Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Research Corner #5: WW1 Reading Pt 2

As promised, I've been plowing on with the To End All Wars research, and not only that but I've been drifting into some decidedly odd waters, not to mention finding an excellent excuse to catch up with some of the TV watching I've missed these last few years.  Without further ado...

Death's Men by Denis Winter

Probably the best of the non-fiction books I've read, and certainly the best of the non-fiction books I've read that deal specifically with the war, Winters' text is a perfect combination of authorial presence and carefully selected first-hand material; as an author he often drops away entirely from his own text, before bouncing back with such a wonderfully judged observation that you want to hug him for it.  More often, though, I found myself being tremendously grateful for his being the one author who didn't at least passingly assume that I'd actually served through the First World War and was just refreshing my memory.  For a work of such depth, it's nothing short of amazing that he thought to cover such necessary basics as the make-up of British army units and just exactly how a trench was supposed to be built.

Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon

Complete on this occasion meaning three volumes and some six hundred pages, and its worth pointing out that the first of those volumes has barely a  thing to do with the war but an awful lot to do with Sassoon's interest in fox hunting and, to a lesser extent, cricket.  So if I tell you that there are no two subjects on earth I less want to know about, and then that I'm really glad I stuck with this, you'll perhaps get a sense of what an interesting, charming and - I think the precise word I'm looking for is companionable - writer Sassoon is.  He's just an entertaining guy to spend time with is what I'm saying, and his memoirs are a fascinating insight into first a vanished way of life and then the war that eradicated it.

Of course, if you're only interested in the war then it's possibly advisable to skip that first volume, although I can't help thinking you'd lose a lot of Sassoon's thematic curve by doing so.  (Of course, it's equally possible I'm only saying that because I suffered through it and so you should too.)

A Nurse at the Front: The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton, ed. by Ruth Cowen

Diaries are a mixed bag when it comes to source material, what with that natural human inclination to write about any old rubbish when they think no one's looking, but Edith Appleton was good enough to produce exactly the sort of diary that people find interesting and useful a century later.  She offers a terrific insight into WW1 nursing, into the war itself, and perhaps best of all, into the psychology of just what it was like to endure the almost unimaginable horror that she lived through and tried, with a startling amount of human decency, to mend in whatever ways she could.  And, unlike the last war diary I read, this one is accompanied by plenty of footnotes, photos and supplementary material to go some way towards justifying the price tag.

Downton Abbey Series 1

It was actually season 2 I wanted to watch, the bits where Downton gets turned into an officers' convalescence home being too perfectly suited to my needs to miss, but it seemed masochistic not to work my way up to that point via series 1 - and I'm glad I did.  Sure, I have some bones to pick with Julian Fellowes's attempt to convince us all that early-C20th toffs were damnably lovely people and that early-C20th servants were treated with decency and respect rather than, say, cruelty and contempt, but you know what?  This is still great telly, with superb production values.  And as a whistlestop tour of the years leading up to the outbreak of the war, it was actually quite a help from a research point of view as well. 

But say what you like about it, it still wasn't a patch on...


...which, as someone who doesn't watch a great deal of TV, was pretty much a revelation.  Seriously. is this what they're doing these days?  Making subtle, challenging three hour programs with the production values of a mid-sized Hollywood production.  Things sure have come on a long way since Byker Grove, that's for sure.

Oh god, I feel old now. 

Anyway, I've no idea how this holds up against the book, which I guess I probably should read, but regardless I enjoyed the hell out of it.  Nice, too, that they didn't try to sugarcoat the blood and guts (as I'll surely be bitching about Downton Abbey Season 2 doing in the next of these posts.)  Just a shame about the shonky CGI battlefields, but you can't have it all...

Conflict and Dreams by W. H. R. Rivers

Yes, that W. H. R. Rivers!  The dude who treated Siegfried Sassoon!  Like what happened in Regeneration!  They even made a movie of it and everything!

So anyway, I said the research was taking me down some odd avenues, and this is indeed a book of essays on the psychology of dreams (with, unsurprisingly, an emphasis on conflict.)  As such, not an easy one to recommend to the casual reader, and you'll probably have to take my word for it when I say that it was actually really fascinating.

On a side note, this whole research binge is making me more and more cynical about the publishing industry, since (as you can tell from that "we're just not even pretending to try" cover) this is blatantly a public domain essay print-on-demanded into life and then slapped with a seven pound price tag.  But maybe that's a moan for another time...

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