Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Research Corner #6: WW1 Reading Pt 3

It seems an age since I talked about my WW1 research; as far as I can tell, the reason isn't that I've been slacking off (though I did get briefly diverted into reading the diaries of South Sea Islands missionaries, for reasons that may become apparent one day) but that I read too many damn books at the same time and thus rarely seem to finish anything.

There comes a point, though, when however many books you have on the go you have to finish a few.  Unless you're reading, like, a thousand books simultaneously, I guess, but given that that would be idiotic and I'm not doing it, I have in fact managed to reach the end of a handful - not to mention some more TV and film research.  Here be my thoughts:

A Month in the Country by J. Carr

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I bought this, but whatever I had in mind, it wasn't what A Month in the Country turned out to be ... not a criticism as such, merely an observation.  It's a strange little book, though, whichever way you twist it; you could argue that it has almost nothing to do with the First World War and that it's about practically nothing else, and either theory would be as supportable as the other.

At any rate, I really did like it.  It's sort of a pastoral, for want of a better description, and deals with a subject that fascinates me and yet isn't talked about that much, at least when it comes to WW1: how the young men who returned with scars both physical and mental tried to (or tried not to) reintegrate themselves into civilian life.  As I suggested above, A Month in the Country mostly deals with that subject by not talking about it, but on reflection that's completely appropriate: surely that's exactly how most did cope with their experiences.

Beneath Hill 60, dir. Jeremy Sims

It only occurs to me now that the release of Beneath Hill 60 makes the Australian World War One movie an actual sub-genre, what with Gallipoli existing and all.  And just as that film imagined the battle of Gallipoli as being fought entirely by antipodeans, so Beneath Hill 60 seems to think that the tactic of trench undermining began in 1916 and was practiced exclusively by Australians.

That bit of nonsense aside though (and unlike every American war movie ever, it does at least acknowledge that other nationalities bothered to show up) this is a very good, if episodic, picture, and one that admits to a bit more strategic thinking on the Western Front than is generally allowed.  My only slight struggle was with the subplot about the protagonist's relationship with an underage (by modern standards, anyway) girl; it plays oddly, and the film at once seems to expect us not to notice and then constantly draws attention to that oddness.  Still, it's presumably in there because it happened, and I'd hate to be the one who criticizes a war movie for being too historically faithful...

Downton Abbey Season 2

Considering that this was the season I started watching Downton for ... look, uniforms! ... it was disappointing when it turned out to be not as good as the first, and not quite good enough to make me want to press on to the third, research be damned.  It all gets a bit soapy in the middle section is the problem, and certain characters and relationships start to grow a little absurd, and then in a few cases a lot absurd.  (I'm looking at you, John Bates - and I wish I wasn't.)  More than in the first season, I was also increasingly conscious of the ambitious time scale, and the fact that some plot-lines resolutely refuse to keep up with it in any logical way.

On top of that, from a research point of view it proved a disappointment, the threads that dealt directly with the whole "Downton becomes a WW1 rest hospital" development being amongst the poorest on offer.  (Note to every TV writer everywhere: the moment you use long term amnesia as a major plot point is the moment you've lost.)  And I know this is prime time television and everything, but if you're representing casualties of the most mutilating war in human history, a few bandages and the odd eye patch doesn't really do justice to the barely conceivable horror of it all.

Damn it, this is turning into an essay on Downton Abbey, which is the absolute last thing I want to spend my life writing.  Moving swiftly on...

Ladies of the Manor by Pamela Horn

This was brought to my attention by the author of an unreleased work more related to my subject, so it's probably something of a recommendation that I stuck with it even when it turned out that only the last chapter dealt, very briefly, with the First World War.

It's an intriguing overview of a subject that at first seems a touch limited, and then as you go on begins to impact on just about every aspect of Victorian and Edwardian society, just as those titular ladies did.  I'd have liked to see a just slightly more Feminist-minded take on the subject matter, which Horn often seems to be hovering on the verge of, and a little more psychological insight or even questioning would have gone a long way.  It's admirable in a way that Horn restrains herself from imposing modern standards onto her material, but it leaves a great many questions not only unanswered but unasked.  Still, a good book all told, and also a pretty good general insight into late nineteenth and early twentieth century history.

Rivers by Richard Slobodin

As biographies go, this is quite an achievement really, in that W. H. R. Rivers (brilliantly, the R. also stands for Rivers) was a fascinating individual and this is a crushingly dull little book, and it surely must take a certain amount of skill to write the one about the other.

In limited fairness, as far as I can judge this is only part of a larger biography, released as a pocket book style thing to cash in on the release of the Regeneration movie (hence Rivers looking an awful lot like Jonathan Pryce.)   But that hardly excuses its faults, which are mostly to do with Slobodin's assumption that we all know the period enough that he can name-drop even the most minor historical facts and figures without explanation and his fairly leaden prose.

Still, there's no getting around how awesome Rivers was - frankly the only way he could have been any more awesome would be if he'd listed ninja or astronaut on his CV - so if this is the only biography he gets then I suppose that just about makes it worth recommending.

The Psychic Battlefield by W. Adam Mandelbaum

With a title like that you'd expect this to be dismal, and lo and behold, it really was.  Frustratingly so, because there's just enough nods towards how interesting this subject could potentially be that you get to the end screaming out for a book on the subject written by someone a touch less idiotic.  Mandelbaum's only apparently genuine interest is in the CIA's remote viewing experiments, and everything else he treats with glibness, contempt and some entirely half-arsed research.  And the worst thing?  I'm pretty sure I've read this before, though I can't even begin to imagine why I would have.  Bad enough to read an awful book once, but twice?

No comments:

Post a Comment