BBC’s Radio 4 first tweet for 2014 was a thrush with a bright blue sky background and a quotation from The Darkling Thrush – a poem that Thomas Hardy dated December 31st, 1900.
It’s all rather grim and gloomy.
The poem records the desolation of winter, the dregs of the day and the end of the century. This is no joyous time of anticipation and celebration but bleak pessimism.
Leaning on a gate he surveys a frosty spectre-gray and desolate scene of tangled vines like broken lyre strings. The nineteenth century is dead, a corpse and everything on earth seems as fervourless as he is.
But then the unexpected happens – the ecstatic carolings of a thrush.
The BBC tweeter sees this as signaling the hope that birdsong can engender even in the bleakest times. Now if this were Wordsworth this sound would lift the poet’s spirits, pierce the gloom, change the mood and redeem the day.
But this is Hardy. Clouds with silver linings are not his style. He is unaware of the blessed hope that the bird knows.
Foolish old thrush, singing in the wilderness.
2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. And I’ve been dreading it for a while.
New books and articles, television programs, blog posts and tweet accounts have already been firing up and there are significant and interesting new titles to read and review.
Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 was an early summer gift. And then there’s the Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 to read and the Imperial War Museums The Great War (Holborn and Roberts) not to mention the exquisite but shrink-wrapped The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme by Joe Sacco and Adam Hochschild. I’m really looking forward to cracking that open.
And that’s not even scratching the surface of the current stream let alone the full flood waters sure to be flowing by August.
But why the dread?
There was a time – and not so long ago – when interest in that war had faded, overshadowed perhaps by the second – a world war that could always be conveniently boiled down to a few iconic images and clichés of the Dunkirk spirit, plucky Londoners who could take it, doomed Battle of Britain pilots so romantic in their blithe dismissal of danger – all gas masks, rationing, Roll-Out-the-Barrel and Vera Lynn. And then a glorious victory. (I know I exaggerate. But really – the time stale images of level one references are enough to make one bonkers. War reduced to catch-phrases reproduced on endless coffee mugs and tea-towels. All so very jolly!)
The first world war seemed sepia and long ago by comparison even before the last decade or so of second world war nostalgia. Those who still remembered that time – who had served or lived through it – had the overlay of 1939-45 to contend with as well. To be consumed by that first (and so less – well – glamorous) war was rather odd and eccentric.
Children studied the poets in school of course and Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and the rest trotted forth as if to show that poetry was for boys and men and soldiers after all. And generations of school children studied the war once it made it onto to exam syllabi; TV series appeared and we all grieved at the horror, the mud, the waste, the futility of it all. Every TV family saga had its upstairs and downstairs drama of tragedy and loss.
And then the stream began to swell and grow. The story of that war became far more complex. The simple popular narrative began to fracture under the weight of new scholarship and individual recollection. We began to hear the voices of those who had been there and had lived to bear witness. There was an appetite for listening to forgotten voices who had memories to share.
The classic memoirs came back into print, popular TV series revisited the era, wonderfully evocative novels were written. What had seemed a minor interest became a cottage industry fueling a growing fascination. What had seemed so private and personal was now shared. The lingering memory and ghosts of the war had never gone away at all. And now they came back in full force.
So here we are – 2014, a year that in August will see the start of four plus years of events to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. And it does not take much to see just why the war retains its hold of the imagination. Visit any village, town or city in the UK (and of course, so many other places too, perhaps most notably France; this was a world war after all and not a British preserve) and there is the war memorial with the names of those who served and died. Often – even in small places – the repeated family names. Almost everyone knew someone who was there – almost every family history has a story of a place that is empty, a gap. It was a war that affected almost everyone with far-reaching significance. It was a breach in time, a break with the past, a conflict with such lasting repercussions we can only now begin to make sense of it all and see it in perspective. It was a conflict that changed everything. No wonder it has such an enduring hold on the imaginations of so many.
If the interest we’ve already seen in 2013 is any indication then it looks as if we are in for a tidal wave of commemoration.
And therein – perhaps lies the dread.
While I look forward to discovering new perspectives, having every greater access to a wide variety of historical material and to reading at least some of the new books I have two lingering fears. One is that all the flurry of attention will generate more froth than substance rather as the second world war can sometimes be seen as a digging-for-victory, keep-calm-and-carry-on caper. The second is almost a sense a general trampling and intrusion on what to me has always felt so personal.
My hope is that commemorative publications and programs do more than rehash what we already know – that they go deeper than the superficial poppycock layer of obligatory mud, waste, sacrifice, glory, myths and misperceptions.
On my next trip to London I look forward to visiting the reopened First World War galleries and exhibits. I’ve also signed up to receive updates on their Lives of the First World War an ambitious project to create a permanent national digital memorial to the 8 million who served. It will bring material from museums, libraries, archives and family collections from across the world together in one place.
So perhaps dread is not the right word.
Overwhelming though it all will be, there is just so much more to learn and understand.
In the end it is all so personal. And it is the individual stories that grip me – individual lives caught up en masse – not the troop movements, the armaments , the squabbles of the generals, and the battle plans. Rather it’s waiting out the bombardment in the support trench, the journey on the troop train, the day off from the munitions factory, the ambulance driver toasting cheese, the child in school learning of duty and Empire, of life going on in spite of the war.
And while I think I have read all the classic memoirs there are still more lives to know.
The fear, the chilblains, the knock on the door, the books they read and the films they saw, the daily routines of privation and privilege, the meals they ate and what happened to the cats, the acts of cowardice and courage. Those who foresaw the monstrous anger of the guns and those who were into cleanness leaping. The boy who grew up hearing the guns across the channel and never growing as tall as his older brother for lack of good food; the teenage girl who left home to drive an ambulance on the Western Front, the woman who gave birth during a Zeppelin raid over London, the widow who saw her dead husband walk through the front door, the drummer who joined the Guards and died in 1914 somewhere in France. What lives did they lead? How did they cope? How did they find the courage to endure? What were they thinking? What would they think of us now?
All the millions of lives changed forever, the enduring impact. Those are the stories I wish more of on my shelf and in my life. And unlike Hardy facing the growing gloom of a new year and a new century, I can anticipate that ever deeper knowing with degree of satisfaction.