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Mick Jagger’s inaccurate passport. Note, ‘Dartford’, not ‘crossfire hurricane’.

I’ve recently been reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘How to Read Literature’. Terry Eagleton was once one of academia’s most interesting and, if you can believe it, entertaining writers on literary theory: a bullish Marxist who put the catholic into Roman Catholic. His most famous book, ‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’ (1983) remains a scalpel sharp critical history of the field, and to its everlasting credit, it makes you laugh too. ‘How to Read Literature’ (2013) is a much more accessible if timid read, intended as a kind of instruction manual for students of close reading, a sensitive account of different ways of reading a text. I mention it because in it Eagleton writes an interesting chapter on the openings of novels. He begins by circling around this opening line from EM Forster’s A Passage to India:

Except for the Marabar Caves— and they are twenty miles off— the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.

His analysis of this line—which you’ll have to read the book for—stirs a broader commentary about novelistic beginnings:

As with the opening of a lot of novels, there is something of a setpiece feel to this, as the author clears his throat and formally sets the scene. A writer tends to be on his best behaviour at the beginning of Chapter 1, eager to impress, keen to catch the fickle reader’s eye, and occasionally pulling out all the stops. Even so, he must be beware of overdoing it, not least if he is a civilized middle-class Englishman like EM Forster who values reticence and indirectness…

The poise of the syntax… is elegant in an unshowy kind of way. It is deftly managed and manipulated, but with quiet good manners refuses to rub this in one’s face. There is no suggestion of ‘fine writing’, or of what is sometimes called ‘purple’ (excessively ornate) prose. The author’s eye is too closely on the object for any such self-indulgence.  

Reading this made me reflect on the opening of Barry’s novel. Eagleton, of course, is right about the beginnings of novels. It’s something every GCSE English teacher cynically preaches to his students when asking them to write creatively: make sure that first line is a doozy. Get the reader involved; get them asking questions. And indeed, we see Barry keen to impress in the opening of ‘A Long, Long Way’. Compare the first line of the novel—

He was born in the dying days.

—with the first line of the second chapter.

Willie Dunne was not the only one.

If you want to be kind, you might say that there’s a fair amount to be said about that first line, but heavens to Murgatroyd! There’s very little interesting to be said about the second. The former is crafted, colloquial yet lyrical, ambiguous; the latter is throwaway, formless and vague. So perhaps that opening sentence—

He was born in the dying days.

—is worth dwelling on.

If I were asked for a single word to describe this opening line, the one that I would use is portentious. In any story worth telling, the narrator knows something important that we don’t, of course. The thing that the narrator knows at the start of ‘A Long, Long Time’ seems to be beyond the everyday, however, and gestures towards something of great moment. He was born in the dying days. The line has an obvious tension, between the birth announced at its beginning and the dying days invoked at the end, as if to announce to the reader, this is a story of life and death, no less, of beginnings and endings. While there is no contradiction here—a birth can occur during the last days of a historical period, say, or regime—there is an ominousness about the line. This birth seems out of place, or more correctly, it seems to have occurred at precisely the wrong time—in the dying days. On finishing the line, it is the nature of those fearful days that the reader is poised to wonder about.

The line is composed in such a way as to lead us to this question. It has two parts, pivoting around that word ‘in’. The first half of the sentence reads ‘He was born in’. The text begins, then, with the simple promise found in every realist novel, the creation of character from believable detail. We probably expect something documentary to follow: ‘Dublin’, perhaps, or ‘1896’, if we were particularly wonderful guessers. We don’t get it. The second half of the sentence holds off this satisfaction, for the mysterious man who is the subject of the sentence was born “in the dying days”.

The surprise we might feel when we read this follows on one level the nature of our everyday encounter with language. If we went to Wandsworth town hall, say, and asked a registrar when or where a particular person was born, we would be surprised to receive an answer like “He was born in the ripe fullness of time”. Similarly, if we read a newspaper obituary that read “He was born in a crossfire hurricane” we would suspect either the dead man was Mick Jagger, or the writer was cheerfully describing a very traumatic birth indeed. Our first expectation in many, but by no means all circumstances, is to have a literal and the factual statement follow the words, ‘He was born in’. What in fact follows is metaphorical and idiomatic.

Now, because this is a literary text, this isn’t quite as bizarre as the situation outlined above. We are schooled to expect surprising metaphors and florid language in literary texts, and our use of language, after all, is contingent on circumstance and expectation. And indeed the phrase ‘in the dying days’ is not so strange as to be outlandish. It is an idiom, a figure of speech familiar enough to many English speakers, that means ‘in the last days’ or ‘at the end of’. As a phrase we commonly find it appended with ‘of’ and then, again, a phrase or word more concrete: ‘the Nineteenth Century’, ‘the fin-de-siecle’, ‘British rule in Ireland’, ‘1896’, and so on. In paring back the longer, more precise idiom to the ambiguous metaphor that is its stem, the text cleverly holds off the reader’s satisfaction of meaning for a second time.

It also revives what was previously a dead metaphor— that is, a piece of language so overused as to have lost its original interest and suggestiveness. Once clipped of its withered leaves and knotted wood, the stem phrase left, ‘In the dying days’, now regains a little suggestive life. ‘The dying days’ now begins to darkly hint at apocalypse, at the end of days, rather than being merely some simple verbal colour used for describing historical dates or periods. Even if this were not a novel set during the First World War, we might begin to see the shadow of those coming events in this first line.

Finally, the abbreviation of the phrase also suggests another characteristic of Barry’s writing style. I am not simply referring here to the author’s surprising lyricism, his foregrounding of metaphorical techniques more commonly expected in poetry than prose. Rather, it is the writer’s use of idiom that is interesting. For in writing of ‘the dying days’ there is a sense that Barry is employing colloquial as much as poetic language—that he is using a familiar language about a familiar subject. That familiar language, it seems logical to propose, is the everyday language of the English-speaking Irishman (the name is for the dialect proper is Hiberno-English). And the familiar subject for these Irishmen? Endings, clearly: of the unmourned Nineteenth Century, of British rule, and of those Irishmen subject to the violence of that rule, with its history of immiseration and famine. This opening line tempts us to listen in on, and get closer to this conversation of the Irish, where mention of ‘the dying days’ at any time carries its own irony of history.

He was born in the dying days: this sentence may have only seven words, but it contains several surprises. All the better, then, for us to read on.

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A remembrance ceremony, conducted at the very edge of the Lochnagar Crater.

Dead metaphors. Every English student should be aware of them: little zombie bits of language that once had a life all of their own, but now wander near and far, open-mouthed, vacant.

Metaphor, as your English teachers will hopefully have taught you, makes speech and writing vivid. It carries over meanings or concepts from one area of knowledge to another, giving life to the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.

So, to explain, I used a metaphor at the beginning of this article: I compared Dead Metaphors to zombies, speaking about something perhaps a little unfamiliar to you (dead metaphors) in the terms of something more familiar (zombies).

Over time, however, these new figures of speech– these metaphors– themselves become familiar through use. They no longer surprise or delight. The original life of the metaphor seeps away.

Ultimately you’re left with a word or phrase that is either a cliche (“I’m over the moon”, says the footballer without thinking, meaning he is delighted) or something that has become so common or familiar that you don’t even think of it according to its original metaphorical meaning anymore (“can you grasp that?” says the English teacher to her student).

So why the waffle about dead metaphors?

Well, the word ‘undermining’ is a dead metaphor. Today most people don’t think twice about the word when they use it. In everyday speech, of course, it means to secretly weaken someone– but we never think about where the word came from. That’s natural: dead metaphors are everywhere and if we stopped talking every time we used one, we couldn’t hold a conversation.

Once upon a time, however, to talk about one person undermining another person would have been a vivid, threatening use of language.

Undermining, in its original sense, meant to build a mine underneath something– say, a wall– and to use that mine to destroy the object. Mining has been used by the military since ancient times, but undermining became an important military tactic in the middle ages. Besieging armies would build tunnels underneath castle turrets, undermining the foundations of otherwise impregnable towers. They would then build fires (or, later, set off explosives) that would bring the mine down, and the castle walls with it.

That’s what undermining was: the way to secretively bring down a city or citadel. The first time someone said, “he’s undermining her” or “they are undermining us” must have been a striking use of speech. So striking, in fact, that someone listening repeated the metaphor– as did the next person. Or, perhaps, this figure of speech occurred to a number of different people as this frightening technology became more and more familiar to people. Ultimately everyone understood it in its new sense: to secretly weaken another person or thing.

We very often think of the First World War as a war of innovations in technology, of the shock of the new. Yet it is a striking fact that because 1914-18 was a static war of trenches and fortifications, this old military technique of undermining the enemy experienced a grim resurgence.

The Hawthorn Ridge mine, exploding on July 1st, 1916, the same day as the munitions that created the Lochnagar crater. This was the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Today we’re going to take a look at a remarkable and horrifying example of undermining that took place during the First World War.

At the start of the summer it was announced that a new and extensive archaeological dig is to go ahead, mapping what is known today as the Lochnagar Crater. The Lochnagar Crater was created by what was the largest ever mine ever exploded.

The explosion took place on the first day of the Battle of the Somme– July 1st, 1916. The Somme has today become a kind of shorthand for a battle with massive loss of life for little obvious gain. Yet as the Somme began there were high hopes that this was the battle which, after the terrible failures of 1915, would lead to movement on the Western Front. A massive attack was to take place on German lines around the river Somme, in the hope of both breaking through those lines and so relieving pressure on the French army at Verdun.

The attack on the German line near La Boisselle was to be led by three British Brigades, part of the 34th division. Two were ‘Pals’ brigades– the Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish– raised from Irish and Scottish Communities in the North-East. The third, the 101st Brigade, was amalgamation of different companies and regiments that included the Grimsby Pals and other fighting units.

The German trenches had sustained a week of incessant bombardment from British artillery in the run up to the first day of the Somme. This alone was expected to have decimated the German defences and demoralised the soldiers sheltering below. Yet, in addition to this form of attack, the British generals wanted to punch a hole in the German line, and to do this they planned to explode a massive pair of mines beneath the German dug outs. The Royal Engineers were employed to dig beneath and undermine the German defences– setting 27 tons of high explosive to go off before the attack. In fact, 28 Royal Engineers were actually killed when the explosives went off at 7.28 on the morning of the 1st.

The explosion of the mine was devastating. It lifted the French earth and all those sheltering within it in a massive column 1,200 metres into the air. When the air cleared, what was left where the German dug outs had been was a crater 120 metres wide (that is, around twenty metres longer than a football pitch) and 20 metres deep.

You might think that what we today call the ‘shock and awe’ of such a massive explosion would alone result in a British victory in this sector of the battle of the Somme. What followed, in fact, was a disaster for the attacking British troops. The German trenches had been dug deep and those in them had been well sheltered from the hellish bombardment in the week prior. The many German soldiers who had not been killed by the mine explosion simply took their places again in the line once the British artillery ceased (allowing the British soldiers to go ‘over the top’).

The British infantry, doubtless expecting minimal resistance, calmly advanced in long lines– as they had been trained– into devastating machine gun fire. Over 6,000 British soldiers died in the attack for the slightest gain in ground. It is, in its own way, a typical story of the disastrously planned and bloodily fought first day of the Somme.

You can find out about the new archaeological exploration of the site and the hidden tunnels that run warren-like through the area by linking to this BBC Radio 4 Today news report. It’s clear that even those experienced archaeologists who have begun the task of finding the remains of humans and human activites underground are deeply moved by what they’ve found. You can also read an excellent report on the BBC website about the attack, ‘WW1 underground: unearthing the hidden war’, that contains an TV interview within one of the actual tunnels with historian Simon Jones, explaining what life was like as a miner. As a literature student, to get a sense of the claustrophobic horror that an ordinary soldier experienced in tunnels beneath the battlefields, you should read Siegfried Sassoon’s grim poem ‘The Rear Guard’ (found in the Stallworthy anthology if you are an AQA AS student). You can, of course, find my notes for this poem on Move Him Into the Sun: though as the poem is still in copyright, I can’t reproduce the actual text here. The events of Sassoon’s poem take place near Arras, not La Boisselle, but give a flavour of the sense of recoil a non-miner felt about these tunnels far underground.

Today, what came to be known as the Lochnagar crater is now a privately owned memorial that you can visit– and you can find its website here. The website provides shocking footage of a similar mine being let off at the Hawthorn Redoubt (pictured above) and its terrible effects. It’s a chastening lesson in the extreme violence all too common during the First World War. The word ‘undermining’ may never mean quite the same thing again.