“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” (Sir Edward Grey)

Last week commemorated the centenary of the start of World War I, and all year events are taking place to mark the 100 years.  For me, one of the most beautiful and impactful images is the moat of ceramic poppies created by Paul Cummins at the Tower of London.


(Image from: http://modernnotion.com/poppies-flow-like-blood-at-tower-of-london-to-commerate-the-fallen-of-wwi/)

When you realise each of those poppies represents a lost life, the scale of the devastation really hits home.

I thought this week I would look at two poems about the First World War, one written at the time, one just a few years ago; both capture the fallout but in very different ways.

Firstly, what I think is one of the greatest poems ever written, Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen (1917). You can read the whole poem here. Wilfred Owen sent a copy of this poem home to his mother with a simple note “here is a gas poem”.  It’s a huge understatement; while the poem does describe vividly the effect of a chlorine gas attack on a soldier, Owen use the event to launch an attack of his own, on unthinking jingoism and contemporary British attitudes to The Great War.

He begins by describing the physical state of a group of soldiers:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,


Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue;

The total degradation of the soldiers is so vivid in these lines – young men, reduced to a walking death, defeated by the conditions of war if not the bullets.  This somnambulant atmosphere maximises the impact of the second stanza, whereby Owen shifts the focus dramatically, beginning with a shout, signalling the immediacy of a movement from “we” to the “I” that is haunted by the soldier’s death:

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


 In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

That pause after “lime…” is just devastating.  He forces the reader to fully consider exactly what it means – the pain, the terror, the torturous reality of this slow death – to be “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…”.

I’m going to quote the final stanza in full, because it is completely shattering, as Owen places the reader directly in the trenches, unable to turn their face away from the horror:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Owen was a hugely learned poet, his writing shows how to use fixed forms (iambic pentameter, sonnet form, rhyme schemes) to create something original and new.  When he breaks the rhythm of the poem so completely in the final line you know he has good reason.  By breaking the rhythm but keeping to the rhyme scheme, the mori/death of the soldiers, and death of the poem, seems simultaneously shocking, yet inevitable. His anger at the glorification of war is palpable, the poem’s power undiminished by the passing of time.

Secondly, The Last Post by Carol Ann Duffy (2009), which I won’t go into with nearly such detail in case you’re starting to feel drunk with fatigue as you limp on through this blog post. This was written to commemorate the deaths of the last surviving British World War I veterans, Harry Patch and Henry Allingham.  You can read the whole poem here, or if you prefer here is the very talented (and beautiful, damn her) Vicky McClure reading it:

It shows the lasting impact of Owen’s poem that ninety years later, Duffy frames her own poem around it. Within this poetic legacy, she simultaneously shows how war poetry cannot offer false hope, but it can offer solace:

If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin

that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud …

but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood

run upwards from the slime into its wounds;

see lines and lines of British boys rewind

back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home –

This is such a twenty-first century image, one Owen could never have used.  We are so used to seeing film spool backwards, the dead springing back to life in front of our eyes:

Dulce – No – Decorum – No – Pro patria mori.

You walk away.

You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)

like all your mates do too –

Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert –

and light a cigarette.

There’s coffee in the square,

warm French bread

and all those thousands dead

are shaking dried mud from their hair

and queuing up for home.

This premise captures how our knowledge of war is for most, gained through images rather than experience. At the same time, the use of personal names, the knowledge that these images as they run backwards are false, captures the desperation of real lives – family members and loved ones – irrevocably lost.

Like Owen, Duffy uses the impact of a short final line to dramatise fully the message of the poetry:

If poetry could truly tell it backwards,

then it would.

To end, a bit of light relief to help you recover and a reminder that not everyone likes war poetry, from Blackadder Goes Forth which managed to satirise the absurdities of war while driving home the immense human tragedy of it all.  Here’s a quote from the inimitable Lord Flashhart (Rik Mayall):


(Image from https://imgur.com/gallery/kaiSE )

“Just because I can give multiple orgasms to the furniture just by sitting on it doesn’t mean I’m not sick of this damn war.  The blood…the noise…the endless poetry”

“Hot in the city, hot in the city tonight” (Billy Idol)

It’s been a peculiar time in old London town recently.  The temperatures haven’t been excessively high, but the heat has been sooooooo oppressive.  Everyone’s in a constant state of exhaustion, muttering on about how they feel vaguely ill but don’t know why.  My colleague and I share an office that is 2mx3m max, and we have 4 fans blasting all day (what’s that you say? Air-con?  How you jest, sir!  This is Britain, we don’t plan for weather conditions in advance…) yet we still spend our time looking like this:


Then I travel home with psychotic commuters, too fatigued to reach their usual levels aggression, but absolutely furious at sharing sweltering carriages filled to capacity.  This being London, none of this is expressed verbally, we just look like this:


So this week I thought I’d look at novels set around summer/heat, if only because it gives me the opportunity to quote Sir William of Idol (a life-long love) at the beginning.  Firstly, the obvious choice of Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press, 2013).  The drought of 1976, (laughably short-lived for those who live in countries with serious drought conditions) has passed into legend in the UK:


(Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/may/17/water.ethicalliving)

This time is the setting for O’Farrell’s study of a family on the brink of total disintegration.

“Strange weather brings out strange behaviour. As a Bunsen burner applied to a crucible will bring about an exchange of electrons, the division of some compounds and the unification of others, so a heatwave will act upon people. It lays them bare, wears down their guard. They start behaving not unusually but unguardedly. They act not so much out of character but deep within it.”

Robert Riordan goes out to buy a newspaper and doesn’t return.  His disappearance calls his three grown-up children home to support their erratic, stubborn mother Gretta.  Michael Francis’ marriage is falling apart, as is his sister Monica’s.  Their younger sister Aoife returns from New York where she has been trying to build a new life, but like her siblings she finds the past still has power, its grip tightening the more you struggle against it.

“The house is full of ghosts for Gretta. If she looks quickly into the garden, she is sure she can see the ribcage of the old wooden climbing frame that Michael Francis fell off and broke his front tooth.  She could go downstairs now and see the pegs in the hall full of school satchels, gym bags […] The air, for Gretta, still rings with their cries, their squabbles, their triumphs, their small griefs. She cannot believe that time of life is over.  For her, it is still happening and will happen forever.  The very bricks, mortar and plaster of this house are saturated with the lives of her three children. She cannot believe they have gone. And that they are back.”

This is O’Farrell’s great strength: she captures and expresses the meaning of ordinary lives with such insight and sensitivity.  She exposes the dramas going on behind the front door of a London terrace house and shows just how extraordinary the everyday can be.  In Instructions for a Heatwave, the family members are fully realised as individuals, and how they interact and form a unit is entirely believable.  They are as flawed and infuriating, as loveable and loving as families generally are. O’Farrell is a hugely gifted writer, able to make the commonplace compelling. I highly recommend Instructions for a Heatwave, as I do all her novels.

Secondly, the wonderfully titled Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Vintage 2012). OK, so I’m cheating.  This book is nothing to do with summer, but it has ice-cream in the title so I’ve decided the fit is good enough. I began reading this novel with some trepidation; as the narrator is born into a fug of cigarette smoke and swearing,  I wondered if this was going to be a case of class tourism – let’s all laugh at/feel smugly superior to/be shocked by those on the breadline and their crazy, foul-mouthed, substance-abusing ways.   However, my concerns were ill-founded, as what emerges is a finely observed portrait of Janie, her relationship with Ma, and their endurance of poverty, domestic violence, and loss.  If this sounds bleak, it isn’t, because Janie just tells it like it is, without sentimentality, and at times this includes pitch-black humour.  For example, as they make their escape after Ma has been beaten up by the titular Tony yet again:

“ ‘Frankie, do yeh think I could tell people this is a nose job?’

He turned his head. ‘Not with the nose on you, sis. Sorry, but not a chance.’”

But Hudson doesn’t let the humour obscure the prices the characters pay for their life decisions:

“That first promise of silence shattered inside of me like the twist of a kaleidoscope; to be joined by so many more jagged secrets, pushed into a little body for safe keeping until they threatened to cut their way out”

Janie eventually begins to glimpse a way out of the cycle, using the stubbornness she has inherited from Ma to refuse to repeat family mistakes, or settle for what is expected for her:

 “When I opened the books, and I could open as many as I liked because it cost us nothing, the pictures lay on my eyes like oil on water and the dancing letters settled on my tongue with the smell and taste of black jack sweeties. While Ma bit at her lips, ripped at her cuticles and read old magazines, I was learning how stories could make me feel safe.”

Hudson has something meaningful to say, about how members of society can be demonised and demoralised by the total lack of wider concern for their lives, but ultimately what makes this book so affecting is the brilliant characterisation, whereby you’re left totally rooting for the:

“Ryan women, with filthy tempers, filthy mouths and big bruised muscles for hearts.”

Kerry Hudson blogs on WordPress here.

To end, it has to be Billy, offering a masterclass in lip-curling: