imagine this as a possibility?It took a quarter-of-a-century and a generation of scientific organisation and some cutting-edge technology but it started as a wild ridiculous laugh-of-an-idea in somebody's brain. I was addressing this very theme, as it happened, with Leicester Astronomical Society, in a talk/ performance on The Men Who Raced to Space on Tuesday. Quoting from my forthcoming book, I argued: 'Imagination was our first rocket; long before hydrazine or aluminium were invented, it lifted us into orbit.'

 I went on to observe how science-fiction seems to have been the nursery of rocket science, especially the stories of Jules Verne and HG Wells. Twentieth-century pioneers like the Russian Tsiolkovsky sketched out basic tenets of this new science in articles that directly responded to Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon. The Transylvanian Hermann Oberth practically memorised Verne's novels as a child and the American Robert H Goddard corresponded with HG Wells, his childhood inspiration. The same was true for the rocket engineers who came after, Sergei Korolev and Werner von Braun. My Ignition poems explored how they fixed their gaze on the moon as children reading bedtime stories.

The Space Race adventure of the last century turned out to be a tale as chilling as it is thrilling. In the Thirties, it matures into the amateur rocket clubs Korolev and von Braun joined. Like Big Bang Theory Geeks, they lapped up sci-fi movies and played with fire, setting off their stick-like rockets on wastegrounds with petrol-soaked rags. But then the Story Arc swerves into the murk of gulags and concentration camps, even as the revolutionary V2 rocket brushes the edge of space. And in the fifties and Sixties, the space race seems to be a sub-plot entwined in the more lethal Cold War narrative. The science never quite breaks free in this period of superpower vanity and posturing, some of it as deadly as the Cuban Missile Crisis - which literally displaced a Soviet Martian probe launch at Baikonur to get nuclear missiles battle-ready.

I must say the astronomers of Leicester, gathered in the Eggleston Suite of our National Space Centre, proved to be the ideal audience. Together we mulled over von Braun's meteoric rise (more Teflon coating than a Tory backbench), lamented Gagarin's early demise, gasped at Vostok 1, shuddered at the Nedelin disaster, hurtled through seven decades of the Space Race and shared some superior biscuits. Their organiser, Ann Bonell, was kind enough to post the following review of my event:

'Superb presentation by Siobhan at Tuesday's meeting of the Leicester Astronomical Society.  Wonderful mix of science and poetry.   Very thoroughly researched material on the history of the space race combined with poems that really spark the imagination.'

Once again, here is that symbiosis of art and science. The Astronomical Society's Facebook page is relaying hop-by-jump accounts of the unfolding drama of the Philae comet lander. Like-wise the European Space Agency itself. And hats off to the ESA. Not only have they funded and marshalled an array of scientists to build the machine and track it for 10 years - not only do they manage to control its functions from this mindblowing distance - but they find a way to communicate the mystery and thrill of all this to a complete layperson like myself. And in those extraordinary photographs and in their cogent interpretation of grainy images, I find a buried poetry that just needs the scalpel of a writer's pen to tease it loose ...

Sunday, 21 September 2014

When Geeks inherit the Press

I don't usually review publishers on this blog but why not? An innovative bunch of bibliophiles like AngryRobot are well worth celebrating and with their reader-centred, geeky passion, they are quietly changing the landscape we all write and publish in. Angry Robot is the brainchild of MarcGascoigne, its MD, who on Thursday last regaled LeicesterWriters' Club with tales of life on the inside of the machine. Formerly peddling genre books to 'spotty 14 year old boys' in Warhammer shops, his success in this niche led to the publisher giant HarperCollins approaching Gascoigne in 2009 to 'come do something innovative for us.' It's to his credit he knew exactly what he wanted when that offer came knocking. Angry Robot's mission was to break out of the mould of 'books with spaceships or wizards on the cover', as their mission statement says:

'To the new generations of readers reared on Dr Who and Battlestar Galactica, graphic novels and Gears of War 2, old school can mean staid, stuck in a rut. “Crossover” is increasingly the way forward and you’ll find plenty of it here … if there’s an energy in a book that gets us jumping up and down, we’re all over it.'

So far, so good for sci-fi/fantasy fans – but what about the rest of us? Gascoigne's business plan also intended to shake up the prevailing mode of publishing. 'Corporate monoliths', move over – 'we're hobbyists, fans, geeks, nerds' – the people behind Angry Robots are the readers as much as they are the producers and marketers. For geeks, read 'people with a passion for sharing stories'. They therefore proposed a 'menu of formats' that includes Physical paperbacks, Limited run special editions in leather or hard-covers, eBooks, Downloadable audio and release of the text in all of these formats simultaneously. I lost track of the plot twists he related around ownership and sell-ons with the publishing giants but they still have 'partners' in Faber and RandomHouse and the mission is intact. An example of their reader-friendly approach is their current offer of the Angry Robot Clonefiles programme;

'a growing number of indie book shops in the UK and the US are able to offer their customers both the paperback and eBook version ... for just the price of the paperback. So you can buy the ebooks for yourself and give the paperbacks to your friends and loved ones as presents.'

See? They get that readers enjoy both the physicality of a well-produced paper copy and the convenience of e-readers. And they know that part of the pleasure of reading is sharing stories. This is especially true of the genre they deal with where typical readers get through dozens of books and tweet and blog about them, in between running up costumes for another steampunk convention or trying out the last game. (These are the same fans who kept Dr.Who going through the dark, wasteland years by writing their own fanzines and novelised episodes.)
I have been especially impressed by Angry Robots' canny approach to harnessing their readers' passion for 'finding the good stuff' and passing it on. On their website, they are recruiting a 'RobotArmy' of reviewers and bloggers who can 'Take the Robot's Shilling' and download Advanced Review Copies in exchange for an 'honest review' on sites which have their own established genre audience. (Loving the BattlestarCylon references btw in the red-eyed robot logo.) Recently I watched on Facebook as Rod Duncan's new Steampunk novel, TheBullet-Catcher's Daughter garnered dozens of reviews, interviews and blog tours months before the official launch. Gascoigne told us they only have 5 people working for Angry Robot, yet they have hundreds or possibly thousands of committed fans sifting and promoting 'the good stuff'.

So the occasion for this fascinating industry speaker was a book launch of TheBullet-Catcher's Daughter, a new title by Angry Robot. The event was hosted by Leicester Writers' Club and the author was our own Rod Duncan, a long-standing member, previous crime-novelist and well-respected writing tutor. It drew the crowds who rose to the invitation for Steam-punk fancy dress with a gusto that would have endeared the boys from the BigBang Theory. Marc, who delivered an entertaining history of the new genre ('Steampunk is what happens when Goths discovered brown') turned up in the uniform of a Nerd. The rest of us sported hat-pins, airship goggles and scarlet brocade corsets. As ever, I'm grateful to Ambrose Musiyiwa for his photographs which captured the fun and the readers' rapture at Duncan's taster chapter. We snapped up copies, snaffled cake and not a one of us won't have learnt something about how to keep our readers close in the game of 'pass it on.'

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Eye in the Door

This book is shockingly well-written. Think Dante's Inferno with an undertow of Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde, bundled into a respectably precise historical novel.  The second in Pat Barker's WW1 Regeneration trilogy, it quickly outstrips the first novel in its revelations about a war we think we know and in its power to move and unnerve us.

The first book, Regeneration was fascinating in its insights into the world of Craiglockhart's military mental hospital and the pioneering treatment of the true-life Dr. Rivers. If you've been impressed and scarred by the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, you'll relish the portrayal of their friendship in this brief haven from the Front. I hadn't realised Owen's poetry was rooted in River's 'dream therapy' as well as Sassoon's editorial eye. The novel probes how the British Establishment declared Sassoon temporarily insane rather than deal with his powerful Declaration Against the War and traces the collusion of his humane and conflicted doctor with that process. I like very much in this novel that we only revisit the landscape of the war itself through the men's night-terrors and memories ceded under hypnosis. Their phobias speak far more loudly than their mutism or stumbled confessions; such as the man who cannot eat at all after his front-line encounter with another man's guts. This distancing device actually made the battle scenes far more terrifying.

Craiglockhart Military Hospital in WW1 -

But 'Eye in the Door' is a darker beast, if that seems possible, after the trench-bound nightmares of River's patients in Craiglockhart. In the second novel, Barker has melded her forensic period research with her considerable powers as a storyteller to surprise us with a Home Front that is as dystopian as the hell of No Man's Land. This is the world of MI5's pre-cursor, the 'dirty war' of propaganda and spying. As much as Rivers is applying early Freudian techniques to helping his patients defuse their post-traumatic stress, so Barker is probing the twisted psyche of a nation at war with itself. Her story pulls in two landmark court cases that defined the neuroses of an age - the rigged trial of a working-class pacifist woman for allegedly planning the murder of Lloyd George - and a libel trial in which '47,000' of Britain's elite were reckoned to be colluding with the Germans for fear of being exposed as 'sodomites' and 'degenerates'. Barker is very astute about how the cult of masculinity in WW1 threw up this frantically homophobic backlash during the most intense years of the war. Episodes detailing the brutality meted out to conchies and strike-leaders broaden the picture of a state ruthlessly suppressing dissent with some positively Orwellian scenes in prison cells.

However that's just the backdrop - because what really rivets us is the figure of Billy Prior, a soldier home on sick leave, roped into the intelligence service while he struggles to digest the horror that caused his breakdown. Prior proves to be a far more compelling protagonist than Sassoon. A working-class man who achieved officer rank, he is now thrust into the company of the class he so despises. A bitter, angry, caustic yet ambitious soldier, he is secretly terrified by his own hatred of civilians and the violence he senses simmering beneath the surface. To add to his self-loathing, his sexuality is also urgent and aggressive, veering into the 'deviant' in an episode of 'cottaging' that seems all too familiar. Rivers is the one person who can save him, yet their sessions often flip over into a verbal sparring that threatens to drag the doctor's own traumas into the light.

The novel's feverish atmosphere, all graphic social realism shot through with something almost surreal, is heightened by two powerful motifs. The 'Eye in the Door' is a throwback to the shell-shock incident that first unhinged Prior. But it also alludes to his new role as a spy in the service of an increasingly repressive state. And then there is the Jekyll and Hyde allusion, which not only attaches itself to Prior's bouts of memory loss but seems to say something about the whole culture of soldiers disassociating themselves from the violence of combat, as Rivers realises.

Johnny Lee Miller & Jonathon Pryce as Prior & Rivers in film

The barely contained rage and fear of Prior is a grenade we continually expect to go off in the novel. But he is possibly saner and a good deal more self-aware than the society that has recalled him from the trenches but which will soon re- assess his 'fitness for active service'. Although Barker's war-torn England is a deeply disturbing world, I was reluctant to leave it at the end of this second book and certainly want to see more of both Prior and Rivers in Part Three. Taken as a whole, this trilogy is a towering achievement of storytelling and a fittingly complex response to the catastrophe of the so-called 'Great War'.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Postcards from a Digital Dug-out

August is a strange month to be sitting in a locked room. Curtains closed to keep the blaze of sunshine from the obscuring the computer's glare. Half-starving, shivering in trenches (imaginatively) whist outside summer burgeons and allotments fatten. But I was excited to be leading my first digital writing residence and for seven days, it felt as if the flickering screen was my patch of sky. When I wasn't googling research sites, jotting exercises or tweeting about it, I was waiting for the cheep of e-borne post. The residency was commissioned by WritingEast Midlands in conjunction with a national body responsible for organising suitable cultural commemorations of WW1. Someone in 14-18-NOW had the idea of a unique 'memorial of words' from today's generation and nationwide, schoolchildren, pensioners, squaddies and civilians, writers and other artists, were drafted to pen a Letter tothe Unknown Soldier of Paddington Station.
He's an approachable soul. When you get above the height of the marble plinth, he looks like an ordinary young man from your street. In the bulky uniform of a WW1 Private, he wears a voluminous greatcoat and a non-regulation knitted scarf. He is reading a letter and the 14-18-NOW project invited us to write that Letter From Home. But we had seven days to play with so I devised exercises each day on themes around the Paddington statue - or 'our friend Tommy' as we came to call him. Moving through reflections on the STATION, BOOTS, LETTER, HELMET, SCARF, GREATCOAT and MEMORIAL, we edged further and further into his nightmarish world of troop trains, trenches, shell-holes. It was impossible not to be disturbed, horrified and deeply saddened at the industrial slaughter and daily privations these Tommies suffered.

For me, the experience was lightened by the beautiful writing and enthusiastic engagement of the week's work-shoppers. As it turned out, these included some experienced writers, already knowledgeable about WW1. Each day along with writing prompts and exercises, I posted videos, images and web-links garnered from a wide range of on-line sources. We explored the WW1 'field' postal depots and a French cottage industry producing silk  embroidered postcards on a huge scale for soldiers to send home. We wrote about trench foot and shell-shock, about Boy Soldiers (Britain's 250,000 underage recruits) and dawn executions. My 'posties' delivered witty, insightful and moving accounts of desert bombing raids, 'Munitionettes' and life on the Home Front too. After all, this 'Total War' not only spanned the globe but revolutionised social and gender relations as well as the technology of killing human beings in unforeseen numbers.

A century on, a digital writing course is probably a fitting venture for 2014. The unpredictability of who and when was a challenge for me but the flexibility was appealing to workshoppers. With open access 24/7, they could pick through which of the resources and exercises they wanted to tackle and post when they were ready. An attempt at 'live workshops' faltered – it proved better for people to work at their own pace. But they could share the 'texts' they produced – poems, stories, dialogue fragments – and converse with each other via forumthreads. I critiqued each piece posted but also found their feedback invaluable on my own attempts at exercises. So fruitful was this, that subsequently I have drafted a dozen 'Unknown Soldier' poems. An unexpected bonus.
When we emerged blinking from this digital dug-out, it was the 4th August. We were posting our final Letters just as the nation marked the 100thanniversary of the War declaration. A sobering moment. But also the culmination of a week's creativity, exploring our own responses to war, and imaginatively re-entering that charged landscape of the past. I am grateful to WEM for the opportunity and to my 'posties' for their openness to writing challenges, their willingness to venture into some dark places and their companionship. I hope we shall see more of their WW1 writing but you can read their Letters to 'our friend Tommy' along with 21,408 others on the 14-18-NOWUnknown Soldier website. They will be available to read there until 2018 when they will be stored permanently in the British Library's digital archive. At which point, our voices and letters will merge into that polyphonic postbag that is our own 'history'.

Monday, 4 August 2014

When the Lights Go out

We've had ... years to think what war is. To me, it's a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn't speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?"

Harry Patch, Britain's Last WW1 veteran in 2004

As part of a writing project, I have been immersing myself recently in documentaries and books and on-line research about the First World War. It's a dark place to go at the best of times. I have been especially moved and frankly disturbed by the testimony of survivors of the trenches who in their final years tried to voice the terrible experiences of their youth. 'LastPost', edited by Max Arthur, brought together interviews with 21 of the last British veterans back in 2005. By now, only their words remain. A good third of these veterans were BoySoldiers, amongst the 250,000 recruited during Kitchener's campaign. In film footage from the Somme and other front-line coverage, these child faces were all too recognisable. And last night I was watching the same generation on TV recounting how they came to be caught up in the 'Pals Regiments' of that war. Raw, heart-breaking accounts of the friends they lost, of the wounded, of the 'wall of bullets whizzing by' as they stumbled over the top.

I am still trying to take in my feelings about all of this as today our WW1 commemorations reach one of those milestones with an evening of broadcasts and the 'LightsOut' campaign. This symbolic appeal to get the nation to switch off at exactly 11pm tonight is an echo of Sir Edward Grey's famous comment: 'The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." Grey, as Liberal Foreign Secretary from 1905-16, was part of the Cabinet that unanimously signed the British Declaration of War – so he knew all about that earlier 'switch-off'.

A hundred years ago then, our politicians and generals declared war, along with their counterparts in Europe. As summer waned, they marshalled music-hall acts and sportsmen, viscounts and ministers, editors and poster-makers, to bang the war drums. They handed out white feathers. They promised 'see the world' and 'home by Christmas'. They said they'd 'make a man out of you.' They shamed and applauded and corralled a generation of youngsters into the Recruitment Office. 'You're just the Boys we wanted', said the Sergeant as they arrived. They openly signed up children who 'lied' about their age. (The youngest in this country was twelve.) 'I thought I was a big man,' said William Roberts who joined up at 17, 'but I got a shock.'

They sent Our Boys to the Front often on cattle trains 'with a little straw on the floor'. They shovelled them into trenches to crouch and sleep where they could. Up to their knees in water, under shell-fire, often with little to eat, for days or weeks at a time. The war broke men into pieces but the Army patched them up in military hospitals and sent them back. They didn't only shoot the enemy. They shot men, and children too, at dawn when they fell apart. 'Age no excuse'. 'Shell-shock' something that only happened to officers. Cecil Withers, one of those Boy Soldiers who enlisted at 17, said: 'Our people treated us like dogs. They were cruel bastards compared with the Germans.'

A memorial modelled on 17 year old victim, Private Herbert Burden

The undoubted bravery of those who enlisted and their comradeship and lifelong friendships were smothered under horror. Men left crying for help in all languages in No Man's Land. Veterans' descriptions of those scenes will stay with me a long time. And the living too eaten by rats and cockroaches and the inescapable lice. Harry Patch describes how the men clung together and depended on each other:

'I mean, these boys were with you night and day … we belonged to each other. We were a little team together and those men … carrying the ammunition got blown to pieces. It was like losing part of my life. It upset me more than anything.'

The Armies of this 'Great War' invented new weapons and these boys and men on both sides were guinea-pigs for a new technology of killing. Green poison gas. Aerial bombardment. Tanks. The modern age speeded-up even as the war trapped combatants in holes in the ground. Another survivor, Albert Finnegan, decided after the war never to have children, 'I was not prepared to produce cannon fodder for the army, not fodder for industry.'

And the warmongers put off and avoided every opportunity for diplomacy. Until starvation at home and mutiny in the ranks and social revolution across Europe and the collapse of the German Army brought them to a railway carriage. At 5am on 11th November they signed the Armistice. And with the Truce agreed, for another six hours, they still threw men into the line of gun-fire; as many as 11,000 across all Fronts that finalday, just to make the German defeat a little more crushing.
This year David Cameron's call for a "commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, says something about who we are as a people" sparked a NoGlory in War campaign from many of our leading cultural figures. Even Jeremy Paxman, who dismissed 'conchies' as 'cranks' in his own documentary, commented 'Only a moron would 'celebrate' the war." Cameron recently published a Letterto the Unknown Soldier in Paddington Station which says:

'… our world would have been far darker if you had declined the call to act. Without your service, our security, our values, our very way of life would have been lost.'

Darker than this? 16 million dead in 4 years? And who was it who switched off the lights across Europe? This war was planned in gentlemen's clubs, in cabinet rooms, in palaces. They may not have understood what it would unleash but the slaughter was obvious long before Christmas. And still they prosecuted this war for four long years. Today their inheritors stand at Cenotaphs and in Cathedrals and pay their respects. And tomorrow they'll will go back to the business of making war. A part of the 'very way of life' they have never given up.  I believe they would do it again. I really do. If We Forget.