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So, to the closing of the curtain on Part One of the novel, with this long and crucial chapter in which Willie witnesses the 1916 Easter Rising.

Summary— Chapter Seven

His leave over, Willie wakes in a long army barracks room in Devoy amongst many other men. Getting up, he urinates into a chamber pot which he then places by his bed, but in doing so he stirs the man in the bed next door. This man, an ugly Southerner, leaps up and knocks his own Bible into Willie’s full chamber pot. Willie offers the man his own family Bible, which at first placates him, but the Southerner then violently leaps on Willie and strangles him. Willie offers no resistance, until the Southerner suddenly lays off him, declaring in mitigation a murder would stop him being sent to France. He then proceeds to chat amiably with Willie about betting. He introduces himself as a Cork man, Jesse Kirwan. Willie introduces himself, and to the resigned question “What did the Irish ever do?” Billy answers that they died abroad lately. Kirwan laughs and thinks on Willie’s words.

Willie accompanies his strange new friend as they are transported through Dublin. Willie looks for Gretta; Kirwan sits on the floor of the transport, uninterested in Dublin, something Willie cannot understand. Willie eventually sees Gretta on the steps running down to the dock, and in return she sees him: the two wave enthusiastically to each other. Willie is elated. He talks to Kirwan, who mentions his father and asks what Willie’s father does. Willie answers that his father is a policeman. Kirwan replies his father, being against the law, would not approve. Willie asks what Kirwan’s father does. Kirwan’s cryptic reply is that his father is a lithographer, a word Willie does not understand, and this ignorance amuses Kirwan. Yet later Willie reflects that it is Kirwan’s ignorance of the character of the war that he is now headed towards which is worthy of pity.

Willie’s transport unloads its men onto the organised chaos of the docks. As the soldiers assemble, a horseman arrives bearing a message for the commanding officer. Amidst general confusion, Willie finds that he and the other men are being marched back into Dublin.

There they find the crowds already gone. Kirwan speculates that the war might be over and if it is so, he will, as one of Redmond’s Volunteers, leave the British army. Willie cannot understand Kirwan’s point and sardonically states that he too is a volunteer. When their column arrives at the O’Connell monument on Sackville Street (where his father played his part in the 1913 violence) the pair find a city in flux. Their column halts to see a thing that astounds Willie: a cavalry charge up the street. The gathered crowd cheers the chivalric sight before, even more bizarrely, firing begins from the General Post Office and cuts down the charging soldiers. Willie at first thinks the Germans have invaded Dublin. A civilian offers Willie a sheet of paper as he watches, and making to take it, an officer commands that Willie step back in line and not “parley with the enemy”. He tells Willie that if he takes the paper, he will shoot the civilian. Willie’s column is then marched across the city towards the Mount Street Bridge.

Willie’s column marches up Mount Street to find a battle ensuing, centred on a building to the left of the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, troops also advance. Willie’s column are commanded to improvise a barricade across the street by pulling out the furniture of local households. They then begin firing at the occupied building. A machine gun opens fire from the building, shooting down the advancing British soldiers on the other side.

Willie’s company are commanded to cease fire once it is realised that their own fire could be hitting the British soldiers opposite. Willie is dumbfounded by the scene. Belatedly, he realises that Jesse Kirwan is crying. Kirwan, having read one of the sheets blowing about the street, realises that the men in the building are “our fellas”, Republican rebels against the British. He is distraught. The command is made to prepare to charge under the cover of machine gun fire. British machine gunners, ensconced in a building on the right of the street, spot a young groom walking six horses on the road, and proceed to shoot him dead.

Willie and his comrades charge, and his many of his fellow soldiers are hit in the rifle fire from the rebel-occupied building. The charge only makes it halfway up the street before taking cover. Willie, stunned, finds himself next to an officer badly wounded in the shoulder. Suddenly a young man appears behind Willie holding a revolver. Nervous and pressing this to Willie’s chest, the young man declares that Willie is a prisoner. Willie cannot comprehend the man’s words, but the officer beside Willie immediately reaches over Willie’s shoulder and shoots the rebel.

Willie tends to the man on the floor, and asks him if he is a German. The dying man tells him he and all the fighters are Irishmen, then speaks an act of contrition before desperately grasping Willie as he violently chokes on his own blood. The blood of the man sprays over Willie in his long and horrible death. Willie finally says a quick prayer over the man’s dead body.

Willie’s company are withdrawn from the battle and marched back to the dock, where they are immediately decanted onto the troop ship. Confusion reigns amongst the soldiers. Willie worries about Jesse Kirwan and seeks him out on the ship. He finds him solitary beneath the ship’s second funnel as the ship chugs out to sea. They share a cigarette, and Willie asks whether the volunteers Kirwan declared membership of were the rebel force in the city. Kirwan, exasperated, explains that the rebels are those who disagreed with Redmond’s pledge to aid Britain. Willie, uncomprehending, explains that he is a volunteer too, but Kirwan points out that Willie volunteered in response to Lord Kitchener. He goes on to explain the origins of the Irish Volunteers as a Nationalist response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, with their pledge to resist Home Rule for King and Country.

Willie is nonplussed. He asks where it all leaves Jesse, and what the printed declaration he read about allies in Europe means. Kirwan explains that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity”, referring to the opportunity that Britain’s struggle abroad affords the Irish. Kirwan opines that he regrets not listening better to the lessons of his radical Nationalist father. Willie feels angry at Kirwan, and points out that many Irishman have died fighting against Germany, but intuits that his new friend, tolerant of Willie’s own ignorance, does not deserve anger. Kirwan’s final words to him are that he knows of the Irish dead.

Willie goes below decks to sleep and realises that his uniform is stained with the young Irishman’s blood. He tries to clean his uniform the next morning, but the blood will not wash out, and remains on his uniform until he arrives once more in Belgium.

Some thoughts on narrative

A remarkable set-piece, then, this eruption of the Irish struggle for independence within the narrative. The Easter 1916 Rising as depicted by Barry in chapter seven is as surprising to the reader as it was to the largest part of the Dublin population at the time— at no point in the chapter previous does Barry signal that Willie’s furlough is on the Easter weekend of 1916. Before moving on to ask questions pertinent to the study this chapter, I’d like to stop and consider the way that this chapter transforms the narrative as a whole.

Previously in the novel I think it is fair to say that we have been steered to anticipate that the events of Easter 1916 will feature explicitly or implicitly within the narrative (in any tale of a Dubliner during the First World War it could hardly be otherwise). The importance of the 1913 Sackville Street Riot in the story has implicated the novel’s main characters in a crucial event in the pre-war Irish history of labour struggle and civil rebellion. The description of the massacre of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers by gas at Ypres similarly entwines Willie’s experience as an Irish soldier within the complicated fabric of Anglo-Irish identities and loyalties, as this young Irishmen— indeed, at the time, a young Briton— fights for the British army abroad and sees his Irish comrades massacred. On a more subtle but perhaps more fundamental level, the language that suffuses the story— Hiberno-English— in its particular wording and unique syntax makes this a tale structured around an Irish lived experience, and specifically Irish ways of expression and thought. This narrative is ‘thrown’ into the Irish world. We rightfully expect, therefore, that the defining Irish political event of the First World War will make its force felt in the story: but perhaps not as directly as it does in this chapter.

I would argue that this is because the novel so far has been a story which has played on our readerly expectations of a number of other conventional narratives, despite its focus on the Irish and Irishness. First, and dominating the reader’s reception of the early part of the novel, we are reading a story about a young soldier caught up in the events of the First World War. The conventional First World War narrative typically tells of a young and somewhat naïve man journeying abroad to fight for his country, destined in doing so for an irrevocable change in the face of unimaginable violence and tragedy. Certainly the story until chapter seven has broadly followed this trajectory. Another conventional story is also nested within this narrative; the story of a boy and a girl who meet and fall in love, whose relationship will either succeed or fail. This subplot has teasingly remained nascent within the war narrative, but doubtless we anticipate some kind of deepening of the couple’s relationship to come, or an ending in some way caused by the war: again, a conventional element in war narratives. Finally, also nested within the war story, there is the story of the son who has lived in the shadow of his father’s desires, who has lived some of these as his own, but has begun to suspect their essential worth. The story, in other words, of an Oedipal rebellion that will create another identity for Willie, and the hard-won freedom of a knowledge that will encourage him to follow a new path in life.

The presentation of the Easter Rising at the end of the novel’s first act marks the moment when these conventional narratives are forcibly shifted or translated into a part of a different narrative, that of the historical struggle for Irish independence from Britain. The story thus far has been, as we have seen, particularly interested in Irish lives, and in its realist detail has traced many of the effects of British rule in Ireland. When the King of Ireland visits Dublin; when a supply trench in an Irish section of line is named Sackville Street; when Willie and his family live in apartments in Dublin Castle; when Christy Moran scorns the English and decries “the same fucking army that always done for us”, while fighting in that selfsame army; when Captain Pasley wonders at Moran’s lack of Gaelic; when marching Irishmen sing ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’, but also sing ‘Take me back to dear Old Blighty’; when Gaelic syntax or calqued words and phrases endure in the English speech of the narrator and characters—all these are among the signs and symptoms that show the effects of many hundreds of years of British colonial rule, seams that reveal the motley and variegated fabric of Irish identity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, in this scene that closes the first act of the novel, Barry’s narrative presents the eruption of violence on Dublin’s city streets, bringing revolutionary conflict front and centre for the reader.

This is, in one sense, a return of the repressed. Not that the Easter Rising is somehow a forgotten event: it is clearly central to modern Irish identity, as was made clear by the national remembrance of it in Ireland in 2016. This is not as true of British identity, where the centenary passed mostly unnoticed and uncommemorated (the Rising being a beginning of one forcible divestment of Empire amongst many others that still remains too painful to confront, perhaps). Nonetheless, in focusing on that peculiarly Irish experience of the First World War, Barry is engaged in the recovery of a forgotten history. Those Irishmen who fought with the British Army during the First World War have, in a sense, been orphaned by history: for a long time now, no nation has been particularly interested in remembering them as their own. To fight bravely for what was once an occupying power is no source of deep credit in a post-colonial nation like Ireland, fashioning a new sense of identity. Similarly, the sacrifice of outsiders for an Imperial nation at war may for a time provoke feelings of almost mystical reverence amongst some at home: but that recognition of contribution sooner fades away into disinterest and often, after a time, bemusement at the ties of feeling that once bound foreigners to the homeland (how many in Britain now understand why Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, West Indians and Irish, amongst many others, fought under the Union flag?). History has shown that bemusement has been shared in post-colonial countries too.

So it would be one thing for Barry to write that Irish First World War novel, to try and recover the Irish experience of fighting in the British army during the First World War, and present all the multifarious reasons for which Irishmen did this. In doing so, he recoups some of the meaning that the Great War had for a disparate people. The conventional First World War narrative has definitively been changed, however, when Barry presents a key moment of fracture in the history of both Britain and Ireland— that moment in Irish history when, as WB Yeats famously wrote, all “changed, changed utterly”. History by its nature is multifaceted, but revolutions demand you take sides, and to remember and represent the beginnings of one is to unearth the forgotten trauma of that choice. The narrative takes a significant turn in this chapter which means, whatever happens next, the story is more than that of an Irish soldier at war.

Questions

“It was the very seam of night and morning, and Willie woke with ease and freshness. His body was warm and his limbs did not ache. It as very odd really.” So this chapter begins, with a suggestive metaphor of dawn. A seam is the line where two fabrics are stitched together. In war zones, it is also a home to lice. Why do you think Barry begins chapter seven with this metaphor?

The mercurial character of the nationalist Jesse Kirwan is one of the most vivid to feature in the story so far. Yet the beginning of this chapter, with the altercation surrounding Kirwan’s urine-soaked Bible, has the exaggerated and confusing character of farce. What are our first impressions of the Cork man? Why does he act the way he does? Why do you think that Barry introduces Kirwan in this way?

The detail about Jesse Kirwan’s father is suggestive of a particular kind of upbringing or worldview, very different to Willie’s. One of the songs that Kirwan’s father would sing, and Jesse repeats to Willie, is the old Scottish folk ballad, Helen of Kirconnel— “It’s a good one,” said Willie (p.84). When Willie tells Kirwan his father is a policeman, Kirwan replies “My father wouldn’t think much of that. My father doesn’t hold with laws and policemen and the like.” When Willie asks if his father a robber, Kirwan counters that he is “A lithographer” (p.84). A lithographer is someone who produces printed material from lithographs, either in the form of pictures or text: what do you make of this cryptic answer? Can you build your own imaginative portrait of Kirwan’s father, given the information the narrator supplies? What kind of relationship do you think that he would have with his son? Note that Kirwan later ruefully notes of the Rising that “my father said it would happen. He sees a long way into things. And I should have paid better heed to him, I think.” (p.96)

It could be argued that Jesse Kirwan is a kind of mirror to the character of Willie. In some ways he is very similar to Willie, in others almost a reverse image. Detail the ways in which Kirwan and Willie differ as characters, and the ways in which they are similar. Why, despite everything, do these two young men get on?

“‘Step back in, Private,’ called the captain. ‘Don’t parley with the enemy.’ ‘What enemy?’ said Willie Dunne. ‘What enemy, sir?’” (p.88). Ever the innocent (or perhaps, in Jesse Kirwan’s words, a “gammy fool”), Willie’s confusion and incomprehension in the face of the Dublin fighting performs a narrative function. Willie is constantly asking questions that ask to be explained or making assumptions that demand correction. What freedom does Willie’s limited perspective on events allow the writer in presenting the Easter Rising?

“Their column was fiercely halted and things took place now that no one could understand the purpose of. For here now, as real as a dream as one might say, a little contingent of cavalry was drawn up just under the awnings of the Imperial Hotel…” (p.87). Yeats wrote that in the wake of the 1916 Rising that all was “changed, changed utterly”. Revolutions demand not only the transformation of objective society but also a shift in the perception of those living within that society. As Barry describes it, the beginnings of this occur in the tumult of the Easter Rising. In what ways is familiar Dublin defamiliarised in his description of the Rising? What does the rebel violence reveal about the relationship between the Irish and the British?

 Read the accounts of the Battle of Mount Bridge Street in the following two articles. Note that these two historical narratives take very different perspectives on the Easter Rising. The Western Front Association writes describing the Battle as one among a multitude of others fought during the First World War. The Irish Story article, taken from a larger historical work by John Dorney, focuses more on the Irish rebels. Consider the narration in these articles; the way in which the narrators’ perspectives and selection of detail produce different understandings of this battle in Dublin (both, I want to make clear, are well sourced historical accounts—we are not searching for falsehoods here). How is authority established in the narration, so that we believe these accounts the Battle of Mount Bridge Street? What people and events do these two historical accounts focus on? In what ways are statistics and speculation used in support of viewpoint? Are there moments that could be considered emotive or symbolic of a broader viewpoint on the Easter Rising in these accounts? The purpose of this exercise is not to find bias, as such: this would presuppose that there is some ideal objective narrative out there capable of being told. It is to discover the ways in which storytelling, and the forms we use in storytelling, necessarily produce meaning— and can direct the reader to find meaning.

Willie’s encounter with the nineteen year old Irish rebel (p.92-3) has the character of mythology; that is, it is a scene that could be seen as embodying or symbolising something essential about Ireland and conflict between Irishmen in 1916. It is also another example of the mirroring of character that features in this chapter. What misunderstandings are foregrounded here? How do the two soldiers treat each other? Does this scene suggest anything about the author’s perspective on revolutionary Ireland?

“Ah Jesus, Willie. That’s different altogether. You’re a volunteer for fucking Kitchener. You can’t be this thick. Look it, boy. The Ulster Volunteers were set up by Carson to resist Home Rule…” (p.95). Jesse Kirwan is more clearly a device in the narrative than any other character that has featured in the story so far. What function does this character perform in chapter seven? In what ways does this character give the reader access to a different understanding of the Easter Rising than Willie’s?

The new BBC adaptation of 'Birdsong' brings the First World War to our TV screens. (Photo: BBC / Working Title)

The big news in TV in Britain this week is all about a new adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s much-loved novel, Birdsong. ‘Sherlock’, it seems, has captured the nation’s hearts, and established the BBC as “the home of must-watch Sunday night drama”. ‘Sherlock’ is certainly doing something right– I’ve had one student ask me about reading the original stories, he so loved the newest Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation. I eagerly pushed him on. There is almost no reading pleasure as purely enjoyable as reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes mysteries.

I’m hoping that the TV adaptation of Birdsong will have the same effect on other students at Southfields– to run off and get the original book, or at least be inspired to learn more about the First World War and its literature.

Here’s a confession, though. I teach AS English Literature; I teach First World War literature. Yet I’ve never read ‘Birdsong’. I feel vaguely guilty about this every year. It is apparently the 13th most popular book that the British reading public has: there has to be a reason for that popularity.

So, I’m hoping that Abi Morgan’s adaptation inspires me too. The reviews seem to be good. I’m hoping that it’ll be something more than your average romantic historical drama– something more than some First World War booms and busts. We’ll see! Birdsong begins on BBC1 on Sunday at 9.00pm.

Three big names from First World War literature feature this week after a trawl through the infosphere, looking for First World War literary tidbits. The BBC and the Guardian come up trumps again with features on two of the poets whose work is studied on the AQA AS English literature course, while a reminiscence of lost childhood provides us with an unexpected view of the life of Vera Brittain.

Edward Thomas.

Poems by Edward Thomas and Robert Frost can be found in Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry, and you can find notes for the poems on Move Him Into the Sun. Frost was an unregarded young poet and Thomas a prolific but frustrated critic when they met in 1913, beginning a friendship that would change the lives of both men. Frost received encouragement from a sympathetic Thomas, who gave Frost’s work supportive and perceptive reviews. Thomas, on the other hand, was coaxed by Frost to convert the poetic prose of Thomas’ writings on nature into an experiment in poetry. Each was a catalyst to the achievement of the other, and a Guardian article by Matthew Hollis, ‘Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the Road to War’, brilliantly outlines the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Hollis writes as the author of a new book on Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, which is this week serialised by BBC Radio 4 as their Book of the Week. You can listen to readings from the book here on iPlayer.

We can also thank the BBC for a radio documentary that allows us an insight into the life of Vera Brittain through the reminiscences of her daughter, Shirley Williams. Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ is, of course, one of the great memoirs of life during World War One, recounting the experiences of an intelligent young woman who suffered appalling personal loss during the conflict. Baroness Shirley Williams— perhaps better known today than her mother, and a significant political figure in late twentieth century British politics– is a likeable and sympathetic narrator of her own childhood years in ‘The House I Grew Up In’, a documentary aired on Radio 4 this week. Her mother emerges as an incredibly principled woman– a pacifist, anti-fascist and feminist– if somewhat distant from her daughter: a woman for whom life was, it seems, never easy. This is a fascinating view of Brittain from the engaging Williams. Not to be missed.

Shirley Williams with her mother, Vera Brittain.

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.

As if the revision wasn't going bad enough, suddenly a flock of angry owls, led by a cat having a stroke, attacked the hapless student.

So it’s the night before your big exam.

Or it is if you’re sitting your AQA AS English Literature examination tomorrow. There are a lot of you out there for whom Monday is your big day– at any rate, the viewing figures for this site have gone through the roof. Move Him Into The Sun hit a remarkable milestone today: over 25,000 hits in this, its first year. We’ve had over 1,000 hits today alone. That’s a lot of people revising! It can’t just be the members of my fabulous class at Southfields.

So doubtless you’re a little nervous. Perhaps even anxious. Or desperate. Or terrified!

All these responses are natural. I guess you’ll know in your heart of hearts whether you’ve put in the hours throughout the year. If you have, try not to worry. Even if the exam tomorrow is an absolute nightmare, you’ll still find a way to show off your knowledge. If the question you’re asked isn’t perfect, first, take a breath. Don’t panic. Remember how interlinked so many aspects of the war are, and contemplate how you can link what you do know to what you’ve been asked. You’ll find a way. Remember, too, that the person marking your paper isn’t a monster. They’re looking to reward you for what you write. So after that initial sinking feeling, don’t freeze.

Some of you will know that you could have, should have worked harder. We’ve all been there. Well, the first thing to say is that, even if everything goes terribly tomorrow, you’ll have the chance to resit again in 8 months: that’s a lot of time to work to make things better. Some of you will be kicking yourselves because you’ll have only discovered what a fascinating subject you’re doing as you desperately try to catch up. Well, if that’s the case, you’ve learnt something precious– and who knows? Perhaps the exam will ask you about those things you do know well. Optimism is as good as pessimism at this point.

What will come up tomorrow? Who knows. You can only make educated guesses at this kind of thing. If I were setting the exam, I’d say that we were overdue for something on Sassoon or Brooke– something related to patriotism and protest. I’m also waiting for Isaac Rosenberg to crop up sometime– his ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is such a richly associative poem, of such quality, that I’m sure we’ll see it feature one year in question 1b.

But I’m useless at predicting these things. Honestly. Don’t let me panic you: historically, I’ve had a 0% hitrate at this kind of guessing game. At the end of the day, it’s preparation that counts, not soothsaying.

So, one last piece of advice: get to bed nice and early tonight, and when you get up tomorrow, have a nice, big breakfast before getting to school in plenty of time. Rest your brain and body before the test ahead!

Good luck. I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow.

(especially you, Southfields students!)

War Horse: Albert and Joey.

What with the rush towards the exams– some of you won’t need reminding that you’ve got your AS English literature examination on Monday!– I haven’t been able to post on here as I’d like. Apologies: but I do hope that the website has helped you all with your revision. Oh, and of course, the best of luck to you all!

In between all the marking and moderation, however, here at Southfields we managed to take a break last week– or was it extra work?– and go on a class trip to see ‘War Horse’ at the New London Theatre on Drury Lane.

Now, this isn’t a production that needs any introduction from me. ‘War Horse’, adapted from a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, has been running successfully on the London stage for over four years now. It recently opened on Broadway. You can check out reviews of the play in the Guardian, Telegraph and New York Times— and watch a trailer for the production here.

The play follows a horse, Joey, and his best friend Albert, as they go to war in 1914. First Joey is sold to the army by Albert’s drunkard father; later Albert follows by volunteering for the front in a quest to find his much-loved companion. Both Albert and Joey are pulled into the vicious maelstrom of the war, with Albert determined to reunite the pair.

Such is the basic plot of ‘War Horse’. It’s a pretty utilitarian and shaky thing, but as we all know by now, it is not simply the story that the audience comes to see: it’s the horses. ‘War Horse’ employs puppeteers to bring the horses alive on stage, and nose-twitchingly alive they seem too.

When our group went to see ‘War Horse’, I wondered about these life-size, wood frame puppets: would they be up to the theatrical hype? The answer is resoundingly ‘yes’: they are indeed magical, and their transformation from inert thing to living, breathing animal is child’s-play, in the best sense: a triumph of imagination over reality. The horses are, as they say, worth the price of admission alone.

Which is just as well. If what is best about this play is what is child-like– the production’s brave sense of play, imagination and adventure– what is worst about it is when it comes across as simplistic and childish. After a brilliant first half, depicting Joey and Albert growing up together and becoming inseparable friends, the play begins to unravel in quite an alarming way.

Once the horse actually becomes a war horse, we’re dragged on an interminable and sometimes confusing journey across the lines with Joey, who is inevitably badly treated (animals always seem to stand in for Christ in children’s books. They should have saved time in 33 A.D. and crucified the donkey). By the second half of the play we’re firmly attached to Joey, but we frankly don’t care about his new friends and enemies, who are so mawkishly or villainously characterised that you could hardly complain if any one of them were shot and boiled down for glue.

Meanwhile, there’s Albert, who once out in France persists in his monomaniac obsession with his horse. This is played quite lightly at first, for laughs, and the play is better for it. As the play moves on, however, Albert’s seemingly bottomless fixation on his childhood friend becomes first irritating then laughable; in the midst of a war in which over 16 million people died, there’s only so much anguish over a 900lb French steak that a fully grown adult can support.

Fortunately, the production helps to bring gravitas to the feather-light plot and characterisation. The remarkable tanks, shocking shell strikes, and the grim march of the wounded back to ship convince just as the horses do and the story doesn’t.

Still– and here’s the thing– it was still a wonderful evening. The horses and production were so remarkable, and the first half so charming, that the play could, in my opinion, support the fall-off in the second. And besides this, it was a wonderful night to share with my students, who were a credit to themselves and the school. Opinion amongst them were divided; most absolutely loved the show, but at least one didn’t like the production at all. All thought the trip was worth it though, I think. If you’re a student thinking of going, I would say get along to the theatre if you can– and come to your own verdict. It’s worth your time.

Claude Chaules, 1901-2011.

Claude Choules, a Worcestershire man living in Perth, Australia, has died at the age of 110. This in itself would be a remarkable thing, but Choules’ great age is only preliminary to a greater distinction. In the words of his autobiography, Claude Choules was ‘The Last of the Last’– the last known man to see active service in World War One. He died in his sleep in a nursing home on Wednesday night.

Claude Choules’ story, like that of Harry Patch, the last of the British soldiers who fought on the Western Front to die, is part ordinary, part extraordinary. You can read an article about his death on the BBC website: and there is a good obituary of the man in the Sydney Morning Herald.

These deaths are, in one sense, historically insignificant. That sounds coldly objective, even cruel. Of course the lives of these men touched many others, and their families mourn them. And of course, in the profoundest sense, no life is insignificant: as John Donne once put it, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved with mankind”.

Yet these were common men, common soldiers, like so many of the millions who died before November 11th, 1918. In many ways it is fitting that the last fighting men to die from the Great War were not men of rank or power. Claude Choules’ death reminds us of an event that is becoming ever more remote to us all: and while length of life alone does not demand remembrance, for those men who saw active service in the First World War, longevity is not a dry curiousity– it is a fortune, and an achievement.