Monday, November 11, 2013

A Sheep's Ruminations on Those Who Made it Safe to Hang Out and Graze

Grave of William Wales, a Revolutionary War veteran, in Mexico, New York

Today is Veteran's Day.  I have not generally been a solid observer of the occasion.  Flags, poppies, salutes.  All good, but they never got in deep with me. They were as the headlines of distant disasters are to your average teenager. (And I am not making myself superior to average teenagers.  I think I still have a lot in common with them).

With age, however, and more particularly with the experience of writing this book, the centrality of a fighting force to all of us lucky enough to live in one of the world's great democracies has come home to me.   I read a lot about World War One as part of my research (there's a blog post down there that gives some of the statistics) and while the soldiers in that War, and in others since, fought for their own reasons, big or small, they did fight.  And defense was necessary. Their sacrifice has benefited in innumerable ways those of us who, for instance, sit at our computers in quiet corners of a green and pleasant land and write what we like, untrammeled by government censors.
They can't defend themselves...

There is so much jingoistic, militaristic, nonsense that comes trailing along with this kind of observation I almost hesitate to make it.  But I know it to be true.  The pacifists have their point, but I wouldn't want to live in a world of their making - at least not among human beings as they are currently constituted and especially not if the ones who fought against us in the World Wars had been handed victories.  (I showed up in upstate New York in 1965.  What life might have been like in this world in 1965 if the Nazis and the Japanese militarists had taken over in Washington and London in 1945 hardly bears thinking about).

Of course, there are still threats looming. They come from without and, we are learning, from within. (No government censor for my little blog, but perhaps a government snoop)?  There were some pretty good jokes made at Richard Dawkins' response to having his honey confiscated by the TSA ("Bin Laden has won!") but of course he was making a point. Something has been taken from us all in the name of Security and it isn't just Richard Dawkins' honey.  Veterans of the future are now in the making and they won't all in uniform. I think we might all bear that in mind on Veterans Day 2013.

 Today, though, is properly "Remembrance Day," as they have it in the Commonwealth and it is right to remember those who fought in those terrible, if straightforward, wars - especially that first World War which gave rise to the holiday.  In Up, Back, and Away, the War is an ever-present shadow over England in the 1920s.  Partly it is manifested in absence: the head of the Peppermore family was lost in the Somme. The two sons of Lord and Lady Fisher, great in promise, are in Flanders Fields.  Thinking about these fictional creations actually (I'll admit it) brought me to tears on more than one occasion as I was writing.  There are wounded men, like Doctor Slade, who have survived but who are marked forever. There is a man shortage that has left a generation of women in England without much hope of finding a mate. Over it all, there is a mourning for the lost world of Edwardian England.

One of the most useful resources I found in my research for Up, Back, and Away, and one of the most enjoyable was Siegfried Sassoon's famous Sherston trilogy.  It's a set of three books that chronicle the life of George Sherston, a fictionalized version of Sassoon himself, as he moves from pre-World War One England, through the War, and back out the other side into a changed world as a changed man.  The most famous and my favorite of the three is  Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. 

Here's an excerpt from the book that just left me gaping.  It comes just near the end as Sherston is thinking back to his time on the Western front.  It is so beautifully written (Sassoon was the great poet of the War as well, of course) and conveys so powerfully the plight of the World Warrior that I typed it out for my own edification. Here it is for any passersby, with thanks to Sassoon and all the rest who gave all, including their very souls. We who can still safely graze are grateful.

I can see myself sitting in the sun in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris behind the support line. There is a strong smell of chloride of lime. I am scraping the caked mud off my wire-torn puttees with a rusty entrenching tool. Last night I was out patrolling with Private O'Brien, who used to be a dock labourer at Cardiff. We threw a few Mills' bombs at a German working-party who were putting up some wire and had no wish to do us any harm. Probably I am feeling pleased with myself about this. Now and and again a leisurely five-nine shell passes overhead in the blue air where the larks are singing. The sound of the shell is like water trickling into a can. The curve of its trajectory sounds peaceful until the culminating crash. A little weasel runs past my outstretched feet, looking at me with tiny bright eyes, apparently unafraid. One of our shrapnel shells, whizzing over to the enemy lines, bursts with a hollow crash. Against the clear morning sky a cloud of dark smoke expands and drifts away. Slowly its dingy wrestling vapours take the form of a hooded giant with clumsy expostulating arms. Then, with a gradual gesture of acquiescence, it lolls sideways, falling over into the attitude of a swimmer on his side. And so it dissolved into nothingness. Perhaps the shell has killed someone. Whether it has or whether it hasn't, I continue to scrape my puttees, and the weasel goes about his business.